Holi, February or March
Ganesh Chaturthi, August or September
Onam, August or September
Navratri & Dussehra, September or October
Diwali, October or November
Post-monsoon cool lingers throughout the country, with downright cold in the mountains. Moderate weather and several festivals make it a popular time to travel (book ahead!), while Delhi hosts big Republic Day celebrations.
Republic Day commemorates the founding of the Republic of India on 26 January 1950; the biggest celebrations are in Delhi, with a vast military parade along Rajpath, and the Beating of the Retreat ceremony three days later. There are pigeon races in Old Delhi.
Sankranti, the Hindu festival marking the sun’s passage into Capricorn, takes place on 14 or 15 January, and is celebrated in many ways across India – from banana-giving to decorating sacred cows. But it’s the mass kite-flying in Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra that's most spectacular.
The Tamil festival of Pongal, equivalent to Sankranti, marks the end of the harvest season. Families prepare pots of pongal (a mixture of rice, sugar, dhal and milk), symbolic of prosperity and abundance, then feed them to decorated and adorned cows.
Hindus dress in yellow and place books, musical instruments and other educational objects in front of idols of Saraswati, the goddess of learning, to receive her blessing. The holiday sometimes falls in February.
The huge Hindu pilgrimage of Kumbh Mela takes place every three years, rotating between Haridwar, Prayagraj (Allahabad), Nashik and Ujjain. Focused on ritual immersion in sacred rivers, the celebrations attract tens of millions of devotees. It'll next be held in Haridwar (2022). See https://kumbh.gov.in/en/ for the latest.
This is a good time to be in India, with balmy weather in most non-mountainous areas. It’s still peak travel season, and sunbathing and skiing are still on.
Losar (Tibetan New Year)
Losar is celebrated by Tantric Buddhists all over India – particularly in Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Ladakh and Zanskar – for 15 days. The event usually falls in February or March, though dates can vary between regions.
Skiing the Northern Slopes
Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand have some fine skiing and snowboarding for all levels. Snow season tends to be January to March; February's a safe bet.
Held in February or March, Shivaratri, a day of Hindu fasting, recalls the tandava (cosmic victory dance) of Lord Shiva. Temple processions are followed by the chanting of mantras and the anointing of linga (phallic images of Shiva). Upcoming dates: 21 February 2020, 11 March 2021.
Carnival in Goa
The four-day party kicking off Lent is particularly big in Goa. Sabado Gordo (Fat Saturday) gets the festivities going with elaborate parades, and the revelry continues with street parties, concerts and general merrymaking. Can also fall in March.
This 10-day carnival of culture, cuisine and crafts is Agra's biggest and best party. Held at Shilpgram, it features 400 artisans from all over India, a potpourri of folk and classical music, dances from various regions, and enough regional food to induce a curry coma.
The last month of high season, March is full-on hot in most of India, with rains starting in the Northeast Region. Wildlife is easier to spot, as animals emerge to find water ahead of the monsoon.
In February or March, Hindus celebrate the beginning of spring according to the lunar calendar by throwing coloured water and gulal (powder) at anyone within range. Bonfires the night before symbolise the demise of demoness Holika. Upcoming dates: 9 March 2020, 28 March 2021.
When the weather warms up, water sources dry out and animals venture into the open to find refreshment, making this a prime time to spot elephants and, if you’re lucky, tigers and leopards. Consult nature portal www.sanctuaryasia.com for detailed info.
The heat has officially arrived in most places, which means you can get deals and avoid tourist crowds. The Northeast, meanwhile, is wet, but it’s peak time for visiting Sikkim and highland West Bengal.
Mahavir Jayanti commemorates the birth of Jainism’s 24th and most important tirthankar (teacher and enlightened being). Temples are decorated and visited, Mahavir statues are given ritual baths, processions are held and offerings are given to the poor. Upcoming dates: 6 April 2020, 25 April 2021.
During this one- to nine-day festival, Hindus celebrate Rama's birth with processions, music, fasting and feasting, enactments of scenes from the Ramayana and, at some temples, ceremonial weddings of Rama and Sita idols. Upcoming dates: 2 April 2020, 21 April 2021.
The Christian holiday marking the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ is celebrated simply in Christian communities with prayer and good food, particularly in Goa and Kerala. Upcoming dates for Easter Sunday: 12 April 2020, 4 April 2021.
Thirty days of dawn-to-dusk fasting mark the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. Muslims traditionally turn their attention to God, with a focus on prayer and ritual purification. Ramadan begins around 24 April 2020 and 13 April 2021.
It's hot almost everywhere – incendiary, in fact. Festivals take a back seat as humidity builds up, awaiting the release of the rain. Hill stations are hopping, though, and in the mountains it’s pre-monsoon trekking season.
