Being at festivals is like standing inside the mind of a culture as it dreams. They have the ability to be both extremely intimate and public spectacles at the same time. And in India there is no scarcity of festivals. Being such a diverse nation in all possible aspects, festivals around India depict diverse religious and social beliefs of the people.
Of the well known and celebrated across the nation are Diwali, Holi, Christmas. But there are some regional festivals which are as famous as others and also quiet quirky. Festivals are at the heart of people's faiths and they put a lot of mind and effort in making these carnivals memorable.
We have grouped together 8 of India's off the wall festivals.
So dive in!
1. Onam Festival:
Onam is a Hindu festival, celebrated with a great enthusiasm throughout Kerala between August and September. Onam is the most popular festival of Kerala (a southern coastal state of India). This is a Hindu festival, celebrated with a great enthusiasm throughout Kerala for a period of ten days. Every year this festival falls on the Malayalam month of Chingam - between August and September and also known as the harvest festival of Kerala.
Onam is one of the most ancient Hindu festivals which is still celebrated with a great devotion. Onam marks the homecoming of King Mahabali, a legendary king, who ruled Kerala in ancient times. That period was believed to be the golden age of Karala, people were happy, free from harm and complete harmony and prosperity was there. This golden age ended when Vamana (an avatar of Lord Vishnu) pushed King Mahabali, deep into the earth. Satisfied by Mahabali’s honesty and generosity, the lord granted him a wish that he can visit his kingdom and dear subjects once in a year.
Every year, during the Onam Festival, a curious activity takes place at Swaraj Round in Thrissur. The tigers come to town! Pulikkali, a traditional Kerala art form said to have originated in the late 18th century, sees people dress up as tigers. The name Pulikkali means "tiger play" or "tiger dance", and that's exactly what these man-tigers do. The best performer is selected out of the hundreds of participants.
The dressing up process is long and tiring, and requires a great deal of patience. Bodies must be shaved before the first coat of paint is applied. It's left to dry for a couple of hours, and then the second coat of paint is put on. Dancing like a tiger while dressed up in such a manner is no easy feat either!
When: Dates for future years: September 19, 2013. September 11, 2014. September 1, 2015. September 18, 2016. September 8, 2017.
How to Get There: Thrissur is located in central Kerala, in southern India. It's a two hour drive from Kochi. You can also travel there by train and bus. Swaraj Round, or Thrissur Round, is the local name for circular road around the center of the city.
2. Kila Raipur Sports Festival:
One of the quirkiest yet exotic experiences tourists could enjoy while on a trip to India is by witnessing the famous Kila Raipur Sports Festival, popularly referred to as the India's Rural Olympics. Running for eight decades now, the popular sports festival in the districts of Punjab is a fascinating sight to witness. This sporting event takes place in the very beginning of February every year and lasts for 3 days. It is the time when the farming chores are put on the back burner and people gather to perform some of the craziest, insane and bizarre feat at Kila Raipur Village 15 kilometers from Ludhiana in Punjab.
The Rural Olympics were started in the year 1933 by philanthropist Inder Singh Grewal. He was struck by an idea to group together farmers from nearby Kila Raipur areas every year to match their physical strength and endurance. This small idea led to the birth of Kila Raipur Sports Festival. The aim of the event was “healthy mind in a healthy body”. The sports association decided for a watchword “excellence” which was to be achieved through participation in grueling sports events. The association also believed that with the advent of such sports events, they could inspire young boys and girls and even veterans to come out of their households and showcase their talents and skills in traditional rural sports.
Over 4,000 sports men and women participate in the festival. They're watched by around 1 million spectators. Bullocks, camels, dogs, mules, and other animals competing in highly professional events must be seen to be believed! The adrenaline-pumping bullock cart race is the main attraction, with sponsored prize money worth lakhs of rupees. Other events that are big on entertainment include a dog race, horse dance, camel race, tractor race, and a tug-of-war. But the chance to see some really off-beat activities is the hugest draw card -- such as people lifting bicycles with their teeth, pulling cars with their teeth or ears, or riding a bicycle ringed with a burning tyre, and other daredevil stunts. The Rural Olympics really is a test of endurance, skill and strength!
The fun doesn't end at the end of the day. Each evening there's a cultural feast featuring top notch folk singers, Bhangra, and Gidha players. The program continues well past midnight on all three day of the festival.
How to Get There: The Kila Raipur Rural Olympics is held How to Get There: The Kila Raipur Rural Olympics is held 15 kilometers south of Ludhiana, in the Punjab. Kila Raipur is well connected by rail, road, and even air. Ludhiana is three hours train journey, or 40 minutes flight, from Delhi.
3. Karni Mata Festival
Rajasthan is one of those destinations in India, which is globally renowned for its historical and cultural heritage. It is the land of forts and palaces. But not to forget, it is also well known for its enchanting festivals and fairs. The Karni Mata festival is one of the most popular festivals in the state. It is also one of the major tourist allurments in the state.Deshnok town in Bikaner is the host of this auspicious ocassion.
