India dates back five millennia and is the birthplace of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, so of course it plays host to some unparalleled religious festivals -- opportunities to see the country's culture at its most vibrant. With input from travel bloggers and hospitality industry insiders, we've highlighted some of the most famous and extraordinary of these events for travelers looking to make the most of a trip to India.
Bihu refers to three festivals, but the most notable is Rongali, celebrating the Assamese new year. The festivities begin with locals thanking their cattle and farm animals for helping with farm work. The animals are taken to a river or pond and bathed with a paste of turmeric and black gram. The ropes around their legs are temporarily cut, so they can roam freely. Celebrants wear traditional clothes made of silk as they sing, dance, and feast.
Agni Kheli is an eight- to 10-day celebration known as "the fire festival." Devotees -- wearing only loincloths -- assemble in a field in Mangalore at the Kateel Durga Parameshwari Temple to throw burning palm leaves at each other, a mass battle that lasts about 15 minutes daily.
The highlight of Hemis, taking place at the largest, richest Buddhist monastery in Ladakh, is the Cham dance, a colorful display in which priests dance to traditional music of drums, cymbals, and long horns while wearing elaborate outfits and masks. Locals dress up as well -- men in cummerbunds, women in vibrant headgear and jewelry. The event celebrates the birth of Padmasambhava, founder of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism.
Snake phobia? Skip Nag Panchami, when Hindus throughout India seek blessings from serpents. Devotees bathe snakes in milk and turmeric and offer them flowers and sweets -- although some celebrants avoid risk by making offerings to silver, stone, or wooden snakes, or even snake paintings. Villagers can be seen heading to temple with snakes to be blessed, carried in pots on their heads.
Also known as the "Human Pyramids of Janmashtami Festival," Dahi Handi is inspired by the deity Krishna's love of butter as a toddler and his legendary attempts to steal it after his mother stored it above his reach. Teams of celebrants compete fiercely, piling into human pyramids to reach hanging pots of butter or curds. One of the best places to watch is Mumbai, where Bollywood actors are occasionally spied participating.
This Hindu festival honors the birthday of the god Ganesha. Clay idols of the elephant-headed deity are placed in homes and public spaces on elaborate temporary stages. The event is marked by feasting, athletic and martial arts competitions, and chanting of Vedic hymns and Hindu texts. On the last day, the idols are brought out in a colorful, musical procession and immersed in water.
Snake boat races, tiger dances, and elephant processions are just some of the highlights of Onam, a festival celebrating the rice harvest. There's also dancing, mask dances, martial arts, and fantastical and elaborate costumes. The Onam festival is about as colorful as they come.
Depending on region, the nine-day festival of Navratri is tied to the legend of the goddess Durga defeating a buffalo demon to restore cosmic order, the god Rama's victory over a demon king named Ravana, or another legend celebrating good beating evil. One of the most vibrant incarnations is in West Bengal. There are dance performances, dramas, and a procession during which Durga is paraded and immersed in water.
This famous, colorful festival also honors Durga in Kolkata and throughout West Bengal, with 10 days of revelry. Temporary decorative temporary structures called pandals, with elaborately adorned idols of the goddess built the week before the festival, open to visitors on the sixth day. On the final day, a procession led by women covered in vermilion powder carries the goddess to be immersed in water.
Another festival celebrating the triumph of good over evil, Dussehra includes outdoor fairs and the stunning nighttime burning of effigies of Ravana, a mythical Sri Lankan king. The effigies are paraded and burned over bonfires to commemorate his killing by Lord Rama, a tradition believed to date back to the 17th century. See it in Mysore, where buildings are decorated with lights and colors and there's a procession of the idol of the goddess Chamundeshwari.
Diwali is a five-day festival of lights -- spiritually, about light triumphing over darkness, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance. The biggest events coincide with the new moon, the darkest night during the festival, when participants dress up, light lamps, and pray. The evening culminates with fireworks and feasting.
A small desert town in the state of Rajasthan hosts an event where the main attraction is buying and selling livestock, primarily camels. Over the years the gathering of 30,000 camels has morphed into a tourist attraction that includes competitions -- including the comical "longest mustache" event and a bridal competition. Folk dances, music, and magic are among the amusements.
What would you be willing to do for a goddess' blessing? In Tamil Nadu, during Thimithi, devotees walk on fire in exchange for blessings from Draupadi, the wife of the five Pandava brothers from the epic war narrative "The Mahabharata." This festival includes dramatic reenactments from "The Mahabharata," as well as a silver chariot procession.
Peanuts are the focus of this two-day festival near Bangalore's Bull Temple, which starts with farmers trekking from the countryside carrying peanut crops in large sacks. The nuts are left as an offering to a 13-foot-high statue of Lord Shiva's mount, a bull, as the 16th-century temple is adorned with 100,000 lamps. The streets host a fair for sampling and buying all manner of nuts -- spiced, fried, sugar-coated, boiled, roasted, and salted.
Known as a festival of kites, Makar Sakranti has various names (in southern India, Pongal; in the north, Lohri) and includes various activities, but it takes place the same day each year. For foodies, a highlight is the sweet sesame and jaggery sugar treats known as chikki. Some celebrants take a dip in a holy river to cleanse their sins. Perhaps most colorfully, the festival draws people to rooftops and terraces to fill the sky with kites.
This festival is not for the faint of heart. Tamils celebrate Thaipusam by piercing their bodies with metal rods -- in the cheeks, arms, stomach, even back -- as a show of devotion to Lord Kartikeya, worshipped because he destroyed the demons Tharaksuran and Surapadam and their minions, who were causing trouble on earth. Easier to stomach are parades of participants dressed in yellow and orange carrying pots on their heads with offerings of honey, flower, fruit, and milk.
The Jaiselmer Desert Festival takes place at a 12th-century desert fort. People wearing vibrantly colored costumes dance and sing haunting ballads amid puppeteers, acrobats, folk performances, snake charmers, musicians, and other street performers. Even the camels are elaborately dressed -- competing to be "best-dressed camel" -- and the grand finale is a nighttime sound and light show in the sand dunes.
Millions of people take part in Kumbh Mela -- called the world's largest religious gathering -- as Hindu holy men come together to discuss their faith. The location rotates among four holy Hindu sites -- the banks of the the Godavari River in Nashik, the Shipra River in Ujjain, the Ganges River in Haridwar, and the confluence of rivers called the Sangam in Allahabad/Prayag. The precise date is determined by a combination of the positions of Jupiter, the sun, and the moon.
Perhaps one of India's most photographed celebrations, the annual Hindu Holi festival welcomes spring with a stunning display of color -- in the form of powder thrown onto singing, dancing crowds. Events occur throughout the country, but some of the most exuberant take place in north India's Golden Triangle region of Delhi, Jaipur, and Agra.