Chariot festival

There are thousands of festivals and events in India. Many are local and held at different dates each year. Many holidays are set according to the lunar calendar. Some festival honor a deity at a particular temple. Others are associated with the agriculture cycle or a religious story or event. Many have some sort of procession along with music, art and food.

On any given day there is probably several dozen festival held at different places in India. Many are religious in nature. These festivals often take on different forms among different ethnic or local communities. Communities and group often also have their own local festivals that may honor a local god, spirit, hero or event or is a step on the agricultural cycle.

Indian festivals are inextricably intertwined with spirituality. Birthdays are celebrated as victories over the lower self. Festivals mark the time and season of an individual’s spiritual progress and the ascendance to a higher self. The higher self allows one to understand that all festivals benefit humanity. Each festival symbolizes some spiritual aspect and marks a step on the evolution to a higher self.

Melas are an integral part of life for most Indians, both rural and urban. Women and girls wear colorful clothes and jewelry and decorate their hands and feet with henna. Jugglers, fortunetellers, snake charmers, acrobats, magicians, musicians and other performers are often there. Various kinds of food and things are sold at stalls and by peddlers.

Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The issue of lost relatives at Indian religious festivals, often occurring after a stampede, has become a fixture of Bollywood pot boilers. Among the cheesier film plots: A man searches for his brother in Australia knowing he has a thing for kangaroos; two lost brothers reunite only to find that one's become a policeman while the other's had a brush with the law; three lost brothers are raised Hindu, Muslim and Christian but all have good hearts, revealed when they vanquish a villain and save a damsel in a tear-jerker ending. In reality, Tiwari said, virtually everyone finds their loved ones within hours or, occasionally, days. In an extreme case, he said, it took 10 days to help a woman who was deaf and could neither speak nor write find her family. "There's no such thing as lost forever," he said. "That's only in films." [Source:Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, March 2, 2013 +++]

Hindu Calendar and Festivals

The calendar marks important religious festival and worship days. Most holidays are fixed in accordance with the Hindu lunar calendar. This calendar used is divided into 12 lunar months of 29 to 30 days. This calendar determines when harvest festivals, some temple festivals and the Hindu New Year are celebrated. Every 30 months an additional month is added to keep the calendar in sync with the solar year.

Hindu festivals are called "melas". They are often held on dates based in the Hindu calendar and are associated with seasonal changes. Festivals mix worship with having fun and are regarded as a time when caste distinctions are suspended and the emphasis is on creating a community spirit. There are large festivals celebrated nationwide such as Holi and Diwali as well as local festivals dedicated to regional deities and events important to a certain place.

The world largest gatherings are a series of melas (festivals) held on the Ganges attended by millions of Hindu pilgrims who enter the river in hopes of washing away their sins. There are four major melas: in Allahabad (Prayag), in Haridwar, in Nasik, and in Ujjain. Each one is held every 12 years, which means that one of four is held every three years. The one in Allahabad is by far the largest. It attracts over 50 million people. The others attract about 10 million each. See See Separate Article on the Kumbh Mela

Village-Level Hindu Festivals

A vast number of local Hindu festivals revolve around the worship of gods at the neighborhood, village, or caste level. Many village temples hold annual “car” festivals in a Hindu deity associated with a given temple is carried around the temple in a huge chariot. Similar rituals are held at large pilgrimage sites. In many places castes hold festivals in which they worship the tools of their trade. Additionally, villages hold multi-caste festivals that involve the offerings of goats, sheep and chicken to promote good relations between all the castes in a community. These events are often held according to a schedule that only the castes and communities know and are sometimes held to deal with an emergency such as a natural disaster or illness.


All over India, at least once a year the images of the gods are taken from their shrines to travel in processions around their domains. The images are carried on palanquins that require human bearers or on human-drawn, large-wheeled carts. The images may be intricately made up in order for the stone or wooden statues to appear lifelike. They may wear costly vestments, and flower garlands may surround their necks or entire shrines. The gods move down village or city streets in parades that may include multiple palanquins and, at sites of major temples, even elephants decked out in traditional vestments. [Source: Library of Congress *]

As the parade passes, throngs of worshipers pray and make vows to the gods while the community as a whole looks on and participates in the spectacle. In many locations, these public parades go on for a number of days and include special events where the gods engage in "play" (lila ) that may include mock battles and the defeat of demons. The ceremonial bathing of the images and displays of the gods in all their finery in public halls also occur. In the south, where temples stand at the geographic and psychological heart of village and town, some "chariots" of the gods stand many stories tall and require the concerted effort of dozens of men to pull them through the streets. *

Strange Festivals in India

Tihar is a Hindu holiday in which with certain days are dedicated to certain animals and things. On the Day of the Dogs all the local dogs—even the mangiest ones—are rounded up and given a good meal, a tikka mark on their forehand, and a garland of marigolds. The holiday also includes the Day of the Crow, the Day of the Cow, Day of the Family Money Box, and the Day of the Father. Outside some mountain villages hand-powered Ferris wheels and 30-foot-high swings are set up. People believe that high passes on the swing mean the crops will grow high.


