When : 13th January 2011
Where : Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, parts of Himachal Pradesh
Lohri marks the end of the harvest in Northern India, and is characterised by the worship of fire. Bonfires are lit in the evening, whether in individual households or in communities, and grain- in the form of peanuts, popcorn, puffed rice and similar goodies- is ceremonially 'fed' to the fire. What follows, of course, is plenty of feeding of everybody around as well! Lohri celebrations are never complete without music and dancing, and the feasting is invariably rounded off with a vigorous bit of shake-a-leg.
When : 14th January 2011
Where : Northern and Western India
Makar Sankranti marks the end of winter, when the sun moves into the northern hemisphere- thus symbolising regeneration and the start of a new period. Besides being a significant date in the zodiac, Makar Sankranti is also a harvest festival and is celebrated throughout the region as the end of one agrarian cycle.
Traditionally, Makar Sankranti is observed by a ritual bath- in Uttarakhand, in fact, there's a local belief that anybody who doesn't bathe on Makar Sankranti will end up being born a donkey in his or her next incarnation! The sacred 'sangam' at Allahabad- the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna- is especially an important place for ritual baths, and is the venue for a local fair. All across North and West India, flying kites and feasting on rice and sweets made from sesame seeds is an integral part of the festivities.
International Kite Festival, Gujarat
When : 14th January 2011
Where : Ahmedabad (Gujarat)
When they tell you to 'go fly a kite' in Gujarat, they actually mean it. And in January, that means sharing the sky with thousands of other kites.
Coinciding with the Makar Sankranti celebrations, Gujarat's International Kite Festival is held every year in Ahmedabad. As you've probably guessed, this is one day when the skies above the city come alive with kites- in a hundred different colours, shapes and sizes, fluttering and darting above the rooftops, triumphantly cutting another kite's string, and soaring way up above the earth. The Gujarat Tourism Development Corporation organises the International Kite Festival at a local stadium, where kite enthusiasts from all across the world show off their skills. A kite market is held, alongside which are food stalls, cultural performances and special kite displays at night, when illuminated kites - known as tukals - are flown.
When : 14 - 16 January 2011
Where : Assam
The Assamese equivalent of Makar Sankranti and Pongal, Magh Bihu or Bhogali Bihu too is a harvest festival. Magh Bihu marks the end of the rice harvesting season, and is especially important in agrarian communities. For the occasion, a hut-like structure, called a meji ghar, is constructed from thatch and firewood. It's erected in the shorn rice fields, and is ritually set aflame during the festivities. Community feasts are held near the meji ghar, and are accompanied by much merrymaking, including dance and music, bullfights and birdfights.
Jaipur Kite Festival
When : 14th January 2011
Where : Jaipur, Rajasthan
When they tell you to 'go fly a kite' in Jaipur, they actually mean it. And in January, that means sharing the sky with thousands of other kites. Coinciding with the Makar Sankranti celebrations, Jaipur's International Kite Festival is held every year in the capital city of Rajasthan. As you've probably guessed, this is one day when the skies above the city come alive with kites - in a hundred different colours, shapes and sizes, fluttering and darting above the rooftops, triumphantly cutting another kite's string, and soaring way up above the earth. The Jaipur Tourism Development Corporation organises the International Kite Festival at a local stadium, where kite enthusiasts from all across the world show off their skills. A kite market is held, alongside which are food stalls, cultural performances and special kite displays at night, when illuminated kites - known as tukals - are flown.
When : 14th January 2011
Where : Karnataka and Tamilnadu
In southern India the end of the harvest is observed as a three-day festival called Pongal, when newly harvested rice is brought home, and farmers feed their cattle a rice dish called pongal- hence the name. The first day of Pongal is devoted to the worship of the deity Indra, while the second day is dedicated to Surya, the Sun God. The third day is marked by the worship of the Goddess Parvati and her son, the elephant-headed Lord Ganesh. This is also the day when cattle- an indispensable part of life in all villages- are bathed and decorated, then paraded through the villages. The procession is followed by cattle races, and in some instances, bullfights which are locally known as 'jallikattu'- bags full of money are tied to the horns of bulls, and young men endeavour to wrestle with the bulls to get the bags off (and keep the change for themselves, of course!)
When : 18th - 19th January 2011
Where : Bikaner (Rajasthan)
Hosted annually by the desert town of Bikaner, this festival is dedicated to the surly, hardy animal without which the desert would be incomplete - the camel. The festival opens with a parade of beautifully bedecked camels, and is followed by a number of events which include camel races and camel beauty pageants (let the least ugly camel win!). Camel traders and craftsmen from across Rajasthan also converge on Bikaner for the festival, and there's plenty of scope for eating, souvenir-shopping and taking some great photos.
When : 26th January 2011
Where : India
One of India's three national festivals, Republic Day commemorates the date, January 26,1950, when India became a republic. This isn't a day for great feasting or festivities, but there's plenty of patriotism in the air. Armed forces, including the police, hold parades, and most schools and other institutions have some form of celebration or the other- parades, recitations of patriotic poetry and what not. But all of that can't hold a candle to the impressive parade held in the national capital, New Delhi. A grand procession of everything from battletanks to marching contingents, dancing troupes, schoolchildren and gorgeously decorated 'floats' from each state, wends its way along the heart of New Delhi. The parade, over which the President presides, is an annual fixture and is easily the most spectacular 'official' event in India.