The celebration of Buddha’s birth, nirvana (enlightenment) and parinirvana (total liberation from the cycle of existence, or passing away) is calm but moving: devotees dress simply, eat vegetarian food, listen to dharma talks and visit monasteries or temples. Upcoming dates: 7 May 2020, 26 May 2021.
May and June, the months preceding the rains in the northern mountains, are prime times for trekking, with clear skies and temperate weather. Consider Himachal Pradesh, Kashmir (but not Ladakh) and Uttarakhand.
Mangoes are indigenous to India, which is why they’re so ridiculously good here. The season starts in March; in May the fruit is sweet, juicy and everywhere, but it's particularly prevalent in Maharashtra, where locals go crazy for Alphonso mangoes.
Muslims celebrate the end of Ramadan with three days of festivities. Prayers, shopping, gift-giving and, for women and girls, mehndi (henna designs) may all be part of the celebrations. Upcoming dates: 24 May 2020, 13 May 2021.
June is low season because of the heat, but it's a good time to trek up north, as the passes open to Ladakh. The rainy season starts just about everywhere else, making national-park access tricky.
The Chariot Festival in June or July sees effigies of Lord Jagannath (Vishnu incarnated as Lord of the Universe) and his siblings carried on vast, colourful chariots, most famously in Puri, Odisha (Orissa). Millions come to see the festivities. Upcoming dates: 23 June 2020, 12 July 2021.
It should be raining almost everywhere now, but flooding causes problems in many regions. Consider visiting Ladakh, where the weather’s surprisingly dry and pleasant, or do a rainy-season meditation retreat, an ancient Indian tradition.
Held in July or August, Naag Panchami, particularly vibrant in Pune and Kolhapur (Maharashtra) and Karnataka, is dedicated to Ananta, the serpent upon whose coils Vishnu rested between universes. Women fast at home, while serpents are venerated as totems. Upcoming dates: 25 July 2020 and 13 August 2021.
Commemorates Ibrahim’s readiness to sacrifice his son to God; Muslims slaughter a goat or sheep and share it with family, the community and the poor. Upcoming dates: 31 July 2020, 19 July 2021.
Monsoon should be still going strong, but this is the best time to visit Ladakh. Tropical areas such as Kerala and Goa boast lush, green jungle, and it's often raining only a few hours a day.
This public holiday on 15 August celebrates India’s independence from Britain in 1947. Celebrations include flag-hoisting ceremonies and parades. The biggest celebrations are in Delhi, where the prime minister addresses the nation from the Red Fort, and there events such as pigeon racing and kite flying in Old Delhi.
Drupka Teshi commemorates Buddha’s first teaching, in which he explained the Four Noble Truths to disciples in Sarnath. Celebrations are big in Sikkim. The festival may also fall in July.
Krishna's birthday celebrations can last a week in Krishna’s birthplace, Mathura; elsewhere the festivities range from fasting to puja (prayers) and offering sweets, to drawing elaborate rangoli (rice-paste designs) outside homes. Janmastami is held in August or September. Upcoming dates: 11 August 2020, 30 August 2021.
Pateti (Parsi New Year)
This Parsi celebration of the Zoroastrian New Year is especially big in Mumbai. Houses are cleaned and decorated with flowers and rangoli, the family dresses up and eats special fish dishes and sweets, and offerings are made at fire temples.
In August or September, Onam is Kerala’s biggest cultural celebration. The entire state celebrates the golden age of mythical King Mahabali for 10 days. Upcoming dates: 30 August 2020, 21 August 2021.
Nehru Trophy Boat Race
The most popular of Kerala’s boat races, the Nehru Trophy is held In Alappuzha (Alleppey) on the second Saturday of August. See http://nehrutrophy.nic.in for details.
Raksha Bandhan (Narial Purnima)
Girls tie rakhis (amulets) to the wrists of brothers and male friends to protect them in the coming year. Brothers reciprocate with gifts and promises to take care of their sisters. The festival's name means 'protective tie'. Upcoming dates: 3 August 2020, 21 August 2021.)
The birth of the much-loved elephant-headed god is celebrated over 10 days, particularly in Mumbai, Hyderabad and Chennai. Clay idols of Ganesh are paraded through the streets before being ceremonially immersed in rivers, sacred temple tanks or the sea. Upcoming dates: 22 August 2020, 10 September 2021.
Shiite Muslims commemorate the martyrdom of the Prophet's grandson Imam Hussain on the 10th day of Muharram with beautiful processions, especially in Hyderabad. Sunni Muslims commemorate the fast of Moses (Moosa) when Allah saved the Israelites from their enemy in Egypt. Upcoming dates: around 28 August 2020 and 18 August 2021.
