I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to several festivals spread across India over the last few years, from annual tribal congregations in Nagaland to the hustling boat races of Kerala. I can say with reasonable surety that the one thing that synthesizes the ‘Indian experience’ is our love for celebration. The dramatic colours, dance and music make for a riveting trip, so even if the harsh summer is here, don’t let that be a deterrent to your travelling spirits. Here are some of the festivals in May and June that will have you tapping to the local music in no time.
Urs, 1 or 2 May: Sway to the quawwalis at Ajmer Sharif Dargah during the Urs festival. This commemorates the death anniversary of the Sufi saint, Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti. Even though it is a sombre congregation, the splendor of spiritual ardor, makes the festival, unavoidable.
The Dharamsala Film Festival, 13–15 May: If you are looking for a reason to escape to the hills, there can be nothing better than the Dharamsala Film Festival, which is held in Upper Dharamsala in Kangra, Himachal Pradesh. This will be the third edition of the festival, which celebrates consciousness and creativity through alternative cinema, giving a chance to young and upcoming filmmakers to show their work. The festival features films from across the world.
Moatsu Festival, 1–3 May: Yet another interesting festival held in the mountains is Moatsu, celebrated by the Ao tribe at Mopungchuket village in Nagaland. This is a harvest festival. Large bonfires, the entire community in their traditional finery, songs, dances and feasts are the order for three days. This is the time for the farmers to relax after an arduous season of sowing, ploughing, irrigating and finally harvesting their fields.
Thrissur Pooram, 9 May: One of the most important festivals of Kerala, it’s easy to get swept away by the sea of crowd that gathers to see caparisoned elephants participate every May. The most spectacular visual is that of the fireworks that start late in the night and go on till the wee hours of the morning. You’ll notice that the beats are slightly different and much louder, just a week later in Thrissur Pooram. During this time Thrissur Vadakkunnathan Temple becomes the hallowed ground for competing processions from the Thiruvambadi and Paramekkavu temples on either side.
Buddha Purnima, 14 May: The satellite town of Varanasi, Sarnath, comes alive on this day, as the entire city celebrates the birth anniversary of Gautam Buddha. The festival is celebrated with fervour in all Buddhist strongholds of the country like Sarnath and Gaya. Even though this is peak summer for the region, the cool and shady Mulagandhakuti Vihara temple in Sarnath is bustling with activity. Book your stay ahead as the festival draws thousands from different parts of the world.
Chithirai Festival, 1–14 May: During the first half of May people enjoy the grand wedding of Lord Shiva and Meenakshi in Madurai’s Meenakshi Temple, during the Chithirai festival. Legend goes that even Lord Vishnu himself came on a golden horse to attend this. The 3500-year-old temple is the heart of spiritual fervour during this period – chariot processions, devotional songs and numerous pujas continue throughout the fortnight.
Ganga Dusshera, 8 June: Varanasi can easily be given the moniker of ‘the festival capital of India’. Ganga Dusshera too, is celebrated with great enthusiasm in the city. This is the day when Goddess Ganga, in the form of a river, descended on earth. Find the ghats lit up and the temples even busier than usual, as thousands from across the country descend here to bathe in the holy river.
Ochira Kali, 15–16 June: This unique festival is celebrated at Ochchira off Quilon, in Kerala. The festival commemorates a bloody fight between the kings of Quilon and a nearby place, Kayamkulam. Mock battles between two groups, representing the ancient adversaries, takes place in knee-deep water. The fight is conducted from 8 to 11am on the first day and between noon and 3pm on the second day and only the Nair community is allowed to get on the battlefield. The festival is a great photographic opportunity to cover one of the most traditional and authentic local festivals of Kerala.