The Republic Day celebrations end three days later, on the evening of January 29, with the Beating of the Retreat by the massed bands of the defence forces. The function is held at Vijay Chowk in the heart of Lutyen's Delhi, and it's every bit as impressive as the parade itself.
When : 8th February 2011
Where : India
Close on the heels of the harvest festivals of Makar Sankranti, Magh Bihu, Pongal and Lohri follows the advent of spring- heralded by the festival of Basant Panchami. Basant Panchami celebrates the end of winter in India, and is marked by the worship of the Hindu Goddess of Learning, Saraswati. Typically, young children are taught their first letters on Basant Panchami, and special pujas are held in schools or other educational establishments. In some communities, ancestor worship and the feeding of brahmins is also an integral part of the celebrations.
Yellow, the colour of spring and of prosperity, is the predominant colour on Basant Panchami, and is traditionally the colour worn on this day. Food cooked on Basant Panchami is often coloured with saffron or turmeric, which imparts to it a yellow hue.
Khajuraho Dance Festival
When : 25th February - 2nd Mar 2011
Where : Khajuraho (Madhya Pradesh)
Staged in the setting of the famous 10th century Khajuraho temples, the Khajuraho Dance Festival is organised by the Madhya Pradesh Kala Parishad as an annual event which spotlights both the immense diversity of classical Indian dance forms as well as the architectural brilliance of the temples themselves. The festival goes on for a full week and includes performances by leading exponents of Indian dance forms- Odissi, Kuchipudi, Bharatnatyam, Kathakali, and more- even (and this is a recently introduced element) modern Indian dance. The performances start at dusk, usually at the Chitragupt Temple or the Vishwanath Temple, with the beautifully illuminated western group of temples as a backdrop. It's a treat for anybody who's keen on Indian dance, and draws thousands of eager spectators every year.
When : 16th - 18th February 2011
Where : Jaisalmer (Rajasthan)
If you thought Bikaner's camel festival was the ultimate in exotic Indian festivals, wait till you see the fiesta at Jaisalmer. A three-day long extravaganza of dances, music, handicraft fairs and interesting competitions- including really unusual ones like a 'Mr Desert' pageant, a 'turban-tying' contest and a 'best moustache' contest- the Jaisalmer Desert Festival is organised by the Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation. It's a fantastic showcase of all things Rajasthani, and is justifiably popular with tourists, both Indian and foreign. Besides the food, the music and the cultural performances, there are camel rides, processions, camel polo, and even a camel tug-of-war. All of it is held against the backdrop of the awesome Jaisalmer fort. Fireworks displays at night light up the area, and the fort is illuminated too.
When : 5th - 8th March 2011
Where : Goa
In the days when Goa was ruled lock, stock and barrel by the Portuguese, the tradition of an annual festival- held four days before the start of Lent- began. It started as a bit of a farce, where the white colonial rulers pretended to be 'black' slaves, and the slaves, mostly from Mozambique, plastered their faces with flour and took on the role of the masters. The local Konkanis watched in amusement- as they still do, to some extent, whenever a feni-befuddled tourist tries joining in the fun.
Pre-Lent carnivals are a time for fun and Goa's carnival is revelry all the way. It's the last big bash before the season of Lent starts, and this is when Goa parties for three days, non-stop.
The Carnival, true to form, is a time for unrestrained merrymaking, with dancing, processions, music and unlimited food being part and parcel of the festivities.
Momo, King of Chaos leads his entourage of fire- eaters, acrobats, clowns, jesters, dancers, brass bands and revellers in parade down the main street of Panaji, Goa. King Momo commands his people to 'kha, piye and majja kar' - eat, drink and make merry and so be it!
When : 20th March 2011
Where : India
Florid yellows and lurid purple heaps in roadside stalls, folks dunked in indigo pools, dippy on bhang parties and simmering under a bright spring sun. If India is about colour, cannabis and catharsis (!), then it is the festival of Holi that has given it the reputation! Myth and religion mingle with the urge to have a great time; and Holi is a celebration as much of the 'triumph of good over evil' as of the coming of spring and the passing of winter.
Holi always occurs in spring when the countryside is bathed in a riot of colours in any case. Matching the yellow-gold of mustard fields, the loud magenta of bougainvillea blooms and the blazing orange of the flame of the forest, Indians take on every colour available in this festival of the spring. The festival is also a ritual of renewal; old relationships are pulled out of mothball preservation and aired in the sparkling sun.
Ammo for Holi includes water pistols, gulaal - coloured powder, coloured water - Flame of the Forest dye or water-soluble chemical nonsense...and the rest we leave to your imagination!
When : 27 March 2011
Where : Meerut, Uttar Pradesh
Uttar Pradesh is hard to beat for the things it produces- Lucknow's chikankari; Ferozabad's glassware; Kanpur's leather; Varanasi's silk saris… the list is endless. And if you want a one-stop shop to buy them, come to the Nauchandi Mela in Meerut. A historic fair, more than a century old, Nauchandi is a month-long extravaganza of great shopping, good food, and UP at its noisy best. The Nauchandi Mela begins on the second Sunday after Holi. This is when Meerut becomes much more than just a small satellite town of Delhi, and takes on a glitter and vivacity which is highly infectious.
