India is recognized throughout the world as a land of diverse cultures, vibrant customs and traditions. This ancient country has its cultural roots deep and strong in Hinduism, a term whose quintessence is much more than just a religion. The many festivals celebrated in India reflect its strong culture. Every Indian festival holds a great religious, cultural, and spiritual significance, and acts as a window on the rich heritage of Bharat! Here are 11 popular Indian festivals you must take part in, to delve into the cultural heritage of India!
The day when the Sun enters Makara Rashi (Capricorn) on its celestial path is celebrated as Makara Sankranti in India. It’s one of the few Indian festivals whose dates go by the solar calendar. The northward movement of the Sun (Uttarayan) is symbolic of our inner journey, and hence this period is considered auspicious for spiritual practices. Known by several other names (Uttarayan, Maghi, Pongal, Magh Bigu), this popular Hindu festival is celebrated in different ways in different states. It’s also a major harvest that celebrates the good harvest.
Makara Sankranti in 2021: January 14
Key festive traditions: Flying kites, taking a dip in the holy rivers, offering prayers to the Sun God, recalling Bhishma Pitamaha, worshipping cattle, exchanging Haldi Kumkum, lighting a bonfire, eating delicacies made with til(sesame seeds), jaggery, milk, etc.
Best places to celebrate Makara Sankranti: Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Punjab, Karnataka, Assam.
Maha Shivaratri, the great night of Shiva, is one of the significant Indian festivals with spiritual connotations. The solemn celebrations pay tribute to Neelkanth, His tandava (cosmic dance of creation, preservation, destruction), and the sacred union of Shiva and Shakti. Observed on the darkest night of Krishna Paksha in Phalguna month (according to Panchang), Shivaratri rituals take on a sublime quality as devotees spend the whole day and night in prayer and meditation with complete focus on the all-encompassing divine energy of Shiva.
Maha Shivaratri in 2021: March 11
Key festive traditions: Fasting, Jaagaran (all-night vigil), meditation, reciting mantras, singing hymns and devotional songs, performing puja, lingabhishekam (anointing of Shiva linga).
Best places to celebrate Maha Shivaratri: Visit one of the Jyotirlinga temples to feel the mystical aura/ spiritual energy pervading the pious place.
Holi is among the well-known Indian festivals, whose exuberant celebrations earned it the sobriquets — the Festival of Colors, of Joy, and of Love. Celebrated on the full moon day in Phalguna, Holi heralds the arrival of spring and also signifies the victory of good over evil (associated with the legend of Prahlada). The festivities begin on the eve of Holi with Holika Dahan, and jubilant singing and dancing around this cracking bonfire (symbolic of the demise of demoness Holika). As people joyously hurl organic colored powders at each other, every person and every street is a splash of colors on Holi.
Holi in 2021: March 29
Key festive traditions: Holika Dahan, smearing each other’s faces with colors, drinking bhang and thandai.
Best places to celebrate Holi: Udaipur, Mathura, Vrindavan, Hampi, Shantiniketan, Delhi.
Ugadi, also known as Yugadi, Samvatsaradi, or Gudi Padwa (Maharashtra), is the biggest festival for the Telugu and Kannadiga diaspora. Believed to be the day when Lord Brahma started the creation of this world, Ugadi is celebrated as New Year’s Day. Falling in the month of March/ April (on Chaitra Shudda Padyami) just about the time Mother Nature rejoices in new life, Ugadi inspires new beginnings and fresh starts. An interesting and integral part of the festival traditions is Ugadi Pachadi, whose 6 distinct tastes are a metaphor for different experiences of life.
Ugadi in 2021: April 13
Key festive traditions: Cleaning and decorating homes with mango leaves (Thoranalu) and marigold flowers, eating Ugadi Pachadi, listening to Panchanga Sravanam.
Best places to celebrate Ugadi: Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka.
If Ugadi is New Year’s Day according to the Lunar Calendar, Baisakhi is New Year’s Day as per the Solar Calendar. An important spring harvest festival, Baisakhi is characterized by an extravaganza of cultural events in Punjab. The celebrations also have a tremendous historical and religious significance for the Sikhs as this day coincides with foundation day of the Khalsa community by Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Guru of Sikhs.
Baisakhi in 2021: April 14
Key festive traditions: Folk dances (Giddha and Bhangra), prayers at Gurudwara, cultural fairs (Melas), Nagar Kirtan procession, Langar Seva.
