Whether you are a music enthusiast or a traveller in pursuit of unique cultures, the Indian festival scene has come into its own in the past few years. From high-brow literature festivals to underground music gigs, here’s the list of places to go if you’d like a ticket to ride.
1. Aoling Festival of the Konyak Headhunters
Where: Mon district, Nagaland
While the more famous Hornbill Festival sees a larger confluence of Nagaland’s many flamboyant tribes, it’s a show mainly for the benefit of tourists. The Aoling tribal festival is more authentic, and gives you a true taste of Konyak, an erstwhile headhunter clan. This is their celebration welcoming Spring, and offering prayers for a good harvest. This is a fantastic opportunity to spend time with the otherwise hard-to-engage with Konyaks; already a diminishing tribe. They have elaborate tattoos inked on their bodies and faces in particular.
While you are there: Visit Longwa, a unique village on the Indo-Burma border where half the houses are Indian and the other half, Burmese. The village chief’s house is particularly delightful, given that the international border runs right down the middle.
2. The Mask Dances of Hemis
Where: Hemis, Ladakh
When: June – July
Sandwiched between gigantic cliffs skirting the edge of Hemis National Park in Ladakh, the 17th century Hemis monastery, is at once magical and imposing beneath the jagged peaks. Each year the charm grows manifold when it plays host to one of the biggest and most popular festivals of Ladakh – the Hemis Festival. Celebrated in honor of Guru Rinpoche Padmasambhava (one of the founders of Tibetan Buddhism), the traditional music and the mask dances, or Chams, performed in the monastery courtyard are a spectacle. Complete with sound and visual effects, from the large drums and the long copper trumpets. Do keep in mind that the festival is naturally very popular, so be prepared to be pushed and shoved.
While you are there: Also make time for spotting the ancient rock paintings, petroglyphs created 2000 to 4000 years ago in the nearby Dah Hanu and Batalik region. Few paintings are carefully preserved in the Domkhar Rock Art Sanctuary even as many are vandalized due to ignorance.
If you’re there for a week or more, you can hike on the popular Markha Valley and camp at friendly villages in homestays along the trail.
3. Teej – The Monsoon Festival
Where: Jaipur, Rajasthan
While Pushkar’s Camel Fair might well be the first that pops into your head when you hear “festival” and “Rajasthan”, this land of palaces has more treats up its sleeve. Recently, the state tourism department joined hands with the Maharaja of Jaipur to promote one of the more fun festivals of Rajasthan – Teej. Celebrated by women seeking wellness and longevity for their husbands (and a blissful married life), the festivities are marked by colorful “Lehariya” sarees, swinging on giant jhoolas and gorging on Ghevar. The best part of the celebrations, however, is the Teej Mata (an incarnation of Parvati) procession through the streets of Jaipur where dancers, performers and music bands put on quite a show.
While you are there: Rajasthan in the monsoon is spectacular. Make the most of it by visiting the hinterlands of Jaisalmer where you can experience the unusual vista of expansive desertland drenched in fresh downpour under a stormy sky.
4. Nehru Boat Race
Where: Allapuzha, Kerala
One of the most popular boat races in Kerala, Nehru Boat Race, on the serene waters of Punnamada Lake, draws huge crowds from across the country. Witness hundreds of men working in clockwork-like unison to paddle 100-feet long canoes – Chundan Vallam (most of us know them as snake boats) – along a 1.4 kilometer long course. Several Vallam Kali (boat games) events happen across the state during autumn as part of the harvest festival. The Nehru Boat Race has carved a space for itself since its inception in 1952 when it started as a welcoming event for Nehru, the then Prime Minister of India, and later morphed into a race.
While you are there: Steal a quick trip to the palm fringed backwaters of Kuttanad that’s not only famous for its verdant rice fields but also for being 2.2 meters below sea level, a geological peculiarity.
5. Ziro Music Festival
Where: Ziro, Arunachal
If the lush rice paddies of Ziro or the extremely affable folks of Apatani tribe aren’t reason enough for you to visit this cluster of villages in the heart of Arunachal Pradesh, this eclectic music festival might just persuade you to pack your bags right away. Featuring a generous mix of music talent from northeast and the rest of the country, this 4-day music festival in the open grounds of the stunning Ziro valley is a treat for both the ears, and eyes.