The history behind the Nauchandi Mela is debatable; some say that it began as a cattle fair way back in 1672; others suggest a British revenue-collection fair as the precursor of the mela. Many Hindu devotees believe that it began as a religious festival to commemorate the building of a temple in Meerut by Mandodari, the wife of the demon king, Ravana.
Whatever may be the antecedents of the Nauchandi Mela, the fact of the matter is that this is one of the biggest, most colourful and interesting fairs anywhere in the country. Held for all of a month after Holi, the Nauchandi Mela is held on a 4 sq km area, crowded and colourful as can be. The area's crisscrossed by pathways; and all through are put up hundreds of stalls selling handicrafts and machine-made products from all across India. Textiles, perfumes, jewellery, furniture, ceramics, glassware, leather- the list is endless. Giant wheels, games, nautankis and cultural performances add to the ambience. Performances of music and dance have, in fact, become an important part of the Nauchandi Mela, with maestros such as Pandit Ravi Shankar being among those who have performed here.
Any way you look at it- whether from the point of view of a compulsive shopper, a trader wanting to do a bit of good business, or a culture-vulture looking for a great experience- the Nauchandi Mela is worth a visit.
When : 4th April 2011
Where : Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka
In Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, the festival of Ugadi heralds the start of a New Year. Ugadi is believed to be the day when Brahma - the Creator, in the Hindu Trinity - formed the universe. It's also the time when winter is on its way out, and spring's round the corner, so the concept of new life and a new year is really very appropriate. Preparations for Ugadi begin a week in advance; homes are cleaned and decorated, new clothes are bought, and, on the day of the festival itself, fresh mango leaves are strung up above doorways to denote prosperity in the new year. Pujas and feasting are, as in almost all the other festivals of India, an important aspect of the celebrations.
When : 6th - 7th April 2011
Where : Rajasthan
Rajasthan may be India's driest and most arid state, but when it comes to sheer colour and exuberance, it's hard to beat. And Rajasthan is best seen in all its colours at the time of Gangaur, the spring festival dedicated to the goddess of abundance, Gauri (Parvati). Gangaur is a largely female-centric festival, in that most of the festivities and pujas are conducted by women. The fortnight leading up to Gangaur is marked by fasting, daily pujas of Gauri, and on the day of the festival itself, a bejewelled and beautifully clothed idol of the goddess is the centrepiece of an elaborate procession.
Although Gangaur fairs are held throughout Rajasthan, some towns in particular are known for the fair: Udaipur (where a boat procession makes its way across the Pichola Lake), Jaipur, Jodhpur, Bikaner, Jaisalmer and Nathdwara. Among the Girasia tribals of the Sirohi - Mt Abu region, Gangaur festivities carry on for more than a month, when devotees carry decorated idols of the goddess from village to village, finally returning to the village they started from. During this period, unmarried men and women of the tribe choose their mates and elope - a custom which has prevailed through the ages and is more or less expected during Gangaur.
When : 4th April 2011
Where : Maharashtra
When their cousins down south celebrate Ugadi, the Maharashtrians celebrate Gudi Padwa- the Maharashtrian New Year. Gudi Padwa is celebrated on the first day of the month of Chaitra, and marks not just the advent of a new year, but also the victory of the ancient Satvahana king Shalivahana over his enemies. The ruler's victory is commemorated by erecting a pole (the 'gudi'), around which is tied a piece of silk. A metal kalash or pot, decorated with mango leaves and marigold flowers, is balanced atop the gudi. Colourful rangolis are drawn with coloured powder, and prayers are offered to the Creator, Brahma. Gudi Padwa counts as one of the four most auspicious days in the Hindu calendar, and is considered an excellent day for beginning a new venture of any kind.
When : 12th April 2011
Where : India
All across India, the day of Ram Navami is celebrated as the birthday of the god Ram, one of the most familiar and well-loved deities in the Hindu pantheon. The nine days leading up to Ram Navami are days of fasting and prayer for the devout, and the day of the festival itself is marked by pujas and satsangs (public gatherings). Two cities- Ayodhya (in Uttar Pradesh) and Pondicherry, both of which are mentioned in the epic Ramayana, are especially renowned for their Ram Navami celebrations. Ayodhya, where Ram was born, is the setting for showy rath yatras or chariot processions in which expensively decorated idols of Ram, Sita and Hanuman are carried through the town. The rath yatras in Ayodhya continue for two days and are accompanied by much fanfare and rejoicing.
When : 14th April 2011
Where : Punjab
Baisakhi is New Year's Day in Punjab. And, like New Year across the world, it's celebrated with much gusto. The day, besides being the start of a new year, also marks the maturing of the winter crop- and the last major festival before farmers roll up their sleeves and begin harvesting the grain.
For the Sikhs, Baisakhi holds even greater significance as it commemorates the day, in 1699, when the tenth Sikh guru, Guru Gobind Singh, founded the Khalsa Panth. The festival is celebrated with processions of devotees led by the panj piaras, the elected religious heads who are second only to the gurus. Devotional music is played during the procession, and hymns are sung, both along the way and at gurudwaras. Religious discourses and kirtans are held at gurudwaras, and karah prasad (sacramental food) is distributed.