Best places to celebrate Baisakhi: Punjab
Onam is yet another famous harvest festival of India celebrated with much pomp and enthusiasm in Kerala. The origin of this festival is steeped in legends, and the festivities honor the annual return of the demon king Mahabali’s spirit to his land from the Patalaloka. Onam is a grand 10-day celebration that puts on display the rich cultural heritage of Kerala.
Onam in 2021: August 21
Key festive traditions: Colorful Pookkalam (floral Rangoli), Onasadya, Vallamkali boat races, Pulikali dances, Onathallu (martial arts), parades, elephant processions, etc.
Raksha Bandhan or Rakhi is dedicated to the bond of unconditional love and care between siblings, primarily a brother and a sister. Sisters tie rakhi (a sacred band) on the wrist of brothers, which symbolically represents the solemn promise of mutual protection. This popular Indian festival sheds light on the high value placed on relationships in an Indian household and reflects the rich culture of the country that never fails to recognize and celebrate the bonds of love, trust, care, and protection.
Raksha Bandhan in 2021: August 22
The day when the eighth incarnation of Lord Vishnu took birth as Lord Krishna is celebrated as Janmashtami/ Gokulashtami. This popular festival of India is known for its fun-filled ceremonies that mimic the endearing acts of impish little Krishna — the most famous one being Dahi Handi, in which the participants make attempts at breaking the earthen pot filled with milk products and hung at a height. The fervent observances include fasting, reciting Geeta, worshipping ‘Bal Gopal’ by bathing His idol, dressing up in new clothes, and cradling him while singing bhajans and offering aarti.
Janmashtami in 2021: August 30
Key festive traditions: Dahi Handi, fasting, cooking traditional sweets, dressing up kids as little Krishna and Gopikas, visiting temples, etc.
Best places to celebrate Janmashtami: Mathura, Vrindavan, Gokul, Dwarka, Mumbai.
Ganesh Chaturthi or Vinayaka Chaviti is a large-scale celebration dedicated to Ganesha, Lord of the Ganas. Worshipping Ganesha, who symbolizes Buddi (intellect) and Siddhi (fulfillment/ enlightenment), is believed to empower you on the path to bliss, success, prosperity, peace, and liberation. Lord Vinayaka, revered as Vighnaharta — the one who removes all the obstacles in the way of noble deeds — customarily receives the first prayers of people embarking on new ventures.
Ganesh Chaturthi in 2021: September 10
Key festive traditions: Setting up pandals, installing Ganesha idols, daily puja, Visarjan (immersing of idols), and cultural events.
Best places to celebrate Ganesh Chaturthi: Mumbai, Pune, Hyderabad, Goa, Delhi, Bengaluru.
Dussehra, also called Vijayadashami, is one of the important Indian festivals that celebrates the triumph of good over evil (and restoration of dharma). While this refers to Lord Rama’s victory over Ravana in most North and West Indian states, the festival mentions the legend of Goddess Durga slaying demon Mahishasura in South and East India and pays homage to Maa Durga, the fierce aspect of Goddess Shakti. Dussehra marks the culmination of vibrant Navratri celebrations (Durga Puja).
Dussehra in 2021: October 15
Key festive traditions: Ravan Dahan (setting ablaze the large effigies of Ravana), Ramleela (theatrical performance based on Ramayana), Durga Pujo rituals in Kolkata, Navratri fasting, Garba dances in Gujarat, Rath Yatras (processions), etc.
Best places to celebrate Dussehra: Kolkata, Gujarat, Mysore, Varanasi, Delhi, and Kullu.
Deepavali or Diwali is the biggest and brightest celebration in India! The underlying significance of visibly magnificent Deepavali celebrations is also the main reason why it interests and inspires tourists to book flights to India for a firsthand experience of Deepavali. Like the other Indian festivals such as Holi & Dussehra, Deepavali too emphasizes the invincible might of dharma, and the lighting of diyas (that dispels darkness) is symbolic of igniting the spiritual spark, whose radiance guides the self through the spiritual journey within.
Deepavali in 2021: November 4
Key festive traditions: Decorating homes and temples with diyas, sharing mithai (sweets), and performing puja to Goddess Laksmi.
Best places to celebrate Deepavali: Varanasi, Amritsar, Jaipur, Udaipur, Goa, Kolkata.