Fairs and Festivals are the backbone of India’s sprawling multitudinal culture and diversity. With 33 states, 6 large religions and as many as 800+ spoken dialects, each and every month of the calendar is a celebration in one part of the country or other.
While, many of you may now be familiar with the larger festivals of India – Diwali, Eid, Christmas, Durga Puja etc., we present here some unique fairs and congregations for the traveler with a keen eye on diversity, culture and entertainment.
Enjoy our Top 15 list of fairs in India –
- The Cattle / Animal Fairs @ Pushkar & Nagaur (Rajasthan), Sonepur (Bihar)
Pushkar (30 mins from the town of Ajmer) hosts the largest cattle fair in the country while Nagaur hosts the second largest. Sonepur boasts of the widest varieties of animals sold, including Elephants. Pushkar and Sonepur fairs happen in November while Nagaur is held in January or Feb.
All fairs have unique experiences besides the cattle trade for villagers. Tourists can shop for jewelry, antiques, handicrafts as well as local food. One will soak in a lot of local culture, dance and music during these festivals. For those keen to take pictures, these huge fairs provide immense opportunities to experiment with color, faces, emotions and topology.
While all the fairs are held in relatively colder months of India, Pushkar is the most easily connected of the 3 locations. These being small towns, may not have adequate and hygienic places to stay during the fairs. We would advise camping in the adjacent town (like Ajmer) and day trip to the fair and back.
- The desert fairs @ Jaisalmer & Bikaner (Rajasthan), Runn of Kutchch (Gujarat)
The desert festival of Bikaner is held in January while Jaisalmer hosts it in February. On the other hand, the Runn Utsav (held at the white salt deserts of Runn of Kutchch) is an experience from Nov to Feb of every year.
The charms of each of these three are unique. While Bikaner is dedicated around the Camel – processions, races, dazzling colorful dresses, Jaisalmer is a 3 –day splash of bright colors, music, dance, fun and frolic. The Runn Utsav is an experience of camping and staying on the vast salt marshes of Gujarat where full moon makes the entire landscape lunar white.
With proper planning, all these 3 experiences can be captured in a single trip. The fairs are held in the coldest months of India, which is a treat to the eyes. Further, camping and lodging options at each of these locations are immense, depending on your budget.
- The Dussehra festivals @ Mysore (Karnataka), Kullu (Himachal Pradesh), Kota (Rajasthan)
Dussehra is the longest Hindu festival, celebrating the victory of good over evil, no matter how much effort and sacrifice it takes. It is obvious hence that celebration in the honor of such hard fought battles is also on a grand scale.
The Mysore one is a regal experience with Elephants leading the processions, decked in Gold umbrellas and cover. Vintage car races, fireworks, poetry recitals, music and dance shows dot the 3 days of the festival. Mysore royal family leads the Elephant procession every year.
The Kullu Dussehra is a much more frugal, but connected to the ground experience. Villages and towns around Kullu flock to witness the rituals and cultural shows. The drive way to small towns like Nagar on the way to Manali from Kullu, with the river meandering along it, make for heavenly views.
Head to Kota to see how a fair transforms the lives of rural and small town folks in India. Spread over 500 acres of tents, everything possible is sold and bought. The massive motif of Ravana and his kin are made out of firecrackers and the Ramleela ends with a fire arrow launched into the heart of Ravana making him explode for 20 minutes. Folks from all over the country travel to attend Kota Dussehra.
Dussehras are always a super crowded experience in India. If you aren’t prepared to take on the noise, the hustle bustle, some jostling, then it is not for you. Traveling into Mysore (2 hours from Bangalore) and Kota (on the Mumbai Delhi train route) is easier while Kullu (nearest airport is at Dharamshala) is relatively further off. Mysore will be sunny; Kota will be cold while Kullu will be coldest. Lodging and food options are plentiful at all locations.
- The Kumbh Mela @ Allahabad (U.P), Nasik (Maharashtra), Ujjain (M.P), Haridwar (Uttarakhand)
The Kumbh is not for the faint hearted, at any of its locations. 120 Million Folks (population of UK + Germany put together) attended 2014 Allahabad Kumbh, and at any given day, there could be upto 30 Million visitors. The city administration, traffic, lodging, eateries, power supplies et al are thrown into chaos with such a human migration that planning processes which go on for more than 4 years are thrown out of gear.
