Bring together a billion people, speaking hundreds of different languages, following some half-dozen different religions and bound by countless traditions, and what do you get? India. Without a doubt, few countries match the vast scale of diversity to be found in India, revealed in many forms such as in cuisine, clothing, language, arts, crafts and festivals.
Festivals of India
The bounty of festivals and fairs almost guarantees that, at any given time, somewhere in some corner of India, people will dress in new clothes, sing and dance, worship, feast and rejoice. Most festivals have religious roots, not surprising in a country where religion is so inextricably intertwined with every aspect of life. And indeed, India was the birthplace of two of the world’s great religions—Hinduism and Buddhism—and one of its smallest—Jainism. Whether a festival is religious or secular, whether it marks the birth of a well-loved god or the beginning of the sowing season or harvest, it’s always an occasion to celebrate for a day or a week and to re-enact customs that may date back hundreds, if not thousands of years. A number of festivals are common to most parts of India, and three holidays are observed nationally: Republic Day (Jan. 26—in New Delhi with processions of Indian princely splendor); Independence Day (Aug. 15); and Mahatma Gandhi’s Birthday (Oct. 2). For a sampling of India’s festival calendar, consider:
Goa Carnival (February): Christmas Goa is a colorful place to be for Christmas, but its carnival is one of the most colorful and popular festivals in India. It’s a 3-day extravaganza of fun, frolic and merrymaking, and although essentially a Christian festival, people of all faiths take part in the celebration.
Khajuraho Dance Festival (late-February or early-March): Staged in the setting of the famous 10th century Khajuraho temples, the Khajuraho Dance Festival spotlights both the immense diversity of classical Indian dance forms—central to the culture of India—as well as the architectural brilliance of the temples themselves, whose western temple group is illuminated at dusk as the backdrop for show-time. The festival lasts a full week and includes performances by leading exponents of Indian dance forms. (India has no fewer than eight genres of dance that have been deemed classical, as well as innumerable folk forms.)
Holi (March): This religious 2-day spring festival celebrated by Hindus is also known as the Festival of Color and celebrates the triumph of “good” over “bad.” The colorful festival bridges the social gap and features an ambiance of merriment as people throw scented powder and perfume at each other. Bonfires are lit on the eve of the festival, also known as Holika Dahan. The most celebrated Holi is in the Braj region, in locations connected to Lord Krishna: Mathura, Vrindavan, Nandagaon, and Barsana.
Thrissur Pooram (April-May): Pooram is the most colorful of all the temple festivals of Kerala. The centerpiece of the festival is a splendid procession of elephants, parading in their glittering regalia through milling crowds drawn from all regions, as well as castes and creeds—Hindu, Muslim and Christian. Beautifully caparisoned elephants in two processions, representing the Thiruvambadi and Paramekkavu temples, compete to create impressive sights and sounds. Each group is allowed to perform with a maximum of 15 elephants and music-makers—on drums, trumpets, pipe and cymbals—accompanying the celebrations. A grand finale of multi-patterned fireworks brings the festival to a close before dawn.
Hemis Festival (June): Held at the Hemis Gompa, the largest Buddhist monastery in Ladakh, this 2-day festival is marked by prayers and the display of an age-old thangka (religious painting), which is just one of the treasures housed at Hemis. Throughout the festival, traditional dances are performed by masked monks.
Snake Boat Races Festival (August): This annual festival is held on the backwaters at Alappuzha, Kerala during the occasion of the Onam Festival. The giant snake boats—measuring 150 ft. long, each powered by more than 100 oarsmen, with singing and whooping war cries—compete for the prestigious Nehru Trophy.
Diwali Festival (late-October/November): Diwali, or the Festival of Light, is the most important and happiest festival on the Hindu calendar, one during which countless oil lamps are lit to welcome home Lord Rama after his 14-year exile.
Pushkar Cattle Fair (November): Thousands of people—cattle traders, shopkeepers, merchants, dancers, musicians and artisans—congregate at Pushkar for the 4-day-long event, a cultural, trade and religious celebration and above all, the world’s largest camel fair. To view is the spectacle of Rajasthani men and women in their colorful traditional attire, saffron-robed Holy Men, and thousands of bulls, cows, sheep, goats, horses and camels in richly decorated saddles. The fair includes camel races and various cultural entertainment programs.
Tastes of India
Gastronomic experiences are high on the list of Indian pleasures and few visitors are disappointed. Historically, many of India’s classic regional cuisines owe their origins to the royal courts. The Mughal rulers were great patrons of the culinary arts and helped introduce pilafs, creamy gravies, marinated kebabs and the tandoor oven to India. The Nizam rulers of Hyderabad developed the famous biryani, a simmering concoction of rice, meat, yogurt and spices, while the Chola kings of southern India presided over the growth of Tanjore and Chettinad cuisine, noted for their use of ground masalas, coconut, tamarind and lentils. Of course, at the heart of all Indian cooking are those spices: black Malabar pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, ginger, turmeric, nutmeg and others, all of which grow on the fertile slopes of the Western ghats. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Western countries fought wars over the spice trade and spices far exceeded gold in value.
South India, more strongly Hindu than the north, has a predominantly vegetarian cuisine, accompanied by rice flavored with coconut or lime. The typical southern appetite calls for a tasty thali, the all-purpose, all-you-can-eat, vegetarian plate made up of a variety of curry vegetable dishes, relishes, bread (papadams, puris or dosas) and a mound of rice. Thalis, of course, are eaten with fingers (of the right hand). A favorite southern snack is a masala dosa, a puffy rice pancake filled with potato and spiced vegetables, and the fish is “deelish:” pomfret, shark, kingfish, prawns, crab and lobster.
North India has a tradition of very rich cooking, much influenced by Mughal cuisine and characterized by the use of yoghurt (dahi), cream, fried onion, nuts and saffron in meat dishes. Mildest of all is biryani, rice cooked with saffron or turmeric, lamb or chicken and dried fruits. Typical sweets in India range from kulfi, ice cream flavored with cardamom, pistachio nuts and saffron, to firnee, a richly flavored rice pudding. When it’s time for a thirst quencher, the sweet lime tang of a nimbu panni is India’s most popular drink, along with lassi (a cold, frothy yogurt) or a good Indian beer. Of course, since tea is the national drink, anytime is time for a cup of chai…except if you are in southern India where coffee is the number one drink.