India is a very spiritual country and religious festivals paint a true picture of Indian culture. They are a huge part of what makes this country unique. With so many exciting celebrations it can be a tricky task knowing which to visit. This guide to India’s best festivals includes information on our favourite festivals and advice on how to stay healthy while you’re there.
Highlight: Take part in colourful water fights and amazing parties.
Holi is one of the most popular Hindu festivals around the world. It takes place during the full moon between February and March, and is not exclusively celebrated in India (although the festival does originate here)
Holi celebrates the arrival of spring but does have a religious story behind it too. The festival celebrates Krishna and the story of Holika and Prahlad. It’s believed that Krishna was a very mischievous child and would often throw coloured water on the milk maidens, which is why Holi is celebrated with huge coloured water fights. People of every age, race and class gather in the streets to celebrate together.
The story of Holika and Prahlad represents good’s triumph over evil. Prahlad refused to worship his father the king and worshiped Vishnu instead. His aunt, Holika, who was immune to fire, set out to destroy Prahlad by tricking him into following her into the fire. However, because she was using her powers for evil, she was destroyed and Prahlad was saved. In commemoration to the story, bonfires are built and models of Holika, along with popcorn, are thrown into the flames. Although the main point of Holi is to have fun rather than to observe the religious aspects, so you can expect to see lots of dancing, eating and partying! To enjoy a traditional and colourful Holi we would suggest heading to Mathura in North India.
Top Health Tips for Holi:
- With all the water being thrown around watch out for slippery floors.
- Cheap synthetic colours used at Holi celebrations may contain toxic chemicals. (Always opt for natural colour powders.)
- If you have sensitive skin apply a barrier cream before the festivities begin.
- Keep windows closed when travelling.
Highlight: Watch thousands of lights float on the Ganges.
Diwali is also known as the festival of lights and is the biggest Hindu festival of the year. Although Sikhs and Jains also celebrate Diwali but observe it with different religious significance in mind. It is celebrated between mid-October and mid-November so that the main celebration takes place on the darkest night (the new moon), and lasts for five days. The festival represents light’s victory over darkness and people celebrate by decorating their homes and offices with lights. On Diwali night people dress in their best clothes, enjoy a feast, pray and give gifts.
Diwali is celebrated all over India although one of the best places to celebrate is Varanasi- the holy city. It is also known as the ‘culture capital’ of India or the ‘spiritual capital’. The city is famous for its holy river ‘The Ganges ‘which people get to via ‘ghats’ - which are a series of steps leading to the river. During Diwali celebrations take place at night on the ghats and thousands of lights can be seen on the ghats and on the river. This is why Varanasi is also known as the city of lights.
Top Health Tips for Diwali:
- Follow basic firework and bonfire procedures
- The Ganges in Varanasi are contaminated-avoid contact with the water.
- Cows are sacred and there is a lot of cow dung around Varanasi.
- Those with respiratory issues should note that cremations are a regular occurrence in Varanasi and human ash is often in the air.
3. Pushkar Camel Fair
Highlight: Watch Pushkar’s prettiest camels battle it out for the crown.
People come from far and wide to the small town of Pushkar to attend the Pushkar Camel Fair. The fair lasts five days and on the night of the full moon many Hindu’s pay respects to the god Brahma by bathing in Pushkar Lake. It is believed that Brahma conquered a demon in Pushkar with a lotus flower and as the lotus flower fell it created three lakes. One of which is Pushkar Lake.
Cattle dealers come to trade camels, horses, cows, goats, and sheep and show off their wares by washing, dressing and parading their animals. The trading is then followed by competitions. There is a camel beauty contest, camel race and many other exciting camel events. There are also many traders at the fair selling bracelets, clothes, textiles and fabrics.
Top Health Tips for Pushkar Camel Fair:
- Bhang Lassi is an intoxicating yoghurt based drink made with a form of Cannabis. It is often sold at Hindu festivals and can be very strong.
- Double check which kind of Lassi you are purchasing. If you do choose to try Bhang Lassi take it easy as it is very potent.