When : 17th April 2011
Where : India
The most important of all Jain festivals, Mahavir Jayanti celebrates the birth anniversary of Vardhaman Mahavir, the founder of Jainism and the 24th tirthankar (religious guru) of the faith. Mahavir was born sometime in the 7th century BC, and his birth anniversary is celebrated with much fervour at Jain temples across the country. Shrines and temples are decorated with flags for the occasion, and on the day of the festival, the idol of the tirthankar is given a ritual bath before being taken out, ensconced in a cradle, in a grand procession.
The custom of donating money, food and clothing to the poor is also an important aspect of celebrating Mahavir Jayanti. In addition, Jain organisations (in some cases, even individuals) arrange for free food and drink for all passersby. Important Jain shrines such as Sri Mahavirji in Rajasthan; Girnar and Palitana in Gujarat; Parasnath Temple (Kolkata) and Pawapuri in Bihar host major celebrations to mark Mahavir Jayanti.
When : 17th May 2011
Where : India
The festival of Buddha Purnima or Buddha Jayanti celebrates the birth of Gautam Buddha in 563 BC. The most important of all the Buddhist festivals, Buddha Purnima is considered the most auspicious of all the days in the year. Although there are minor regional variations in the way Buddha Purnima is observed, the festival is generally observed by lighting oil lamps before the image of the Buddha, by reciting prayers or reading from the scriptures. Meditation and offerings of flowers, silk scarves, incense and fruit are also part of the worship rituals.
Sarnath (Uttar Pradesh) and Bodhgaya (Bihar) are, in particular, known for the Buddha Purnima celebrations which are held in these two cities.
Sikkim Tourism Festival
When : May 2011
Where : Gangtok, Sikkim
Breathtakingly beautiful is the first word that comes to mind when Sikkim is mentioned- for this tiny state tucked away in the Eastern Himalayas packs a punch when it comes to natural beauty. A heady combination of snow-capped mountains, frothing rivers, forests of rhododendron and flowers all the way- that's Sikkim for you. And what better way to celebrate Sikkim than at the annual Sikkim Tourism Festival, held in Gangtok every May? Flower shows, exhibitions, cultural programmes and interesting competitions are all part and parcel of this amazing event.
Organised by the Sikkim Department of Tourism, the month-long Tourism festival has been held every year since 1981. The venue for the festival is the White Hall in Gangtok, and for the space of thirty days, the entire complex comes alive with performances of traditional Sikkimese dances, films on tourism, exhibitions of local arts and crafts, and flower shows which highlight the gorgeous flowers of Sikkim- orchids, rhododendrons and primulas among them. An interestingly offbeat 'yak safari', a local food festival and white-water rafting on the Teesta are also a part of the festival.
Urs of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti
When : 2nd June 2011
Where : Ajmer (Rajasthan)
The largest Muslim fair in India, the annual Urs of the Sufi saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti is held at the dargah of the saint in Ajmer, Rajasthan. The Urs (the death anniversary of the saint) is an occasion for a massive pilgrimage, with thousands of devotees flocking to the dargah. The Urs celebrations continue for six days, commencing with the hoisting of a white flag on the tomb by the Sajdanashin (successor-representative) of the Chishtia order. Over the days which follow, the tomb is ritually anointed with rosewater and sandalwood paste; qawwalis are sung and poetry recited in praise of the Almighty, prayers are said, and devotees offer nazranas or votive offerings. Outside the dargah precincts, two massive cauldrons cook sweet rice garnished with dry fruits and condiments to be served as 'tabarukh' or sanctified food.
At the time of the Urs, a busy bazaar springs up at the foot of the dargah. Flowers, embroidered prayer rugs, prayer caps and decorative chadars are among the many things to be found in the bazaar, apart from the usual souvenirs which make their way to fairs such as this.
When : 10th - 11th July 2011
Where : Hemis Gompa, Ladakh (Jammu and Kashmir)
Come summer, and the cold desert region of Ladakh awakes from a long and harsh winter. This is the time when tourists from far and wide arrive to trek, to climb mountains, to go river-rafting and to stare, awe-struck, at some of the most beautiful examples of Indo-Tibetan culture. And if you go to Ladakh in the summer, you really shouldn't miss the memorable Hemis Festival, held at the Hemis Gompa, the largest Buddhist monastery in Ladakh. Hemis is home to more than 500 monks and, at the time of the festival, plays host to hundreds of eager devotees, local villagers and tourists. The two-day festival is marked by prayers and the display of an age-old thangka (religious painting) which is just one of the treasures housed at Hemis. All through the festival, traditional dances are performed by masked monks. The dances, which are accompanied by cymbals, drums and trumpets, portray the triumph of good over evil.
During the Hemis festival, hawkers and shopkeepers set up stalls outside the monastery, selling a variety of wares- most of them souvenirs to cater to the crowds of tourists coming to see the festival.
When : 3rd July 2011
Where : Puri (Orissa)
If you've ever wondered what a juggernaut actually looks like, this is where you can see it- in the great annual rath yatra (often referred to, rather prosaically, as the (Car Festival) of Lord Jagannath in Orissa. The venue for the festival is the town of Puri, famed for its temple to Lord Jagannath, as Krishna is known in this part of the country. For the rath yatra, three huge chariots- each with about a dozen wheels up to 7 feet in diameter- are ritually pulled through the streets, from the Jagannath temple to the temple of Gundicha Mandir. The raths are replicas of the Jagannath temple and each of them carries an idol - of Jagannath, of his brother Balbhadra and his sister Subhadra - to Gundicha Mandir, where they stay for a week before being taken back, again in the raths, to the Jagannath Temple.
