Diwali, known as the "Festival of Lights", is the biggest festival of the year in India. This five-day festival commemorates the victory of good over evil, and in particular honors the return of Lord Ram and his wife Sita to Ayodhya (after the defeat of demon Ravan and rescue of Sita from his evil clutches on Dussehra). It's an occasion for prosperity and family togetherness. If you're wondering where to spend Diwali this year, check out these diverse destinations and ways to celebrate for a memorable time.
Celebrate with an Indian Family
While there's plenty of evidence of Diwali on the streets, it's indoors, amongst Indian families, that the really meaningful celebrations take place. If you're visiting India from abroad during Diwali, it's highly recommended that you stay at an Indian homestay so that you can be a part of traditional Diwali family rituals and get a real insight into Indian culture. People usually wear new clothes on Diwali, so if you're a woman, it's a great reason to buy yourself a sari and dress up too! If you'd like to join in the gift giving, your hosts would really appreciate some sweets or chocolates. Tripadvisor (in conjunction with Viator) offers Diwali experiences with local Indian families in Delhi.
Jaipur: Marvel over the Illuminated Markets
Much of the beauty of Diwali comes from the warm glow of lights and lamps which adorn streets, homes, and shops. One of the best places to experience this is in the "Pink City" of Jaipur, in Rajasthan, where not just buildings but whole markets are illuminated. Each year, there's a competition for the best decorated and most brilliantly lit up market, and the government foots the electricity bill. It's a dazzling display that attracts visitors from all over India. Just like Las Vegas has a "Strip", Johari Bazaar has earned the title of "The Strip" in Jaipur during Diwali. Vedic Walks offers a special Diwali walking tour.
Goa: Go Gambling and Watch Demon Narakasura Get Burned
In Goa, the focus of Diwali celebrations is on the destruction of demon Narakasura by Lord Krishna. Competitions are held in every village and city to see who can make the biggest and scariest effigy of the demon. Some are really huge! They're burned at dawn on Narakasura Chaturdashi, the day before the main day of Diwali. As gambling is also a popular activity during Diwali, you might want to try your luck at one of Goa's top casinos as well. However, make sure you book well in advance for the floating casinos, as they are very popular at this time of year.
Varanasi: Fireworks Over the Ganges River
Varanasi is a crazy place at any time of year, but it becomes even more so during Diwali with a constant stream of firecrackers and fireworks going off all night long. For the best experience, make sure you stay at one of the riverside hotels in Varanasi, so you have a fabulous view of the fireworks over the Ganges. Other highlights are the special Ganga Aarti, ghats illuminated with candles, and diyas (earthen lamps) that are floated down the river. Dev Deepavali, celebrated two weeks after Diwali on the full moon night of the Hindu lunar month of Kartika, is an even bigger occasion. There's a procession of Hindu deities through the streets and the ghats are lined with more than a million clay lamps. It coincides with the Ganga Mahotsav cultural festival.
Kolkata: Attend Kali Puja
While most people in India worship Goddess Lakshmi on Diwali, the main day of the festival is widely celebrated as Kali Puja in Kolkata and West Bengal (as well as Odisha, Tripura and Assam). Kolkata's Kali temples -- Kalighat, Belur Math and Dakshineswar -- attract a huge number of devotees. Magnificent decorated idols of fearsome Goddess Kali, the Dark Mother, are also put on display across the city for people to visit. Goddess Kali is worshiped for her ability to destroy the ego and illusions that go with it.
Amritsar: A Sacred and Golden Diwali
You may be surprised to learn that although Amritsar, home of the Golden Temple, is predominated by Sikhs. Diwali is celebrated in a grand way there too. The occasion has been incorporated into the Sikh religion and is particularly significant because it also marks the return from prison of the sixth Sikh guru, Guru Hargobind Sahib, in 1619. He had been unjustly held for his beliefs, along with many other political prisoners who he helped free. What's more, the foundation stone of the Golden Temple was laid on Diwali, in 1577. Expect to see a mesmerizing display of fireworks over the Golden Temple. The temple complex is also draped in lights, and the edge of the lake fringed with countless oil lamps and candles, lit by devotees.