The rain is petering out (but temperatures are still relatively high), and the monsoon is usually finished in places such as Rajasthan, which can be surprisingly green. Autumn trekking season begins mid-month in the Himalaya.
This is when the travel season starts to kick off in earnest. October, also known as shoulder season, brings festivals and mostly good weather, with reasonably comfy temperatures and lots of post-rain greenery.
This national holiday is a solemn celebration of Mohandas Gandhi’s birth, on 2 October, with prayer meetings at his cremation site in Delhi, Raj Ghat.
Rafting & White Water
Rivers are full up after the rains, making for spectacular, thundering white-water falls. This is also the season for rafting in some areas; visit www.indiarafting.com.
Colourful Dussehra celebrates the victory of Hindu god Rama over demon-king Ravana and the triumph of good over evil. It's big in Kullu: more than 200 deities are carried into the town on palanquins, and festivities last a week. Upcoming dates: 8 October 2019, 25 October 2020, 14 October 2021.
The conquest of good over evil is exemplified by the goddess Durga’s victory over buffalo-headed demon Mahishasura. Celebrations occur around the time of Dussehra in October, particularly in Kolkata, where thousands of images of the goddess are displayed, then ritually immersed in rivers and water tanks.
The Hindu Festival of Nine Nights preceding Dussehra celebrates Durga in all her incarnations. Festivities, in September or October, are particularly vibrant in West Bengal, Maharashtra and Gujarat; in Kolkata, Durga images are ritually immersed in rivers and water tanks. Upcoming dates: 17 October 2020, 7 October 2021.
In the lunar month of Kartika, in October or November, Hindus celebrate the Festival of Lights for five days. There's massive build-up, and on the day people exchange gifts, let off unbelievable amounts of fireworks, and light lamps to lead Lord Rama home from exile. Upcoming dates: 27 October 2019, 14 November 2020, 4 November 2021.
The climate is blissful in most places – still hot, but not uncomfortably so – but the southern monsoon sweeps through Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
The Islamic festival of Eid-Milad-un-Nabi celebrates the birth of the Prophet with prayers and processions. Upcoming dates: around 10 November 2019, 29 October 2020, 19 October 2021.
The birthday of Guru Nanak, founder of Sikhism, is celebrated with prayer, kirtan (devotional singing) and processions for three days, especially in Punjab and Haryana. Upcoming dates: around 12 November 2019, 30 November 2020 and 19 November 2021, but some mark the festival on 14 April, possibly Nanak’s actual 1469 birth date.
Many people head to the beach in December and January, but if you like a little space with your sea, go in November or February, when the skies are clear and it’s sunny but still comfortable.
Pushkar Camel Fair
Held during Kartika (the eighth lunar month, usually falling in October or November), this fair attracts 200,000 people, who bring some 50,000 camels, horses and cattle. It's a swirl of colour, magic and mayhem, thronged with musicians, mystics, tourists, camera crews, traders, devotees and animals.
International Film Festival of India
Held in Panaji (Panjim) in Goa in late November, India's largest film festival draws Bollywood’s finest for premieres, parties, screenings and ceremonies. See www.iffigoa.org for details.
December is peak tourist season, and no wonder: you're guaranteed glorious weather (except in the chilly mountains), the humidity’s low, the mood's festive and the beaches are blissful.
Marriage ceremonies peak in December, and you may see many a baraat (bridegroom’s procession), featuring white horse, nervous protagonist and fireworks, on your travels. Across the country, loud music and spectacular several-day-long parties abound, with brides adorned with mehndi and pure gold regalia.
Many of India’s 1250-plus bird species perform their winter migration from November to January or February, and excellent birdwatching spots are peppered across the country; www.birding.in is an excellent resource.
Camel Treks in Rajasthan
The cool winter (November to February) is the time to mount a camel and ride through the Rajasthani desert. Setting out from Jaisalmer or Bikaner, you can explore the Thar Desert and sleep under a sky full of stars.
Christian Goa, and parts of Kerala and the Northeast Region, come alive in the lead-up to Christmas, Mass is celebrated on 24 December,;and Christmas Day is celebrated with feasting and fireworks.
Islamic Calendar & Indian Lunar Calendar
Many festivals follow the Indian lunar calendar (a complex system based on astrology) or the Islamic calendar (which shifts 11 days earlier each year relative to the Gregorian calendar). Because of this, the dates of many festivals change annually. Contact local tourist offices for current dates, or see www.india.gov.in/calendar for a list of the year's gazetted government holidays.