Festivals usually coincide with the Indian lunar calendar, with dates only published a year in advance, so check with the local tourism office about exact dates (some may move into another month). India has relatively few national holidays when attractions, government offices, and banks are closed: Republic Day, January 26; Independence Day, August 15; Gandhi’s Birthday, October 2; and Christmas.
Christmas, New Year, countrywide. Prepare for increased hotel prices as wealthy Indians celebrate both Christmas and New Year, often by taking the entire family on an extravagant vacation. New Year, in particular, may be marked by compulsory hidden extras such as special entertainment and celebratory meals.
Rann Utsav, Gujarat. This festival takes place in the Rann of Kutch. It may not be on quite the same level as celebrations elsewhere, but the riot of colorful costumes and processions, as well as the exuberant dancing and music, make this an especially fun time to visit the place. This festival draws some of the country’s top artists too.
Konark Dance Festival. This 5-day festival is a truly grand event featuring some of India’s greatest artistes at the Konark Sun Temple.
Vasant Festival, countrywide. The onset of spring (vasant) is marked by various celebrations. Citrus-colored clothes are worn, and there is a profusion of dancing and singing coupled with great dinner spreads and feasts to mark the season of agricultural plenty.
Holi, northern India. Celebrated predominantly in the North, this joyous Hindu festival is held during the full moon—expect to be bombarded with colored water and powder.
Khajuraho Dance Festival, Madhya Pradesh. Get a glimpse of all of India’s great classical dance forms.
Mahashivarathri, countrywide. Dedicated to Shiva,one of the trinity of Hindu gods, this festival is the most spiritually significant of Indian festivals. Be there to chant Om Namah Shivaya in honor of the first yogi and Guru! If you are in the South, head to the Velliangiri Mountain in Tamil Nadu. If you are in the North, head to the Himalayan temple of Kedarnath, or the temple town of Varanasi (aka Kashi) in Uttar Pradesh.
Ugadi. The telugu new year, it is celebrated with great feasts in the South Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. Watch out for the spice!
Rath Yatra, Puri. In the Orissan seaside temple town of Puri, this is one of the largest annual gatherings of humanity; thousands of devotees come together to help pull the Lord of the Universe and his two siblings through the streets on massive cars.
Hemis Tsechu, Ladakh. The town’s most impressive monastic celebration happens from July 24 to July 27, 2004, when the birthday of the founder of Tibetan Buddhism is celebrated with lamastic masked dances (chaams), chanting, and music at Hemis Monastery.
Nehru Cup Snake Boat Races,
Alleppey. Kerala’s backwaters come alive with these renowned snake boat races. Second Saturday of August.
Independence Day, countrywide.
Indians unite to celebrate independence. August 15.
Ganesh Chaturthi, countrywide.
This 5-day celebration of Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, is popular across India, but Mumbai is arguably the best place to experience this vibrant event, celebrated with fireworks and the construction of special shrines. At the end of the festival, clay images of the god are immersed in the sea.
Kullu Dussehra. A 10-day festival, head for the Kullu Valley in Himachal Pradesh, where you can join the crowds when idols of Hindu deities from around the region are brought together in a colorful Festival of the Gods. Navratri is the period of first 9 days, and Vijayadashami is the final day. Similarly ecstatic revelry occurs in Mysore (Karnataka) and Ahmedabad (Gujarat).
Diwali (Festival of Light; also Deepavali), countrywide. This huge celebration among Hindu Indians is best experienced on the lawns of the Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur, at a wonderful party hosted by the maharajah (which hotel guests are invited to attend). Note, however, that just as Christmas has been exploited commercially in the West, Diwali has become a time of excessive noise, increased alcohol consumption, and all-night fireworks.
Mela (Cattle Fair), Pushkar, Rajasthan. The annual cattle fair in Pushkar, Rajasthan, is the biggest of its kind in Asia. Traders, pilgrims, and tourists from all over the world turn this tiny temple town into a huge tented city, with camel races, cattle auctions, huge bonfires, traditional dances, and the like.