The origin of Kumbh is uncertain, but Kumbh at each location happens only once in 12 years. Held along the banks of a river, Kumbh is the sacred most fair for Hindus. A dip in the waters and a “darshan” of the Lord on these days wash away decades of sins. The atmosphere is holy, loud, ritualistic and massive.
Kumbh locations are huge but Tier 2 towns of India. Lodging needs to be booked much in advance to reserve an ideal stay – location, quality and hygiene. Nearest airports are 1 – 3 hours’ drives in these locations, though they are better connected by rail and road. Food is excellent; one should take precautions with water and stick to bottled drinking water. Beware of cheats, pickpockets. Kumbhs are in summer months and sticking to cotton clothing helps. Be aware of sensitivity on appropriate dressing during these days, especially when visiting a temple or a religious congregation (called Akharas).
- Carnival, Goa
Goa is the only Indian state where the carnival is held, and the carnival itself is ~ 450 years old tradition in Goa. It was brought to India by Portuguese Catholics and is held every year in the month of February. Like any carnival, unrestrained merrymaking with fashion, dance, song, music and procession is the flair for this 4 day extravaganza, which undoubtedly is Goa’s biggest draw.
With as many as 22 Sylvan beaches across the coast, no matter where you stay, Goa becomes a paradise during Carnival time. Food and drink are aplenty at every corner and Goa is known for great food, laid back life and very helpful locals. Plenty of lodging options are available in every corner of touristy Goa and it is very well connected by air, rail and road from all parts of India.
- Hemis Festival, Ladakh (Jammu & Kashmir)
Hemis is the 2nd largest monastery in India, and celebrates its association with Guru Padmasambhava through its annual Festival held normally in July (depends on the lunar calendar days). With Ladakh being the largest bastion of Buddhism in India and Leh being the ultimate adventure dream, Hemis becomes a necessary stop for tourists and pilgrims alike. You must arrange your travel dates to accommodate the festival if you can.
Celebrated in the courtyard against the backdrop of Hemis’ whitewashed façade, this 2 day festival has monks performing the “Chaam” dance in masks – goes back to Buddhism link with Tantric Vajrayana teachings. I am sure you have never witnessed this side of Buddhism.
Accommodation is best at nearby Leh which is a 30 min drive. Leh is well connected by Air and road to the rest of India. July is a dry and summer month for Ladakh. Sun is hot and direct.
- Flower Festivals @ International Flower Festival (Sikkim),” Phoolwalon ki sair” (Delhi)
The International Flower Festival is an annual event that is held in Gangtok for the month of May. I had the good fortune of attending it during one of my excursions into Sikkim. With over 600 different species of flora, it is a good excuse to land into Sikkim. With history (Rumtek, Pemayangtse, Kabi Lungchok monasteries) and sightseeing (Peling, Yuksam, Tsomgo Tso) in every little corner of tiny Sikkim, you will love your time here.
” Phoolwalon ki sair” is a secular procession of flower sellers in September in Delhi. Tracing back its origins from Mughal King Akbar Shah in 1812, this 200 year old celebrates the offering of flowers from a Muslim ruler to a Hindu temple. A great example of brotherhood and unity, it is now decked with Shehnai players and dancers who accompany the procession through Jogmaya Temple and into Mehrauli ending at the dargah of Khwaja Bakhtiyar Baki. It is a one of a kind experience for travelers.
Travel, Stay and food options are diverse and abundant for travelers into Delhi as well as Gangtok (nearest airport though is a 6 hour drive to Bagdogra)
- Rath Yatra, Puri (Orissa)
The English word Juggernaut owns its origin to the massive sized chariot of Lord Jagannath (avatar of Lord Krishna) which is taken out for a perambulation on the streets of Puri (in the state of Odisha) every monsoon. Not just the Lord, but his elder brother and his wife are taken out in a super massive chariot from their home temple to the temple of Gundicha where they stay for 9 days and come back to their home.
It sends massive frenzies into people – as many as 6.8 – 7 lakh pilgrims attend the Yatra every day, every year.
Puri, being an hour’s drive from the capital Bhubaneshwar, is well connected by air. It has its own train station and is well connected from East. It being a coastal town, also boasts of many resorts and hotels. Its weather is considered salubrious and warm for the sick and tired. Odisha food, with its own claim to fame of Dalma is peerless.
- Holi, Barsana (U.P)
While Holi is a national craze, nowhere is it as unique as it is in the town of Barsana (in U.P). Legend has it that this was the village of Krishna’s beloved Radha, where while once being there and teasing the womenfolk with colors, the women charged back onto Krishna and his friends with bamboo sticks and shooed them away. While all this was in good humor, the tradition has carried forward to this date where this unique form of Holi is carried out. Men seek out women and drab them with color, while women push them out literally beating them up.