The entire journey- back and forth- is accompanied by thousands of pilgrims, many of whom (in previous years, but fortunately no longer) threw themselves under the wheels of the 'juggernaut' in their fervour. Today, the days for the yatra are holidays, when all of Puri becomes one huge fairground and temple rolled into one.
When : July - August 2011
Where : Rajasthan
Teej is a time for celebration all over the colourful state of Rajasthan - women and young girls dress in green, swings or 'jhoolas' are hung from trees and decorated with flowers, the women sing and dance in gay abandon, heralding the advent of the rains gods.
An important festival in Rajasthan, Teej is also a day for rejoicing in parts of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Bihar. Teej celebrates the arrival of the monsoon- a cause for celebration, indeed- and is appropriately observed by the donning of green clothing which symbolises the verdure of rain-fed fields. Teej is traditionally celebrated by women, who go their parents' home for the festival. New clothes, usually gifted by the woman's parents, are worn, and women gather together to fast and to offer prayers to the goddess Parvati, whose devotion to her husband, Shiva, is considered exemplary. On Teej, an idol of the goddess, bedecked in red and gold clothing, is taken in a procession, accompanied by chanting and hymns.
But Teej is not just a religious festival; it also is a time to celebrate the coming of the rains- a time for renewal and rejuvenation. Teej 'melas' or fairs are fixtures at villages and towns, where thousands come to eat, drink, buy, sell, and generally enjoy themselves. The celebrations include music and folk dances, as well as the hanging of swings from trees, where groups of women and girls gather to swing.
When : 4th August 2011
Where : India
The festival of Nag Panchami is dedicated to the worship of snakes. It's celebrated all across India at the peak of the monsoon- the time when snakes are most likely to be around- and takes the form of prayers to the snake god for protection from snakebite. Specific pujas differ from one part of the country to another; in some places, live snakes are worshipped; in others, an image or a dough effigy of a snake is revered. The worship generally includes bathing a snake (or its idol) with milk, to the accompaniment of the music played by a snakecharmer. Needless to say this is one day when snakecharmers are in great demand!
Simultaneously, the god Shiva, who is believed to be very fond of snakes- so much so that he is depicted with a snake around his neck- is also worshipped. The festivities for Nag Panchami continue throughout the day, with fairs, music and dance, magic shows and gymnastic feats being among the major highlights.
When : 13th August 2011
Where : India
Wild, weird, wacky, wicked.......witty, wonderful, one of a kind brothers!
Irritating, infuriating, aggravating, exasperating.......dopey, delightful darling sisters!
What do we do with them....... and what would we do without them?
Celebrating the bond between brothers and sisters is the Hindu festival of Rakshabandhan. On a full moon day in the month of Sravana (August), sisters tie thread amulets on their brothers' wrists, praying for their longevity and happiness. Brothers, in turn are bound by the delicate threads to cherish and safeguard their sisters. The fragile threads symbolize a deep abiding relationship - loving, tender, devoted, protective and indulgent.
When : 15th August 2011
Where : India
"At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom," said Jawaharlal Nehru about this, one of the most important days in the history of the Indian nation. On August 15, 1947, India won its independence from British rule, and that independence is celebrated every year, although in a much more subdued form than on Republic Day. There are no parades or extravagant processions on Independence Day, but most institutions, both academic and governmental, hold a low-profile celebration in which the hoisting of the national flag is the key element. At New Delhi's Red Fort, too, a large public gathering, mainly of dignitaries, is held. It's addressed by the Prime Minister, who also hoists the tricolour.
Eid ul Fitr
When : 30th August 2011
Where : India
One of Islam's most important festivals, Eid ul Fitr is the culmination of the month-long period of fasting and austerity known as Ramzan. It is believed that the Holy Quran was revealed during the month of Ramzan, and in commemoration of that sacred revelation, Eid is celebrated on the day following the sighting of the new moon. On the day of Eid, namaz at mosques is followed by the giving of fitr (alms). Family gatherings, fireworks and much feasting round off the festivities. The highlight of banquet tables is the sweet milk-and-vermicelli pudding known as 'seviyan'- because of which many people refer to Eid ul Fitr as 'meethi' or 'sweet' Eid. In predominantly Muslim neighbourhoods, special Eid fairs appear, where trinkets, clothing and a whole lot of other bric-a-brac is available.
Phoolwalon Ki Sair (Sair-e-Gulfaroshan)
When : 1st September 2011
Where : New Delhi
Delhi is not all pollution and noisy traffic, as some would have you believe; it's also the home of a very interesting annual festival, with a history more than a hundred years old. Way back in the 19th century, the British appointed Bahadurshah Zafar the Mughal emperor. Bahadurshah's half-brother, Mirza Jahangir, was understandably annoyed at being thus ignored; and he, to vent his frustration, took a pot shot at the British Resident. The Resident, though uninjured, instantly exiled his would-be murderer to Allahabad. Mirza Jahangir's mother, who missed her son terribly, made a vow that if her son returned to Delhi, she would walk from the tomb of Nizamuddin Auliya to that of Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki. Her prayers must have been powerful, for Mirza Jahangir was pardoned; and his mother's pilgrimage, which she duly went on, has continued till today in the form of the Sair-e-Gulfaroshan, or the Phoolwalon ki Sair.