4. Shardiya Navratri
Highlight: Watch a traditional Ramlila Play.
This festival celebrates the mother goddess in all her manifestations (Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati). Durga conquered the demon Mahishasura in a long nine day battle. Which is one reason as to why the festival is nine days long. The second reason is that Shiva gave Durga nine days in the year to see her mother. In honour of this families make time to see each other. The festival usually takes place in late September or early October.
Most people fast in the day time so cannot eat until sunset, which is why communities get together for nightly feasts and celebrations in the evening. In Mumbai traditional dances take place in huge stadiums, often with modernised music.
Ramlila plays in Delhi take place all over the city, these include huge effigies of the demon king Ravana that are burned. Ravana is the ten headed, demon king antagonist in the epic Hindu poem Ramayana.
Top Health Tips for Shardiya Navratri:
- If you are going to fast during the festival be sure to stay hydrated and eat a balanced meal before sunrise and after sunset.
- Delhi belly - or traveller’s diarrhoea, can be common when in areas with poor sanitation.
Highlight: Join thousands at the Onam Boat Races.
This festival is celebrated by the people of Kerala in the South West region of India. It takes place between August and September for ten days, and celebrates King Mahabali, a mythical king who ruled Kerala a very long time ago. The king was so loved by the people that he wanted to extend his rule to the heavens, but this made the gods feel challenged. They pleaded with Vishnu to take some of his powers. Vishnu exiled King Mahabali to the underworld, but due to the king’s attachment to his people, Vishnu allowed the king to visit them once a year from the underworld. Onam celebrates the annual return of the beloved king’s spirit.
Onam is a very special occasion in Kerala, people wear their finest clothes, cook incredible feasts and decorate the community with Pookalams (flower carpets). You can expect to see incredible parades featuring caparisoned elephants, kathakali dancers and fireworks.
Some of the main events during Onam are the fantastic boat races. This is an incredibly popular event that attracts thousands of people. These races involve hundreds of rowers in traditional boats called Chundans which resemble cobras.
Top Health Tips for Onam:
- Onam does take place during monsoon season so be sure to pack an umbrella, this also means there will be high humidity which can cause rapid dehydration.
- If you are attending the boat race avoid the water as it will not be clean.
Travel health advice and vaccinations for India
There are multiple health risks travellers to India should consider. Food and water contamination is common throughout Asia. Visitors should only drink bottled water, ensuring that the seal on the bottle has not been previously broken. There was a recent spate of crime in India where water bottles were opened, re-filled using unclean tap water and super glued closed, then sold to tourists as bottled water. It is vital that all visitors check that the seal has not been tampered with before consumption.
Travellers should avoid eating food from street vendors, as it is impossible to know how fresh the produce is. It is safer to eat in establishments that appear busy with a high turnover of customers as this ensures food will be replaced regularly. It is essential to check that all food is cooked thoroughly. Cold foods should be avoided - salads, for example, could be washed in contaminated water.
There are a number of vaccinations that all visitors to India should consider. Hepatitis A and typhoid are both spread via food and water and these vaccinations are essential for all travellers whether visiting urban or rural settings.
All visitors should also ensure they have had a tetanus vaccination within the past 10 years and that their childhood immunisation schedule (including MMR) is complete.
India poses a high risk of rabies and it is advisable that all travellers seek the rabies vaccination at least one month before travel. Rabies can be carried by any mammal and stray dogs are common throughout India, so all visitors should take rabies as a serious health risk.
Anyone travelling to rural areas, particularly the rice paddies should consider being vaccinated for Japanese encephalitis. The disease is spread via mosquito bites and although rare, has a very high fatality rate.
Malaria is prevalent throughout India, with the high risk malaria zones being in Assam and Orissa in the north east. Malaria tablets are advised for these zones. In other areas tablets are not essential however good bite prevention methods should be used. Loose long sleeved clothing should be worn and an insect repellent with a concentration of 50% DEET should be applied to any exposed skin and be worn 24 hours a day.
Ensure you book your appointment for travel vaccinations as early as possible. Some vaccinations take up to 6 weeks for you to gain maximum protection.