During the Gotmar festival in Pandhurna, two large villages face of against one another and hurl rocks at their rival for 24 hours. After the festival is over the dead are buried and the wounded and the wounded are tended to. In 1989, four people were killed and 612 were wounded. In 1995, no one was killed but 25 were hospitalized in serious condition.

At the annual Chaath festival in Agra, women immersed in water pray to the sun for prosperity for two days. They celebrate the setting sun first and welcome the rising sun the next morning,

The Pushkar Fair is a huge cattle market and camel fair held at Pushkar in Rajasthan during the full moon of the month of Kartik (October and November). Tens of thousands of men in bright colored turbans and their families come to this ten day festival to sell livestock, ride an oxen-driven ferris wheels, stroll down Snake Charmer's Row, bath in the holy Pushkar Lake, hang out with holy men, meet old friends, watch athletic contests, and shop for camel bells and milk pots. There are circus acts, freak shows, eunuchs, snake charmers, hawkers, hippies, camel races, tug-of-wars between women, and naked sadhus. One sadhu was famous for lifting an 80-pound brick with his penis. Athletic events include donkey races, camel races, sheep and goat milking competitions, and an odd spectacle in which a dozen or so men pile onto a squatting camel that has to stand up for the team to win.

Gajan Hindu Festival: Piercings, Hot Coals and Nails

The festival of Gajan is celebrated mostly in the state of West Bengal in eastern India, and coincides with the Bengali New Year. Devotees offer sacrifices and perform acts of devotion such as such as running over hot coals, lying on beds of nails, stepping over children, offering human remains and piercing themselves to win blessings from Hindu gods such as Lord Shiva, the Hindu God of destruction and rebirth, Neel and Dharmathakur. The main idea of this festival is to derive satisfaction through pain, devotion and sacrifice. [Source: David Sim, International Business Times, April 14, 2015 +++]

Gajan devotees

Lasting for one month, the festival culminates on Chaitra Sankranti, the last day of the Bengali calendar. Participants paint their faces, dress up as gods or goddesses and show devotion by piercing their bodies and enduring pain. Human remains are offered as a sacrifice, while children are put on the ground so that holy men can bless them as they walk by. During the annual Shiva Gajan religious festival at Kurmun village, in West Bengal, Hindu devotees carry human skulls and human remains through the crowds. [Source: Alex Wheeler, April 13, 2016]

At the Shiva Gajan festival at Pratapgarh, on the outskirts of the north-eastern Indian city of Agartala, the capital of the north-eastern Indian state of Tripura, Hindu priests bless ritually bound devotees lying on the ground, women dressed as Kali run over smouldering coals and devotees lying on beds of nails are carried past spectators. At a temple in Khurda district in the eastern Indian state of Odisha, devotees roll on thorny bushes laid on the ground. At the annual Gajan festival in Batanal village, Hindu devotees have nails pierced through their arms and are crucified. In Kolkata (Calcutta), Hindu holy men touch infants on their feet to bless them during a religious procession, girls dress up like Kali, young men dress up as Bramha and Brahman priests throw flammable powder onto fires as they perform rituals. +++

Animal Festivals

Hanuman Jayanti is a festival that commemorates the birth of Hanuman, the popular monkey God and symbol of strength and energy. A popular festival, it can be celebrated individually or in the temple where the sacred text, the Hanuman Chalisa, is recited. This text is - a set of prayers glorifying Hanuman, describing his past times and adventures.

Depending on the temple where it is performed, the text is either recited non-stop for 24 hours or performed a set number of times. Special Pujas and offerings are made to Hanuman. Sometimes sacred fire ceremonies are carried out. In some places, colorful processions fill the streets. People dance, carry idols of Lord Hanuman and some people wear masks and tails to imitate the monkey God. The celebration is usually accompanied by a period of fasting and then a big vegetarian feast. [Source: BBC]

There are many festivals in India that incorporate live elephants into the festivities. During the annual Anoyoottu (Feast of Elephants) Festival in July at Sree Vadakhunnathan temple in Thissur in southern India elephants are fed by Hindu priests. Hundreds of elephant lovers gather at the temple, often braving big downpours, to give elephants sugarcane, bananas and rice mixed with brown sugar, clarified butter and turmeric powder for their health,

On the forth day of the annual harvest festival Onan in Thissur, Indian artists perform the Pulikali, or Tiger Dance Participants paint their bodies and leotards like tigers and leopards and roam through the streets.

