It's impossible to picture India without the country's iconic festivals coming to mind. Vibrant and loud, India celebrates its many special occasions with gusto. Think parades featuring gods and goddesses, deafening drumming and firecrackers, carefree dancing in the streets, burning of demon effigies, covering people in colored powder, displays of military might, and millions of people all enthusiastically participating together.
As overwhelming as Indian festivals may be for someone who's not used to them, they're an experience like no other! Being part of a festival is a must-do when visiting India, and will be a highlight of your trip.
When to Go
India's main festival season starts in August and extends until March, with most of the big festivals happening from August until late October or early November.
This is partly during the southwest monsoon in India, which ends in September, so do expect rain and pack accordingly. Even though the weather may be wet, it won't dampen the festive spirit. The party goes on—rain, hail or shine!
Something to keep in mind is that although it's not India's traditional tourist season (which runs from November to March), it can be a popular time for travel as people go to see their families and make the most of long weekends to get away. Indian school holidays also fall around Diwali. Hence, it's important to plan and book your trip well in advance.
India's Top Festivals
Religion is at the heart of people's lives in India, and most of the country's festivals are tied to religious events—whether it be the birth of a god, or a god's victory over a demon. Each offers a different experience, and all are worth attending. However, depending on your interests and concerns about comfort, it's likely that some will appeal more than others.
Here are the top festivals and events in India to consider, listed in order of when they occur.
- Janmashtami (late August or early September) commemorates the birth of Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu. This very popular Hindu god is revered for his loving and joyful nature, and wisdom about how to live life on Earth. The biggest spectacle happens in Mumbai, where teams form towering human pyramids with the aim of reaching and breaking open clay pots filled with curd and butter.
- Ganesh Chaturthi (late August or early September) honors the birth of beloved elephant-headed god Ganesh, the remover of obstacles. This lengthy festival runs for 10 days, during which time beautiful idols are installed in homes and public podiums, worshiped and then immersed in water. If you can deal with massive crowds, the festival is also best experienced in Mumbai, where it takes place on an epic scale.
- Navaratri (late September or early October) is a nine night festival devoted to the Mother Goddess in all her incarnations. It's celebrated in various ways across India, including traditional garba and dandiya raas dancing in Gujarat, display of dolls (representing feminine power) in south India, and Durga Puja in Kolkata.
- Dussehra (the day after Navaratri) widely marks the defeat of demon king Ravana by Lord Rama. In the lead up to the festival in Delhi, Ramlila plays narrating scenes from Lord Rama's life are held and culminate with the burning of huge Ravana effigies. However, the festival's meaning and way it's celebrated differs in other parts of India.
- Diwali (late October or early November), the festival of lights, is another Hindu festival that honors the victory of good over evil. It marks the return of Lord Rama and his wife Sita, after she was rescued from Ravan. This is a special family occasion that you can be involved in by staying at a homestay.
- Christmas (December 25 each year) celebrates the birth of Lord Jesus. It's a significant festival, despite Christianity not being a major religion in India, and there's traditional Christmas cheer in many parts of the country.
- Republic Day (January 26 each year) commemorates India's adoption of a republic constitution on January 26, 1950, after gaining independence from the British in 1947. There's a grand Republic Day Parade in Delhi, featuring floats from various Indian states and procession of the armed forces.
- Holi (usually in March) marks the end of winter and the upcoming spring harvest season. Unlike most other Indian festivals, there aren't any religious rituals to be carried out on the day. It's a time for having fun, particularly throwing colored powder and water at people (the festival is associated with Krishna, who was known to play pranks).
- The Kumbh Mela (every 3-12 years) is often mentioned as the largest religious gathering in the world for a good reason! It brings together millions of pilgrims and sadhus (holy men) to bath in holy waters and be cleansed of sins. Special facilities are provided for tourists, although the sheer number of people can be daunting.
Other Regional Festivals
In addition to the above festivals, there are frequent regional festivals in India as well. These include Onam (a major festival in Kerala), Pongal (a thanksgiving harvest festival in Tamil Nadu), annual Pushkar Camel Fair in Rajasthan, the tribal Hornbill festival in Nagaland in Northeast India, Nag Panchami (devoted to the worship of snakes), Teej (a monsoon festival for women in Rajasthan), and the Rath Yatra chariot festival in Odisha. These top festivals in Northeast India also include many tribal festivals.
In fact, you'll find festivals going on all year round in India!
Safety at Festivals in India
With so many people involved in celebrating festivals in India, safety issues are bound to arise. Some festivals, such as Holi, are more boisterous than others. Men freely get inebriated on Holi and roam around harassing (and groping) women. Hence, it's a good idea not to venture out alone, and avoid certain areas. You should also wear dark clothes and put oil (such as baby oil or coconut oil) on any exposed skin, so that it doesn't get stained by the colors.
Although Diwali is known as the festival of lights, in many places it's more like a festival of firecrackers. Make sure you wear earplugs and avoid public spaces if you have sensitive ears. Some of the crackers are as loud as bombs going off, and they're burst in the streets where people are walking. Air pollution is at an all-time high after Diwali as well.
If you're new to India, you may want to take a guided tour to avoid being overwhelmed. There are many reputable companies that operate festival tours in India—both day trips covering specific festivals, and longer trips.
And, of course, where ever there are crowds, do take extra care of your valuables.