Barsana is 40 mins drive from the town of Mathura, which is well connected to India by train. One could also fly into Delhi and drive down with ease to Mathura and into Barsana. Places to stay are better in Mathura, and even slightly further out Agra. Food, anywhere in U.P will never have any regrets. If in Barsana, try their thandai – milk based cold beverage that will relax your senses.
- Khajuraho Dance Festival (M.P)
Khajuraho is India’s erotic capital. Its temples are adorned with practical illustrations of manuals than Gods and Goddesses. It’s tucked in the center of India, but not so easily accessed that it is still not a mainstream tourist destination.
Against this energetic backdrop, in the cooler month of February, the dance festival has given a new identity to Khajuraho. The festival hosts and highlights indigenous dance forms like Kathak, Bharatanatyam, Odissi, Kuchipudi, Manipuri and Kathakali. The performances happen in the open courtyard of the Sun Temple and are open to everyone.
Khajuraho has its own domestic airport which has connectivity from Indian metros. It also has a train station that connects it regularly from New Delhi. The nearest train junction is Jhansi – the town of legendary warrior queen Laxmi Bai. Khajuraho has many comfortable hotels to put up.
- Sindhu Darshan, Leh (Jammu & Kashmir)
On the banks of river Indus, an artificially created but immensely well received 3 day fair happens around the full moon day of June every year. While India got its name from Indus, the river somewhat got left behind amongst the more popular Ganges and Brahmaputra. The festival has propped up more curiosity about Indus, though it’s more a lifeline of the state of Pakistan than anyone else.
It’s a precursor to the start of tourist season in Leh. It’s well connected by air and road from all parts of North India, especially Srinagar, Manali and New Delhi.
- Urs Festival, Ajmer (Rajasthan)
The Sufi Saint Moinuddin Chisti is buried at a Dargah in Ajmer where every year a process ion (Urs) is celebrated on the occasion of his death anniversary. It’s a week-long celebration of music and night long renditions of Qawwali (a popular form of singing for the Lord). Sitting in a corner of the shrine, listening to soothing Sufi music with deep meaning lyrics take your mind away from the material to the spiritual. When you open your eyes thereafter, the air smells clean and the mind feels fresh.
If you enjoy Sufi and a chance to interact with the philosophical, no better place to go and sit.
- Gangasagar Mela, Sunderban (West Bengal)
A 100 odd kilometer out from the metropolis of Kolkata is the small island of Gangasagar amongst the marshes of Sunderbans. This small island beholds the ancient monastery (or temple) of Hindu Saint Kapil Muni and is the site of pilgrimage for countless Hindus. In the month of January, pilgrims visit the southern tip where the river Ganges merges into the Bay of Bengal. After the Kumbh Mela, this perhaps is the largest congregation of humans in India.
Trains and Roads run frequently from Kolkata to ferry tourists and pilgrims alike. The place is a sea amongst the sea of masses. It is advised to board and loge in Kolkata and make a day trip to the island and come back.
- National Kite Festival, Ahmedabad (Gujarat)
Also known to Indians as Uttarayan, this is the largest kite festival organized anywhere in the world (as of now). As many as 40+ countries and countless countrymen from these participating countries turn the skies into a canopy of colorful paper everywhere the eye can follow. An approximate estimate is a million kites fly on that day in Ahmedabad, best enjoyed from the Sabarmati river front. This eye fest happens in the middle of January each year.
Ahmedabad is the most important city of Gujarat, a very tourist friendly state of India. It is well connected by air, train and road to rest of India and has accommodation to suit all kinds of budgets. Gujarat also serves a very different cuisine than the rest of India, which is stomach friendly too.
- Nehru Boat Race, Alappuzha (Kerala)
God’s own country has its own style of celebration. It puts up its back water channels to the best use each year by racing huge catamarans (100+ feet long boats with as many as 100 rowers). People line up along the shores of the water channels or get their own boats parked in the middle of the water and enjoy watching these huge snake like boats out-muscling each other in a show of strength and synergy (1400 meter long track is rowed in 4-5 mins by each boat).
Tickets for the races are available online. Nearest airport to Alappuzha is Cochin (some 80km away). Alappuzha has its own train station and is very well connected by road from all sides of Kerala.