A three-day long religious (yet secular, for everybody participates in it) festival of flowers, the Sair-e-Gulfaroshan begins with the procession from Nizamuddin's dargah to Kaki's dargah. The procession, which is led by musicians, fire-dancers and flower-sellers, makes its way to Kaki's tomb, where flower 'chaadars' and 'pankhas' are ceremonially laid on the dargah. This is followed by a visit to the nearby Devi Jog Maya temple, an ancient shrine where the ceremony is repeated. The festivities are rounded off with a cultural programme of kathak performances, qawwalis and devotional music.
When : 1 - 15 September 2011
Where : Leh (Ladakh)
Ladakh, tucked away in the bitterly cold reaches of the Himalayas, lies cut off from the rest of the world for the better part of the year. But, come summer and the entire region suddenly comes back to life, in a vibrant burst of vitality which lasts through the all-too-brief summer. It's a period of warmth and joy, when Ladakh plays host to thousands of visitors from across the globe. The fun lasts till late September, when winter starts setting in again; but before that happens, there's one final round of partying, in the form of the Ladakh Festival. The Ladakh Festival highlights the sports and culture of the region, in a weeklong extravaganza of dances, music, handicrafts and sports.
The festival begins with a long procession, of local leaders, schoolchildren and dancers, which makes its way through Leh. What follows is seven days of lion dances, yak dances, craft stalls, excellent local food and plenty of the heady barley beer known as chang! Archery contests are held at Skara (near Leh), and polo matches, white-water rafting expeditions and treks are organised as well. All in all, it's one of the best times to visit Ladakh- a time when you can get a really good feel, at close quarters, of this wildly beautiful cold desert.
When : 2 September 2011
Where : India
Janmashtami, or, as it's sometimes known, Krishna Janmashtami, celebrates the birth of perhaps one of Hindusim's most popular deities- the well-loved Krishna. According to Hindu belief, Krishna was born at midnight on the eighth day of the dark fortnight in the month of Bhadrapad. The day before Janmashtami is one of prayer and fasting, which continues till midnight and beyond, when an idol of the god is placed in a cradle and rocked. On Janmashtami itself, Krishna temples are decorated and the idol of the god is ceremonially bathed in a mixture of milk, honey, yoghurt, dry fruit and tulsi leaves- all of which is then distributed as prasad. Hymns, the chanting of devotional mantras, and processional tableaux are accompanied by the enactment of incidents from the life of the god. These are performed by small Brahmin boys, who, for the day, are regarded virtually as incarnations of Krishna himself. In some areas, a staging of the Raslila- which celebrates Krishna's love for the cowgirls of Vrindavan- is an integral part of Janmashtami celebrations.
One of the most lively customs connected with Janmashtami is the breaking of the 'dahi-handi', a pot of milk, yoghurt, butter, honey and dry fruits which is suspended high above a street. Teams of young men and boys compete with each other to build human pyramids high enough to reach the dahi-handi and break it. The act is symbolic of Krishna's love for milk and butter, and his plundering of the local cowgirls' handis.
When : 7 September 2011
Where : Kerala
Onam is when Kerala parties. Boat races, song and dance, lots of good food, and as much exotica as you can take are there for the asking. Onam is celebrated in gratitude for the bounties of the land, for all that nature provides for the people. On a slightly different level, the festival also keeps alive the legend of a benevolent ancient ruler called Mahabali, who, it is believed, again visits his subjects - the people of Kerala - during Onam.
For the festival, preparations start as much as ten days in advance. Homes are cleaned and thresholds are decorated with a flower mat called a 'pookalam'; everybody's in new clothes, and there's much feasting on delicacies such as the immensely popular rice pudding, payasam. Pujas take place in homes and temples, and grand processions, which include richly caparisoned elephants, dancers and musicians, wend their way through towns and villages, accompanied by fireworks and cheering crowds. Kathakali performances and boat races - locally known as vallamkali - are also permanent fixtures during the Onam celebrations. The towns of Kottayam and Aranmulai are, in particular, famed for their Onam boat races.
When : 1st September 2011
Where : India
The countdown to the birth of the elephant God has begun
Ganpati-worshippers all over the Deccan and South India are bringing home brilliantly crafted idols of the God. And there he will sit in state till Ganesh Chaturthi on September 1, when he is lovingly immersed in water - the sea, a river or lake.
This is the time for a grand procession; the much-adored God is hoisted on willing shoulders, or rides in open trucks and carriages. His huge fan following, dancing and singing loudly, urges him to return post haste the next year.
"Ganpati bapa, mouriya! Pudcha varshi, laukar ya!"
The vigorous dancing is a great way of working off all those sugary modaks and laddoos that have done the rounds for ten days!
Soorya Classical Music and Dance Festival
When : 1 - 10 October 2011
Where : Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala
For ten days every year Thiruvanthapuram in Kerala reverberates with the sound of music. All music and dance aficionados will have treat at this festival and be exposed to the very best of Indian cultural arts. Held by the Soorya Stage and Film Society, a cultural society which promotes the arts vigorously, the Soorya Festival of Music and Dance presents varied dance performances by artistes showcasing different dance forms like Kathak, Manipuri, Bharta Natyam, Kathak, Kathakali and Mohiniyattam. Renowned dancers from all over India perform at this festival.