Want a quiet Diwali without noise and pollution from firecrackers? Rural Pleasure, an award winning company specializing in rural community-based tourism, will take you to a remote village in Dangs, about 270 kilometers from Vadodara (Baroda) in Gujarat. You'll get to spend Diwali in peace with local tribal residents who will welcome you into their village, prepare Diwali rangoli, show you how they use forest resources, give art demonstrations, and cook delicious organic vegetarian food for you. You'll also get to go trekking and participate in the daily activities of the tribes if you wish. It's an outstanding immersive experience. Best of all, the income generated from the tour is shared with the villagers, so you'll be helping improve their livelihood.
Nathdwara: Admire Traditional Paintings on Walls
The small holy town of Nathdwara, about 50 minutes drive north of Udaipur in Rajasthan, is best known among pilgrims for its 17th century Krishna temple that houses an idol of Shreenathji. However, the town is also noteworthy for its traditional Pichwai paintings, featuring scenes from Lord Krishna's life. In the week before Diwali each year, the walls of the town's buildings are whitewashed and repainted. Diwali is widely celebrated there as the important Annakuta festival falls a day after it. The idol of Shreenathji is spectacularly dressed and displayed for the occasion, and pilgrims flock to the temple to seek the lord's blessings. The temple's hundreds of cows are also decorated and displayed. In addition, the town is beautifully illuminated with lanterns. Celebrations continue the day after Diwali with a special Goverdhan Puja (worship), to commemorate of Lord Krishna’s victory over Indra the Rain God.
Mumbai: Fireworks by the Bay
Marine Drive, affectionately known as the Queen's Necklace, provides an evocative backdrop for the explosion of Diwali fireworks in Mumbai. The city's residents flock there to enjoy the atmosphere and watch the fireworks dazzle throughout the night, reflected in the bay. For the best experience, book yourself into one of the hotels along Marine Drive such as the InterContinental, Marine Plaza or West End Hotel. Chhatrapathi Shivaji Terminus train station is also decked up with Diwali-theme lighting.
Udaipur is a popular place to spend Diwali with rooftops and doorsteps illuminated by lights, and fireworks over Lake Pichola. Devotees head to Mahalaxmi temple in Bhatiyani Chauhatta to pay their respects to the goddess of wealth. The Udaipur Light Festival, started by UdaipurBlog in 2012 to bring everyone together to celebrate Diwali, is another attraction. The festival features performances from various singers and DJs across genres, art installations, food stalls, fun activities and paper lanterns. It takes place at Shouryagarh Resort & Spa just outside Udaipur.
Ayodhya: A Mega Diwali
For India's biggest Diwali celebration, head to the holy city of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh where Lord Ram and his wife Sita returned on this day after 14 years of exile. In 2018, a record number of more than 300,000 earthen lamps were lit along the banks of the Saryu River, earning the festival a place in the Guinness Book of World Records. This year's event also promises to be really grand, with the Indian government allocating extra funding for it.
Delhi: Go Shopping at a Diwali Market
Diwali is the most popular time of year for shopping, and special Diwali markets and fairs take place all over Delhi. Dilli Haat at INA holds a renowned Diwali Bazaar in the lead-up to the festival. If you're interested in unique or unusual handicrafts, don't miss the annual Dastkar Festival of Lights Diwali Mela. The Diwali carnival at Delhi's upmarket Sundar Nagar neighborhood has been running for more than 50 years and has amusement rides. The Blind School holds a huge annual Diwali mela too. It takes place on Lodhi Road near the Oberoi Hotel. For all your Diwali decorating needs, head to Matka Market in south Delhi. You'll find an astonishing array of colorful clay diyas and pots there. However, do be aware that air quality unfortunately reaches hazardous levels in Delhi around the time of Diwali. Hence, if you're sensitive to air pollution, you may prefer to avoid visiting the city at this time of year or carry a quality pollution mask.