Tamil Festivals and Festivals in Southern India

Important festivals and ceremonies are held in Tamil areas to honor the birthdays of special deities. These often feature a procession with an image of the deity from the temple through the streets. There is also feasting and night time entertainment. Larger festivals draw tens of thousands—even hundreds of thousands—of pilgrims and celebrants.

Pongal kolam

The Tamil New Year is widely celebrated in mid April. Northern Indian festival like Holi and Dussehra are not that big in Tamil Nadu. Diwali, the festival of lights, is widely celebrated. Tamil New Year is celebrated in Tamil Nadu and Kerala and elsewhere in southern India and places where Tamils live. Held around the time the monsoons arrive, it is a time to wear new clothes and is considered the beginning of summer. The first thing that a person sees in the morning is supposed to influence one for the rest of the year.

Pongal (Mankar Sankranti) is a harvest celebration that marks the sun's entrance into the constellation Capricorn. Celebrated in mid January, it is the biggest festival in southern India. In Tamil Nadu, kin groups boil rice with sugar and turmeric (a mixture known as pongal) in homes and temples until spills out of the pot (the greater the spillage the better) and eat it communally. "Pongal" means "to boil, overflow". In villages in and around Thanjavar, cattle and oxen have their horns painted red and green and garlands are placed around their necks. Some are raced. Women make geometric patterns known as kolams with rice powder. The festival is also celebrated in West Bengal, where it is known at Shantiniketan as Paush Mela.

Festivals in Kerala

The springtime Pooram Festival in Trichur, Kerala lasts for 30 hours and features processions with teams made up of members of temples in the Trichur area. All the teams gather at Vadakkunnathan temple, pay their respects to Shiva, and march to Thiruvambadi and Parmekkavu temples. Each team has elephants with gilded headdresses. Opposing temples face off with shocking pink and baby-blue umbrellas with golden tassels. The main elephants wear fringed cloth with 600 gold pieces and carry the deity of the temple team. Competitions are held in front of the Vadakkunnathan temple to see which elephant has the brightest parasol and which team can make the most noise.

As the teams move along the procession route, people wave peacock-feather fans and yak-tail brushes. Mela orchestras play cymbals, conch shells and long, curving horns. At Vadakkunnathan temple, 200 musicians gather to play their instruments. At night there are torch-light parades with elephants. Competing temples try to produce the most spectacular fireworks displays and unveil the largest elephant. Competition is said to be so stiff that husbands and wives from different temples are said to not sleep with each other for a month before the festival.

Snake Boat Races are held in Kerala on different weekends in August and September in Alleppey, Payipad, Aranmula and Chochin. The events often feature boat procession and races and are sometimes part of larger temple festivals honoring Hindu deities. Snake boats are long narrow crafts that can hold several dozen men and easily maneuver Kerala's waterways and canals. The boats, according to legend, were first used for after-harvest battles between rival peasant clans and were outfit with underwater battering rams and mounted canons.

Festivals in Orissa, Calcutta and Bengal

Rath Yatra is celebrated in Puri, Orissa in June or July with a spectacular chariot procession amidst huge crowds. The festival honors Lord Jagannath, an incarnation of Vishnu created by a celestial carpenter from a miraculous log. In the old days people purportedly threw themselves at the chariots—huge platforms, with three domed tents, pulled by a hundred or so pilgrims. Each tent contains a log symbolizing Jagannath and his brother and sister, who were also created from wood by the celestial carpenter. Jagannath is the source of the word juggernaut (a force so powerful it destroys anything its way). The festival usually draws a half million people or more.

Durga Puja in late September and early October is the biggest event in Calcutta (Kolkata) and other cities in West Bengal. Held at the same time as Dussehra, it lasts for three weeks and honors the ten-armed, demon-chasing goddess Durga (Kali). The festivities include merrymaking and family reunions, and displays of papier mâché statues of Durga, riding a lion and defeating demons. In Calcutta The festival climaxes with procession in which the statues of the goddess are carried to the Hooley river and immersed in the water. People watch as statues break up into floating body parts. Afterward the praying continues in the Midan.

Rath Tatra

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except calendar IndiaMART, Tihar dogs, You Tube

Text Sources: Internet Indian History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World's Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 3 South Asia” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); “The Creators” by Daniel Boorstin; “A Guide to Angkor: an Introduction to the Temples” by Dawn Rooney (Asia Book) for Information on temples and architecture. National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2021

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