From cow painting to boat racing: the 8 best festivals in South India

You haven’t seen South India until you have seen South India at festival time. The five southern states – Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh – serve up an electrifying cornucopia of colourful celebrations, and the myriad cultures represented in this region ensure that there’s something happening somewhere almost every month of the year.

From deeply religious celebrations of the divine to head-banging festivals of rock and heavy metal, you can choose a festival to match your kind of vibe and hopefully soak up a bit of what it means to be from the South. Here’s a round-up of some of the most stunning celebrations in South India, from Karnataka to the tip of Tamil Nadu.

A group of white cows stand in a field, their horns have been painted and colourful ribbons are tied around their necks as part of the Pongal celebrations.
Cows are fed, painted and ornamented during the festival of Pongal © Paddy Photography / Getty Images

Pongal (Tamil Nadu, January)

This harvest festival dedicated to the Sun God, Surya, throws females from Tamil families into an impassioned fury of cooking pongal – a curious dish based on rice and lentils, offered to the deity as an act of thanksgiving for a successful harvest. There are sweet and savoury versions (the sweet one is packed with palm sugar), and both are cooked in special earthenware pots over a wood fire. Visit Tamil Nadu during the festival and you’ll see hundreds of women cooking outside temples and distributing pongal to people passing by (and to cattle, who are painted and ornamented for the occasion).

Ramazan (Telangana, May or June)

Though the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan is celebrated across India, its association with Hyderabad is particularly special. The city becomes a twinkling mass of lights and delicious smells, as locals flock to the streets for iftar, the evening meal that breaks the day’s fast. While the festival marks a month of abstinence, locals feast each night on irresistible haleem (meat and wheat stew) and piled plates of Hyderabadi biryani. Hang around the old city near the Charminar for maximum sights and smells.

A side view of two snake boats racing in Kerala. The race and neck, and the lead rower in the far boat is looking over to check whether his team is in the lead.
The annual Snake Boat Races send villages in Kerala into a state of excited frenzy © FRÉDÉRIC SOLTAN / Getty Images

Bangalore Open Air (Bengaluru, Karnataka, June or July)

The musical soul of Bengaluru has to be fed every now and then, and Bangalore Open Air arrived in 2013 to turn the amplifiers up to eleven. India’s biggest and best heavy metal music festival is a riot of wailing guitars and untrimmed locks flailing to the music. Past line-ups have included names from as far afield as the US, Canada, Poland, Switzerland, and Egypt, and the organisers continue to raise the bar with a new crop of guest artists every year.

Snake boat races (Kerala, July-August)

Every July, a flotilla of 100-foot-long chundan vallam (slim boats) takes to the watery highways of the backwaters of Kerala near Alapphuza. Piloted by up to 130 rowers, these graceful boats, known colloquially as ‘snake boats’, once cruised the same canals as warships; today they battle each other in a less militant style, taking part in annual races, with all the rowers moving in a hypnotic rhythm to the refrains of chanted rowing songs. There are more than thirteen major events in the season – and most throw entire villages into an inebriated frenzy on the viewing stands erected along the canal banks. Of these, the Nehru Trophy Boat Race is the most coveted event.

An Indian surfer rides a wave off the coast of Kovalam.
Kovalam has emerged as one of South India’s favourite surf spots © ARUN SANKAR / Getty Images

Covelong Point surf (Tamil Nadu, August)

The love of surfing, music and yoga all come together every year at the Covelong Point Social Surf School in Kovalam village near Chennai. This was India’s first surfing community and this peaceful village has become a hub of surf culture in South India. The blue waters of the Bay of Bengal create a soothing backdrop, as you dive into a three-day schedule of activities to improve body and mind.

Onam (Kerala, August or September)

The Hindu festival of Onam is popular as much for the excellent food served on this auspicious day as for what it ceremonially represents – the homecoming of the spirit of the mythical Keralan King Mahabali to watch over his people. This lavish celebration also doubles as a New Year celebration for the Malayali people. The festivities focus on ornate flower arrangements, snake boat races, uninhibited dances, performances of martial arts and a belt-stretching Onam sadya (meal) that runs to scores of dishes. You’ll see events all over Kerala.

The grand Mysuru Palace, illuminated by thousands of light bulbs, glows in the darkness.
The lavish Mysuru Palace is lit up in thousands of light bulbs during the festival of Mysuru © Dusshera Amith Nag / Getty Images

Mysuru Dusshera (Mysuru, Karnataka, September or October)

The biggest annual festival in the historic city of Mysuru puts its famous palace and royal family at the centre of all activities. For ten days, the city goes into overdrive to celebrate the victory of good over evil, and the legendary victory of the Hindu goddess Chamundeshwari over the evil buffalo demon, Mahishasura. The streets are full of dance performances and musical parades from all over the state, and at night, the lavish Mysuru Palace is lit up in thousands of light bulbs. It’s a scene that leaves many visitors in heartbeat-missing awe; the best seats for viewing the celebrations are the stands outside the palace.

Marghazi  (Tamil Nadu, December and January)

During the Tamil month of Marghazi, the state of Tamil Nadu launches into a musical extravaganza, celebrating its huge contribution to the canon of Indian classical music. Heavyweights of the genre descend on Chennai and mesmerize their ardent followers with hypnotic ragas. This is also a great stage for newcomers to pave their way into the classical music scene. Tickets for various venues are booked out well in advance and there is plenty of excitement in the air, getting even octogenarians out of their chairs.

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