15 December 2015 by Krishna Ghosh
From the bizarre to the breathtaking, we take a closer look at five of India's best-known festivals - a diverse and dazzling selection of the country's most spectacular celebrations.
Exciting, enchanting and exotic, India is a land of vivid colours and contrasts, where an unparalleled diversity of religious traditions and customs play an integral role in the lives of its 1.2 billion inhabitants. Holidays and festivals – religious or otherwise – are a vital part of life in India, and are celebrated with an intense fervour rarely seen anywhere else on earth.
Nagaur Cattle Fair – January to February
Nagaur in Rajasthan bustles with life during the annual cattle fair. Considered one of the largest in the country, the fair is usually held right at the end of January and into February. The Nagaur bulls are renowned for their fleet footedness and attract buyers from all over. In addition to the bulls, livestock such as camels, goats and cows are also on display and traded. Highlights of the fair include performances by folk dancers and musicians, while there are also camel races, horse races and events such as tug of war to watch.
Kerala's Temple festivals – February to April
As exotic and engaging as the state itself, Kerala's temple festivals are a colourful and chaotic reflection of one India's most popular destinations. Held throughout the months of February, March and April, and forming an important part of each temple's unique annual rituals, the temple festivals are a cacophony of colour and noise with elephants, musicians and excited crowds of revellers all adding to the mayhem.
A visit to one of these festivals is a great opportunity to experience something uniquely Keralan. Expect lavish costumes, traditional dancing, colourful floats, plenty of fireworks and impressive processions of garlanded elephants.
Holi Festival – March
There's a good chance you'll have seen photographs of Holi Festival. A firm favourite with travellers, India's 'Festival of Colours' is a spectacular affair celebrating the victory of good over evil and the burning of the demoness Holika, as well as signifying the end of winter and the nearing of the spring harvest.
Most recognisable for the throwing of vast quantities of powdered paint and water, Holi is celebrated with more than a little enthusiasm throughout the country, although the best places to witness the festival at its most colourful and riotous are generally in the north, especially in the towns of Mathura and Vrindavan, four hours from the capital Delhi, where celebrations can last for upwards of 40 days. However, if you're a little reluctant to venture too far from the tourist trail there's spectacular Holi celebrations to be found in both Delhi itself and the Rajasthan capital Jaipur - both part of the well trodden route through India's Golden Triangle.
Ganesh Chaturthi – September
The important Hindu festival of Ganesh Chaturthi celebrates the birth of the elephant-headed Lord Ganesh, son of Shiva and Parvati and one of the most revered gods in the Hindu religion.
Mostly celebrated in the southern states of Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, the best place to see this spectacular ten-day celebration is in the city of Mumbai, making it one of the most accessible festivals in the Hindu calendar. Make your way to the vast temple of Siddhivinayak in the Mumbai suburb of Prabhadevi where thousands of devotees offer prayers to Lord Ganesh before heading to one of the flamboyant street parties that take place throughout the city, where local communities compete against each other to see who can come up with the most spectacular displays.
Diwali – November
Diwali, also known as "The Festival of Lights", is possibly India's best-known festival and is celebrated by Hindu's throughout the country with the lighting of clay lamps, known as diyas and some of the most impressive fireworks displays imaginable.
The five-day festival signifies the start of winter and the Hindu New Year, and celebrates the return of Lord Rama and his wife Sita's to their kingdom in Ayodhya after 14 years in exile, while diyas and candles are lit to guide Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, into the family home. Diwali is also the time for the cleaning and decorating of houses with traditional Hindu art, exchanging gifts and sweets and enjoying festive meals in the company of family and friends.
There are plenty of options for travellers wanting to experience Diwali, with celebrations taking place across almost the whole of India, perhaps with the exception of Kerala.
One of the best places to spend Diwali is the riverside town of Varanasi, where huge firework displays light up the temples along the sacred River Ganges and the ceremonial ghats are illuminated with thousands of oil lamps, creating a truly magical sight.
The holy town of Amritsar in the state of Punjab, while having a mainly Sikh population, is another spectacular spot to enjoy the Diwali celebrations. Join tens of thousands of Sikhs and Hindus at the famous Golden Temple, covered in what seems like a million lights, and marvel at one of the most impressive fireworks displays around.
For a different take on the Diwali experience, head to the southern state of Goa, known for its beautiful palm-fringed beaches and delicious seafood curries. Here the celebrations take on a different slant with the burning of the evil demon Narakasura, the wayward son of Lord Vishnu and Bhu Devi the earth goddess. Villages, towns and cities across the state try and outdo each other by constructing the biggest and most frightening Narakasura effigy possible, before setting fire to them at dawn on the main day of the festival amidst lavish celebrations.
Pushkar Camel Fair – November
Each year, the small lakeside town of Pushkar in the desert state of Rajasthan, plays host to the world's largest camel fair - a five-day extravaganza of camel trading and religious ritual, attracting 200,000 traders, pilgrims and tourists from across the region and beyond, along with an astonishing 50,000 camels.
Located on the edge of the Thar Desert and surrounded by vast sand dunes and arid desert plains, the town itself is one of the oldest in India and is home to a large number of temples, many of which can be found on the tranquil shores of Pushkar Lake, which forms the centerpiece for the festival's religious activities. As the fair gets underway, thousands of pilgrims come to bathe on the day of the full moon, an auspicious event that dictates the dates of the fair each year.
Meanwhile, just outside of town, on the huge expanse of the desert plains, a huge carnival featuring a dizzying array of musicians, magicians, snake charmers and acrobats gets into full swing as camels are dressed, paraded, raced, traded and even entered into beauty contests. It's as wild and wacky as it sounds, but is without doubt one of the most incredible sights to be found anywhere on the Indian Subcontinent.