There is an interesting background to Karni Mata Festival. It is dedicated to mystic Karni Mata who was believed to have supernatural powers. She lived her life serving poor and needy people. She was worshipped as a Goddess in the whole district of Bikaner. After her mysterious disappearance from her house, her devotees established a temple for worship.
The famous 600 year-old temple, is home to thousands of rats. They're considered to be sacred, and are offered food and protection. The temple is dedicated to an ancient mystic who's believed to have been a reincarnation of the Goddess Durga. Interestingly, the souls of Karni Mata's devotees are said to reside in the rats.
Twice a year, pilgrims flock to the Karni Mata temple to worship Goddess Durga and her incarnations. The largest of these festivals takes place in March-April, during Navratras (from Chaitra Shukla Ekam to Chaitra Shukla Dashmi) on the Hindu calendar. The second smaller festival is held in October-November, also during the Navratras (from Ashvin Shukla to Ashwin Shukla Dashmi).
The doors of the Karni Mata temple are thrown open at 4 a.m. for worship and blessing. Food is offered to the deity, and it's considered most auspicious to eat what the rats have salivated over. If you can brave it, letting them scamper over your feet is said to bring good luck as well. And if you see a rare white rat, plenty of good fortunate will come your way!
How to Get There: The Karni Mata temple is located in Deshnok village, around 45 minutes south of Bikaner in the desert state of Rajasthan. Take either a bus or a taxi.
4. Jaiselmer Desert Festival:
The exuberant Jaisalmer desert festival is a wonderful opportunity to experience the sandstone city of Jaisalmer and surroundings at their magical best. For three days in late January/early February, you can enjoy a host of weird and wacky activities such as a parade of camels and fancily dressed locals, camel races and polo matches, turban tying competitions, and competition for the finest facial hair.
The festival kicks off with a morning procession, exhibiting the life and culture of the desert, from Sonar Fort to the Shahid Poonam Singh Stadium. Competitions, including Mr. Desert and the longest mustache, are held next followed by music and dance performances.
The fun continues on the second day, with a host of bizarre camel related activities at Dedansar Stadium. Camel decorating, camel fur cutting, and camel polo will keep you amused for hours! In the afternoon, the activities again return to Shahid Poonam Singh Stadium where the Border Security Force Camel Tattoo takes place. Marvel over gymnastics on camel back, and camel band with formation dancing.
On the third day, the festival culminates with a gala Rajasthani folk concert under the stars in the Sam sand dunes. Also catch a cricket match, camel race, parachuting, and Air Force display in the dunes.
There is no religious or customary tradition attached to the Desert Festival at Jaisalmer. The Desert festival in Jaisalmer was initiated primarily to attract foreign tourists and overseas visitors who always wanted to explore as many facets of Rajasthan as they could in the least possible time in actual desert environs and ideal weather.
This three-day event Highlights the local elements and heritage . Not only the Jaisalmer fort but the whole Jaisalmer city brims with excitement during the Desert Festival. Everything is exotic and colourful during the Desert festival, amidst the golden sands of the Thar Desert with a final musical performance by folk singers under the starlit sky at the dunes in Sam, just outside Jaisalmer, the Jaisalmer Desert festival comes to its end.
The next Jaisalmer Desert festival is scheduled to be held between 1st-3rd Feb 2015
How to Get There: Jaisalmer is accessible by rail and road from Jodhpur. The journey takes around six hours
5. Nag Panchami:
The Nag Panchami or festival of snakes is celebrated on the fifth day of the moonlit fortnight in the month of Shravan (July /August) according to the Hindu calendar. In Hindu culture, snakes own an important place. Hindu mythologies are filled with tales and stories about snakes, the most chief being the Sheshnag of Lord Vishnu. It is quite understandable that India with such mythological background celebrates Nag Panchami in honor of snakes every year. During the festival people bathe the snakes with milk ensuring their families freedom from danger of snakes. According to myth, ploughing a field is forbidden on this day.
There are numerous legends related with Nag Panchami. One legend has it that a farmer accidentally killed some little serpents. Enraged, the mother of the serpents took vengeance by biting and killing the farmer and his family. One daughter was spared as she was praying to the Nagas. This act resulted in the revival of the farmer and his family. Ever since, Nag Panchami is celebrated in India every year. It is understood that in reward for worship the snakes will not at all harm any member of the family. There is yet another legend which relates to the victory of Lord Krishna over the Kaliya snake. The same is remembered and celebrated this day.
This festival is all about the worship of snakes, which are especially dug out and gathered for the occasion. On the day of Nag Panchami, villagers dance to music and carry the snakes in pots on their heads in procession to the temple. After the rituals are complete, the snakes are taken out from the pots and the temple priest sprinkles haldi-kumkum (tumeric and red powder) and flowers on their raised heads. The snakes are offered plenty of milk and honey, then set free in the temple courtyard.
The surprising thing about Nag Panchami is that although the venomous fangs aren't removed from the snakes, they're not known to bite anyone. Special care is taken of the snakes in the lead up to the festival. They're pampered with a diet of fresh milk and rats.
