A traveller's guide to India's festivals

Earlier this year the Maha Kumbh Mela, held in the north Indian city of Allahabad, was touted as the biggest religious gathering on Earth. More than 100 million pilgrims are estimated to have washed away a lifetime of sins by taking a dip at the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and mythical Sarasvati rivers. On one day alone, 10 February, more than 30 million people are thought to have bathed.

Allahabad authorities estimate that some 100 million pilgrims had poured into the city by the end of the mela to take a dip.  Image by Stuart Butler/ Lonely Planet.

It was India turned up to max and the world's media, beaming live images of naga (naked) sadhus leading the dawn rush to the river waters, lapped it up and in turn got people the planet over thinking 'Next time I’ll be there'. Unfortunately for them, thanks to an unusual planetary alignment, this was actually the biggest festival for 144 years so you’ve got a fair old wait until the next one. Luckily huge, colourful festivals are two-a-penny in India. Here’s our run-down of the loudest of loud Indian festivals.

At many Indian festivals, children dress as gods, seek alms and give blessings.  Image by Stuart Butler / Lonely Planet.

Other Kumbh Melas

Allahabad doesn’t hold a monopoly on Kumbh Melas. Three other Indian cities (Hardiwar, Ujjian and Nashik) also host them, with one held in each city roughly once every twelve years. This means that in effect there is a Kumbh Mela once every three years, with half-melas held in between, as well as an annual event in each host city. The next Kumbh Mela will be held in Nashik in 2015. The one in Allahabad is the most prestigious and largest of them all.

Janmastami

You can hardly move without tripping over the deity Krishna at this festival to celebrate his birthday. Temples are swathed in decorations and musical dramas about Krishna are performed. Held in August-September in Mathura, Uttar Pradesh. For more on Janmastami, check out our guide.

Ganga Sagar Mela

Head out east in mid-January to Sagar Island and the point where the holy river Ganges meets the ocean and join tens of thousands of Hindu pilgrims taking a communal paddle in the sea.

The most auspicious spot in which to bathe is Sangam ghat, which sits right beside the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and mythical Sarasvati Rivers. Image by Stuart Butler / Lonely Planet.

Sonepur Mela

This massive fair celebrates a prehistoric battle between elephants and crocodiles; today’s events are much less violent but no less spectacular. This is the largest cattle fair in Asia (by cattle we also mean elephants, birds and whatever else stepped off Noah's Ark) and hundreds of thousands of river bathing-sin cleansing pilgrims. It’s held near Patna, Bihar in November/December.

Rath Yatra

This spectacular festival features immense chariots containing Lord Jagannath, brother Balbhadra and sister Subhadra hauled from temple to temple through the streets of the beach town of Puri. Held in November in Puri, Odisha. For more on planning your trip, check out our guide to Rath Yatra here.

Shivarati Mela

Up to 100,000 Shaivite pilgrims, sadhus and Adivasis (tribal peoples) attend the celebrations at Mahadeo Temple. Participants bring symbolic tridents and hike up Chauragarh Hill to plant them at the Shiva shrine. Held in February/March in Pachmarhi, Madhya Pradesh.

Thrissur Pooram

Imagine seeing enough jewels to cover an elephant! Now imagine seeing enough jewels to cover dozens of elephants. This is Thrissur Pooram, Kerala’s most over the top festival and the elephant procession to end all elephant processions. Held in April/May in Thrissur, Kerala. Make it happen with our Pooram guide.

One of the big attractions of many Indian festivals is the opportunity it offers the average person to meet a wide array of gurus (teachers), holy men (and women) and wandering ascetics known as sadhus. Image by Stuart Butler / Lonely Planet.

Ganesh Chaturthi

Hindus celebrate Ganesh Chaturthi, the birth of the elephant-headed god, with verve, particularly in Mumbai. Clay idols of Ganesh are paraded through the streets before beings ceremonially immersed in rivers, tanks or the sea. Held in September (or sometimes August) countrywide.

Durga Puja

Thousands of statues of the ten-armed goddess Durga clutter the streets of Kolkata during this festival held each year in October. The festival climaxes when all those Durga idols are thrown into the waters of the Hooghly River amongst much general singing, dancing and firework explosions.

Pushkar Camel Fair

Held in early November in the beautiful Rajasthani town of Pushkar, this famous fair could almost be described as a Kumbh Mela of camels and cattle. Around 50,000 slobbering beasts dressed in their finest ‘coats’ come to town accompanied by thousands of pilgrims and traders, but with masses of musicians, acrobats, and mystics there’s more than just ships of the desert to this fair. Make it happen with our guide to the fair here.

This article was first published in March 2013 and was republished in July 2013.