Music concerts are also held at this festival and well known proponents in the Hindustani and Carnatic style perform jugalbandis, vocal and instrumental soirees.
When : 2nd October 2011
Where : India
October 2nd, 1869, was the date when Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi- undoubtedly modern India's most well-known statesman- was born in Porbandar, Gujarat. Nearly a century and a half after his birth, Mahatma's Gandhi birthday is still an important national event- in fact, one of the three national holidays in the Indian calendar. It is not a day for exuberant celebrations, but rather one for repose and religious discourse. National leaders and ministers pay homage to The Father of the Nation at his memorial (at Raj Ghat, in Delhi). This is followed by public assemblies where verses are read from religious scriptures and hymns are sung.
When : October 2011
Where : West Bengal
The Bengali version of Dussehra, Durga Puja is, as its name suggests, dedicated to the worship of West Bengal's most beloved deity- the goddess Durga, the embodiment of all feminine virtues. Durga Puja festivities continue for a period of nine days, although the preparations and the excitement begin long before that! In all neighbourhoods, gorgeously decorated idols of the goddess are created- often in the form of large tableaux which depict her in the act of destroying the demon Mahishasura. Installed in specially erected pavilions known as 'pandals', the idols attract huge crowds who come to admire the tableaux and their decorations. Stalls selling a variety of foods and other wares, including household appliances, clothing and the like, come up around pandals, and that, combined with the loud music played at each pandal, makes this a very noisy (but enjoyable!) period. The festivities reach fever pitch by the ninth day, following which, on the day of Vijayadashami, the idols of the goddess are ritually immersed in a river or sea. The immersion (known as 'visarjan') symbolises the return of Durga to her husband after her ten-day sojourn in her parent's home.
When : 17 October 2011
Where : India
Sizzle and scorch, blaze and burn- and then the grand finale of fireworks and crackers, a shower of lights and a celebration of the triumph of good over evil. No, not some pyromaniac's dream come true; just one of India's best-loved festivals: Dussehra. A ten-day extravaganza culminating in Vijayadashami, the Hindu festival of Dussehra marks the God Rama's victory and subsequent rescue of his consort Sita from the clutches of the wicked king Ravana after a long and bloody battle. The pageants and processions of Dussehra celebrations end in an explosive display of pyrotechnics as giant wood-and-paper effigies of the ten-headed demon King Ravana, his son Meghnad and brother Kumbhkaran are set alight.
But that's not all there is to Dussehra, for this extremely popular festival wears a different garb in different parts of India. Over much of northern India, amateur theatre groups don paint and costumes to re-enact the Dussehra story at Ramlilas in every neighbourhood, while in Mumbai and Ahmedabad, feasting and fasting, whirling garba and click-clacking dandiya are an integral part of the festivities. In the stunningly beautiful Kullu Valley, Dussehra is celebrated with a procession of idols, a ritual sacrifice of animals- and plenty of locally-brewed liquor to keep the revellers' spirits high!
Whether it's a solemn pooja dedicated to Lakshmi, Saraswati and Shakti - as is the custom down south- or a ten-day whirl of pooja pandals, music and feasting- as is the norm in Bengal and Assam- Dussehra remains one of India's most exuberant festivals. A time for rejoicing, a time for fun- and a time to celebrate the victory of good over bad, right over wrong.
When : 26th October 2011
Where : India
Strings of deeps and diyas, platefuls of mithai, the crackle of pattakas and the sparkle of phuljharis, the ruffle-shuffle of cards and the bustle of crowded bazaars. Long nights spent gambling and days full of shopping. That's the festive season of Deepawali - light and bright, all glitter and flash.
It all began one dark, dark night hundreds of years ago. The night that ended a 14-year long and difficult exile for Rama, King of Ayodhya. That night, his people lit up their houses with earthen lamps to illuminate his way home and set off fireworks to welcome home their beloved king. Hindus continue the tradition by lighting up their homes on Deepawali while children express their delight through a host of loud crackers and bright sparklers.
Down the ages, Deepawali has come to be celebrated for a whole host of reasons - for business communities, it heralds the new year - a fresh start when old accounts are settled and new ledgers opened. The goddess of wealth, Lakshmi and the god of auspicious beginnings, Ganesh are assiduously wooed to ensure prosperity and financial success in the coming year. Deepawali marks the new year for the jain community and it also commemorates the death anniversary of their 23rd Tirthankara Mahavira and his attainment of moksha.
Happily, Deepawali transcends religion and is universally celebrated by Indians in a spirit befitting a festival of light and joy.
When : 28th October 2011
Where : India
The festival of Bhai Dooj is celebrated two days after Diwali, and is, like Raksha Bandhan, a day dedicated to the love between a brother and sister. Bhai Dooj is observed primarily in northern India, where it is a day when sisters pray for the wellbeing and prosperity of their brothers. Exactly how Bhai Dooj is celebrated differs from one part of the country to another; in Bengal, for instance, sisters often fast through the morning before putting a 'tilak' on the brother's forehead, and the gifting of rice and new grass is part of the ritual. In Uttar Pradesh, the brother is gifted with an 'aab'- a length of flax, knotted into a circular shape and dotted with sugar batashas.