How to Get There: Nag Panchami is mostly held in rural areas, particularly Battis Shirala village, Maharastra. It's located 400 kilometers (approximately 250 miles) from Mumbai, in between Kolhapur and Sangli in Maharashtra’s Sangli district. Reportedly, the largest collection of snakes in the world can be found there, and people from all over the world flock to worship them. Other popular places where Nag Panchami is celebrated include Adiesha Temple in Andhra Pradesh, Nagaraja Temple in Kerala, Nagathamman Temple in Chennai, and Hardevja Temple in Jaipur.
6. Hemis Festival
People from all over the world come to Ladakh to know more about Ladakh's famous culture and adventure, and the Buddhist culture here. The region is quite popular for the fairs and festivals that showcase its history and culture. One of the well-known cultural festivals is Ladakh's Hemis Festival. People specifically travel for this festival, which is a two-day festival, to Ladakh. This two-day festival will denote Buddhist guru Padmasambhava's birth anniversary. Festivities take place in the popular Hemis Gompa, which is situated at a distance of 45 kilometres away from Leh.
Hemis Festival is one of those festivals which one should definitely visit. Tourists have a lot in store during this festival. Tourists can enjoy these festivities as spectators also. During this Hemis festival, a colourful fun-fair is held. These fairs have a number of stalls and shops where one can purchase a variety of souvenirs and handicrafts. The items kept on sale are also displayed as a part of an exhibition, where people can choose from a large variety and also window-shop
The two day festival commemorates the birth of Guru Padmasambhava, who founded Tantric Buddhism in Tibet. It's held in June or July every year at the 300-year-old Buddhist monastery of Hemis Jangchub Choling, near Leh. This monastery is the biggest and richest Buddhist monastery in the Ladakh region.
The highlight of the Hemis Festival is the Masked Dance, performed by the lamas, that illustrates good prevailing over evil. The performers wear elaborate and bizarre costumes and brightly painted masks. These masks are the most vital part of the dance. The dance movements are slow, and the expressions grotesque. The music is characteristically punctuated with sounds of cymbals, drums, and unwieldy trumpets.
Each colorful mask depicts a different figure in the legend that's being portrayed. The Padmasambhava dance, which shows the conquest of the ruta demons, includes Yama -- the God of death, and the black-hatted sorcerer, Guru Trakpo -- the vanquisher of all demons.
How to Get There: Flights to Leh operate from Delhi, Srinagar and Jammu. Alternatively, it's possible to travel there by road from Manali and Srinagar. The Hemis Monastery is 45 kilometers from Leh and can be reached by car/jeep or bus.
7. Krishna Janmashtami:
Also known as Govinda, Krishna Janmashtami commemorates the birthday of Lord Krishna, the eighth incarnation of Lord Vishnu. The highlight of the festival involves young males forming a human pyramid and climbing on top of each other to reach a pot of curd.
The actual celebration of Janmashtami takes place during the midnight as Sri Krishna is believed to be born on a dark, stormy and windy night to end the rule and violence of his unlce, Kansa. All over India this day is celebrated with devotional songs and dances, pujas, artis, blowing of the Conch and rocking the cradle of baby Sri Krishna.
The Janmashtami celebration of Mathura and Vrindavan, the places where Lord Krishna had spent his lif, are very special. On this day temples and homes are wonderfully decorated and illuminated. Night long prayers are offered and religious mantras are sung in the temples.
Also one of the best places to experience it is in Mumbai. Competitions take place at hundreds of locations throughout the city, and they can get quite intense. The human pyramids can go up as high as 40 feet, with as many as eight layers. Many competitors suffer bone injuries each year in their attempts to win.
8. Pushkar Camel Festivals:
The Pushkar Fair, or Pushkar ka Mela, is the annual five-day camel and livestock fair, held in the town of Pushkar in the state of Rajasthan, India. It is one of the world's largest camel fairs, and apart from buying and selling of livestock it has become an important tourist attraction and its highlights have become competitions such as the "matka phod", "longest moustache", and "bridal competition" are the main draws for this fair which attracts thousands of tourists. In recent years the fair has also included an exhibition cricket match between the local Pushkar club and a team of random foreign tourists. The Imperial Gazetteer of India, mentions an attendance of 100,000 pilgrims in early 1900s.
Thousands of people go to the banks of the Pushkar Lake where the fair takes place. Men buy and sell their livestock, which includes camels, cows, sheep and goats. The women go to the stalls, full of bracelets, clothes, textiles and fabrics. A camel race starts off the festival, with music, songs and exhibitions to follow. Between these events, the most waited for is the test of how the camel is able to bring the items. In order to demonstrate, the men go up on the group of camels one after another.
It is celebrated for five days from the Kartik ekadashi to Kartik Poornima, the full moon day (the 15th) of Kartik (October–November) in Hindu calendar. The full moon day is the main day and the day, according to legend, when the Hindu god Brahma sprung up the Pushkar Lake, thus numerous people swim in its sacred waters. For year 2013-2014 it is celebrated November 10–17, 2013.
How to Get There: Pushkar is located around 45 minutes drive over a hill from Ajmer, in Rajasthan. Buses and taxis are available. Ajmer is readily accessible by train from many places in India.