While you are there: Experience the lovely hospitality of Apatanis by foraging in the forest for ferns with them, chugging down copious amounts of apong (rice beer) in bamboo glasses and making merry in general, around the kitchen hearth that’s the center of all socializing in Ziro.
6. Kumaon Literature Festival
Where: Kumaon, Uttarakhand
The hills of Kumaon play host to a brand new lit fest that aims to fill the gaps its more popular siblings have created. While the Jaipur edition and Mumbai litfest (Tata Literature Live!) has got fiction and non-fiction covered, there lacks a platform for children’s books. Enter Kumaon. The festival includes young-adult publishing, as well as children’s fiction while providing a platform for aspiring writers to engage with the larger publishing community. KLF also takes diversity very seriously and sees a strong regional language presence, ensuring that distinct voices are heard (and read). In short, KLF promises not to be a daunting lit fest, here community and vision trumps individual personas.
While you are there: Mosey on down to Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary, which is home to many elusive birds such as Khaleej Pheasant and Himalayan Monal. Your main reason to head that side would be to take in the stunning panoramic views of the Himalayas.
7. Comic Con, Delhi
A far cry from its very humble beginnings in 2011, the desi edition of the world famous Comic Con is a raging success today with multiple events spreading across various cities in India. With the global rise of superhero stories generously aided by mind-bending VFX and the ease of access of high quality games/shows, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that more people than ever are interested in channeling their inner character obsessions. What better place to indulge in your fantasy than at Comic Con, the event that made cosplay cool for everyone?
If you can’t make it to Delhi, you can choose to attend the event at Mumbai, Pune, Hyderabad or Bangalore.
While you are there: Go on a treasure hunt in the by lanes of Delhi to uncover many of the spectacular step wells hidden in plain sight in the national capital.
8. Nagaur Cattle Festival
Where: Nagaur, Rajasthan
There’s a running joke that there are more photographers in Pushkar than there are camels. So do yourself a favour, skip the crowds and make a beeline for the Nagaur Cattle Festival. It’s the second largest cattle fair in the country, and has an unbeatable authenticity to the whole thing. Here, time stands still; giving you an intimate glimpse into the long-standing agrarian tradition of cattle trading where warm smiles outnumber demands of money.
While you are there: Visit the cluster of Rampuria Havelis of Bikaner, and the Karni Mata temple. Be warned, the latter is home to thousands of rats. While it’s not known how or why the rat worship started, the locals revere them highly.
9. Losar in Ladakh
Where: Ladakh, Jammu & Kashmir
In the stark winters of Ladakh when an eerie silence falls upon the roof of the world, the Cham songs and dances of Losar add a new spunk of colour to the barren landscape. Witnessing the mask dances in the backdrop of snow-covered mountains in bone-chilling cold might not be everyone’s cup of tea but the Tibetan new year celebrations in Ladakh’s gompas (monasteries) offer the intrepid explorers a rare glimpse into the ancient rituals and traditions unfettered by the ills of mass commercialization.
While you are there: Try walking on the famous Chadar that will soon become stuff of past either due to climate change or completion of the road to Zanskar.
10. BANFF Mountain Festival
For years, incurable outdoor enthusiasts in India could only dream of attending the legendary Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival that happens in the breathtaking (eponymous) mountain town of Banff in Alberta, Canada. But The Himalayan Club has now brought the next best thing to India – a screening of the award winning films across several cities in India as part of the Banff world tour. Documentaries and outdoor films by Indian explorers are screened along with inspiring sessions with homegrown outdoorsmen and women.
While you are there: Plan a quick hike to the literal jewel of Sahyadris – Ratangad – that offers panoramic views of the deep valleys and iconic cliffs unique to the region, keeping in line with the outdoorsy spirit of the event.
Neelima Vallangi is freelance travel writer and photographer specialising in offbeat and adventure travel features.