There is no better way to immerse yourself in culture when traveling than by joining the local festivities. Ventours’ destinations are known for magnificent celebrations that are rich in history, tell tales of local lore, highlight aspects of religion, and bring about the best traditional fare, music and dress. The thought of festivals on the Indian subcontinent conjures quintessential images of Holi with faces splashed in blue and pink hues, or the twinkle of thousands of lights illuminating Diwali nights. While these momentous occasions are without a doubt worth planning around, there are hundreds of additional celebrations in the region that truly add to the exceptional festival culture of South Asia.
Ventours destinations include India, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Tibet, Nepal and the Maldives, all of which are incredibly diverse and have numerous religions, historical events, cultures and sub-cultures, and livelihood practices. Their holidays and celebrations even revolve around multiple lunar and solar calendars including Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic, Tibetan, and Gregorian. Given the sheer number of festivals, there is a good chance you will come across one or two during your stay, but timing is everything and you certainly don’t want to miss a memorable opportunity to see an elephant bearing the Buddha’s tooth or a Dashain sky cloaked in kites while taking a whirl on a bamboo swing! The vibrancy of South Asia celebrations is unparalleled, and can only be realized through personal experience. This is the first of a two part blog on subcontinent celebrations where we will first highlight a few favorites in India and Nepal. And while in no way is this a comprehensive list (or you would be reading for days!), we urge you to scroll down and see which celebrations pique your interest. We are happy to answer additional questions about these and others in the region. We also hope you will stop by our Subcontinent Celebrations Pinterest page for a more visual glimpse of merriment to come!
India celebrates over 190 festivals per year, including festivals within festivals. India also ranks number one for the amount of public holidays at twenty-one, and sometimes more depending on the state. The U.S. pales in comparison with only ten! Needless to say, India takes its celebrations seriously, going all out on the color, culinary and clothing front while honoring Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Sikh, Jain, and Christian occasions.
Date March 23, 2016
Length 2 Days
AKA The Festival of Color / Festival of light
Type Hindu | Gregorian calendar
Location Nationwide, and also in Nepal as well as Indian diaspora countries including Fiji, Mauritius, Trinidad, Jamaica, and Guyana
Celebrating the victory of good over evil
Celebrated by throwing colored powder and water all over. The wet and bright celebration also includes music and dance.
Interesting tidbits Let’s get these tidbits started with a Bhang! A cannabis cocktail, Bhang Thandai, is a favorite drink during the Holi Festival. The cannabis paste is mixed with milk and spices. Serve cold. Cheers! Now you are probably asking, is this legal?
Date Nov 11, 2015 / Oct 30, 2016
Length 5 Days
AKA The Festival of Lights / Deepavali
Location Throughout India, Sri Lanka and Nepal
Type Hindu, Sikhs, Jains (though celebrated for different reasons) | Hindu Lunisolar calendar
Celebrating The start of the Hindu New Year and the victory of light over darkness
Celebrated by Lighting diyas (lamps and candles) inside and outside their homes, creating Rangolis, or patterns out of colored rice, flower and sand to bring good luck, and partaking in family prayers, or puja. People exchange gifts and feast, followed by spectacular fireworks– an estimated US$800 million worth in 2013!
Interesting tidbits The first day of Diwali celebrates the birth of Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth and Prosperity, and therefore is regarded as an auspicious time to invest money. Despite it being a national holiday, the stock market opens for Muhurat trading for one hour where investors place token orders and buy stocks for their children, a symbolic ritual that has taken place for years.
Kerala Temple Festivals & Elephant Pageants
Date Various from January – May
Length Pageants are 1 day, though temple celebrations might go on longer
Type Hindu | Malayalam calendar
Celebrating ‘God’s Own Country’, Kerala’s other name, which is home to many Hindu Temples. Each temple has unique traditions and holds exotic festivals celebrating the specific God of worship.
Celebrated by parading the idol of the given Temple’s god atop a caparisoned elephant. Neighbors present offerings to the God and enjoy parades with colorful floats, music and dance as they meander through the streets.
Interesting tidbits These festivals are especially known for their elaborate elephant pageants, showing off Kerala’s state animal. Elephants typically have three mahouts who decorate, ride and direct the elephants during festivals, as well as care for them by bathing them and giving massages with small stones. During the off-season, the elephants take a trip to the spa to undergo Ayurvedic rejuvenation treatments called Sukha Chikitsa. Though this may seem like the plush life, these giant grey creatures do work very hard in the heat and it may be no surprise that animal rights groups are not big fans of these festivals. The opposing argument by supporters notes that money earned during pageants helps pay for their care which otherwise would be too expensive. In addition, the Forest Department has implemented rules to protect them during the events.
Pushkar Camel Fair
Date November 19-25, 2015 / November 8-14, 2016
Length 5 Days
Location Lake Pushkar, Rajasthan
Celebrating Well! Camels of course…
Celebrated by transporting an estimated 50,000 camels to the tiny desert town of Pushkar, Rajasthan for trade and entertainment. Camels are dressed up, paraded, shaved, raced and entered into beauty contests. Can’t you just imagine ‘Miss Pushkar?’
Interesting tidbit Experiencing the Pushkar Camel Festival takes you back to India’s traditional roots. Camel trade is important, and yes, the camels are the main attraction, however additional human competitions are held as well, including the longest mustache, matka phod, and bridal competitions.
Nepal definitely gives India a great run for its money when it comes to the number and intensity of festivals. The Nepalese celebrate many of the same religious festivals as its neighbor, but also commemorate its diverse landscape, flora and fauna, and with over sixty different ethnic groups you can imagine there are several unique traditions known only to this Himalayan country.
Kumari Jatra — Kumara (Part of theYenyā festival)
Date Late spring
Length 11 Days
Location Kathmandu Durbar Square
Type Hindu | Lunar calendar
Celebrating The Living Goddess
Celebrated by A chariot procession of the goddess and by hosting the biggest street festivals in Nepal
Interesting tidbit Yenyā means ‘Kathmandu Festival’ in the local language, and it is the biggest religious street festival in Nepal. The Kumari Jatra began in 1756 AD and each year, the Nepalese King (or more recently the president) seeks the blessing of the Royal Kumari. This is one of the only occasions in which the Living Goddess leaves her palace (she is only six years old!).
Date May 2016, the full moon of the month of Vesākha
Length 11 Days
AKA Buddha’s birthday or Vesak, in Sri Lanka, Bhutan, and Tibet
Location Nationwide, Patan and Bhaktapur for the best festivities
Type Hindu | Lunisolar calendar
Celebrating Buddha’s birth on earth
Celebrated by Throwing a massive birthday party! As the birthplace of Buddhism, Nepalese and Bhuddist pilgrims from all around the world visit the UNESCO world heritage site Lumbini, where the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, was born. Crowds also gather at Bodhnath and Swayambhunath Stupas in Kathmandu.
Interesting tidbits – Buddha’s birthday is the same day he reached enlightenment and nirvana. For celebration, Buddhists wear white and also set caged birds free.