In Bihar, an interesting variation of Bhai Dooj starts with the sister cursing her brother, before asking for his forgiveness- for the epithets, as well as for past mistakes.
But no matter how Bhai Dooj is celebrated, it's the spirit of love and togetherness which makes this an important festival.
When : 21 November 2011
Where : India
Among the Sikhs, Gurunanak Jayanti- the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, the founder of the faith- is an occasion for great rejoicing. Guru Nanak was born in 1469 AD at Tolevandi (near Lahore), and his birth anniversary is celebrated with much pomp and religious fervour across the Sikh community. The festivities for the day begin with early morning processions known as the 'prabhat pheri'; the procession starts at a local gurudwara and makes its way around the neighbourhood, chanting verses and singing hymns. Prabhat pheris are held on the days prior to Gurunanak Jayanti; and for the three days too, there is a continuous reading of the Guru Granth Sahib, from beginning to end, without a break.
The day of the festival is marked by a special procession in which pride of place is reserved for the Guru Granth Sahib, carried on a beautifully decorated float and accompanied by musicians and five armed guards (who represent the panj piaras). Prayers and kirtans at gurudwaras are followed by community meals (langar), where all- irrespective of religious conviction- are welcome.
When : 18th - 27th November 2011
Where : Pushkar (Rajasthan)
Home to India's only temple dedicated to Brahma, the temple town of Pushkar in Rajasthan is usually crowded with visitors. And every November, it gets even more crowded, with thousands of people- cattle traders, shopkeepers, merchants, dancers, musicians and artisans among them- congregating at Pushkar for a four-day long event which holds the distinction of being India's largest cattle fair. The fair is a memorable - and definitely overwhelming- cocktail of sights, smells and sounds which bring together everything Rajasthani.
For the space of four days, Pushkar's narrow lanes are the scene for hectic trade and barter, for merrymaking and rejoicing- and despite the fact that the increasing commercialisation of the Mela has made it a whole lot more touristy than before, it continues to be a delightful experience. This is by far and away the best time to visit Pushkar, and what with the fair draws a huge number of visitors from across the globe.
When : 26th November 2011
Where : Nationwide
Unlike Eid, Muharram is not a festive occasion, but a solemn one, which mourns the martyrdom of the revered Hazrat Imam Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad. The festival is observed on the tenth day of the month of Muharram, which is the first month in the Muslim calendar. Hazrat Imam Hussain died in 61 AH (680 AD) in battle against the forces of Yazid, and his martyrdom is ceremonially observed by long processions, especially amongst the Shi'a Muslims of India. Taziyas (bamboo and paper replicas of the saint's tomb) and green alams (standards of Imam Hussain's army, decorated with silver, gold and brass) are ritually carried in the procession, which is accompanied by men who beat their breasts, recite marsiyars (mourning verses) and sometimes resort to self-flagellation to express their sorrow. The processions continue during Muharram, and culminate on the tenth day of the month, which is known as Yaum-al-Ashoora. On Yaum-al-Ashoora, the taziya procession terminates at a local square or a cemetery, where the taziyas and alams are ritually buried.
Tansen Music Festival 2011
When : December 2011
Where : Gwalior
All Indian classical music lovers should head to Gwalior in the month of December. The Tansen Samaroh is one of the oldest music festivals held in India and is a tribute to Tansen the great musician of Akbar’s court. Known as one of the 'navratnas' (nine gems) of the court, Tansen had a phenomenal voice and took Hindustani music to a new level with his compositions and rendering of the ragas. It is believed that with his rendition of Raga Megh Malhar, the rain gods would smile and it would start raining when he sang, as lamps would light up when Tansen sang Raga Deepak!
Tansen's legacy is celebrated even today with gusto in this significant music festival that is held annually in Gwalior. The music festival is supported by the Madhya Pradesh Government and draws in great crowds who are treated to a four day-night treat which are a feast for the senses. Musicians and artistes from all over India take part in this Samorah and showcase their talent to an audience that is made up of music lovers and come from far and near to listen to concerts that touch the soul. Senior artistes as well as newcomers perform at the Gwalior Samorah.
When : 25 December 2011
Where : India
"A season of good cheer and joy all around"
Christmas celebrates the birth of Christ, the Saviour. Born in a little stable in Bethlehem, Jesus Christ gave his life to redeem the sins of others. The celebration of his birth reminds us to give a little more than we get. To forgive as He forgave. To spread His message of brotherly love, goodwill and peace on earth.
The essence of Christmas often gets overtaken by its own special charisma - as marketing blitzes and advertising gimmicks milk the festival for all its worth completely losing its true spirit under reams of wrapping paper, consumer oriented razzmatazz, commercial glitter, credit cards and quick bucks.
Christmas is about more than plum cake and mulled wine, prettily packed presents stacked under perfect trees, an angelic Christmas fairy or a gift bearing Santa Claus. Christmas is certainly about more than tinsel and twinkling lights - it is about goodwill and peace, compassion and harmony as it is about loving and giving.
Therein lies the true meaning: the essence of Christmas is what you can give to others because it celebrates the day God gave His Son to the world.