India's 9 Coolest Cultural Festivals

By: Susie Stauffer

India is renowned throughout the world as a country with abounding traditional and cultural festivals because of the many different religions and cultures it has. It doesn’t matter which month of the year it is, it isn’t difficult to find at least a few exciting festivals to attend within almost any vicinity–that’s the beauty of India. India’s people love to celebrate, to honor, to dance, to sing, to perform, to challenge–you’ll find almost every form of the arts in many festivals across the country. With thousands of customs and traditions, there’s never a lack of excitement, awe, passion, and intrigue in each unique Indian cultural festival.


9. Ladakh Festival

Each year from September 20th-September 26th, the Ladakh Festival kicks off in the Himalayas coldest reaches, a secluded destination that comes alive come the summer months with a colorful burst of life lasting through the short warm period. As a goodbye to summer, the festival highlights regional culture and sports in a week long dynamic event of archery and polo, sports, handicrafts, and ritual dancing. The destination itself is stunning and worth a visit, especially this time of year. The exhibitions of thanga, a rare type of embroidery painting done on silk, are an exceptional sight. There are also organized treks and white water expeditions to be enjoyed.

Ladakh Festival

8. Kala Ghoda Arts Festival

The nine-day-long Kala Ghoda Arts Festival begins annually on the first Saturday of February and traditionally comes to an end on the final Sunday of the same month in Mumbai’s Kala Ghoda region. Inaugurated in 1999, the festival has seen massive growth over the years in both popularity and stature, attracting people from all over the country and the world. The non-profit team organizing the festival aims to bring awareness to the arts in this particular area and make Mumbai an official art district. A wealth of literary workshop, cultural performances, special theater events, and rows upon rows of food stalls are the focal point. Heritage walks, film screenings, and kid’s events are also at the forefront of this lively and exciting festival.

Photo by: 19idealogues
Photo by: 19idealogues

7. Prithvi Theatre Festival

In Mumbai’s Maharashtra district, Prithvi Theatre Festival is a huge event, one that begins in the first week of November. Started by one of Bollywood’s most popular actors, Prithviraj Kapoor, this event honors the finest of performing arts and promotes and nurtures the most impressive talent going. In the past, one of the most unique aspects of the festival is the Fringe Theater, where experimental performances are performed in front of smaller audiences. There are acoustic jam sessions, and a program called Stage Talk, where actors reminisce about some of their most interesting experiences. If you’re a stage show buff or just enjoy the odd theater piece, this festival is well worth attending, even if just for one show.

Photo by: My Theatre Cafe
Photo by: My Theatre Cafe

6. Hornbill Festival

The Hornbill Festival in Nagaland is a premier cultural festival which was started by the Indian government to encourage and promote interaction between separate tribes and to boost the state’s cultural heritage. The cultural displays at this festival are wondrous and a solid introduction to India’s many unique traditions. Nagaland, situated in India’s northeast region, borders Burma, Asam, Arunchal Pradesh and Manipur, and boasts lush hills and mountains, small traditional villages, and scenic rice terraces within one of India’s smallest states. There are 16 major tribes in Nagaland, all of whom take part in the Hornbill Festival in Naga Heritage Village, less than 10 kilometers from the capital of Kohima. Major food events, ceremonies, crafts markets, and dynamic performances are part of the celebration. On display are some incredible local arts including wood carvings, painting, and sculptures. Herbal medicine stalls are a big favorite as is the Naga wrestling and music concerts.

Hornbill Festival


5. Khajuraho Dance Festival

The Khajuraho Dance Festival is Indian dance at its finest, coming back to its birthplace inside the 1,000 year-old Khajurho temples which are an exceptional backdrop to the ancient art form. Khajuraho Dance Festival is a week-long festival that happens annually in the first week of February in the Madhya Pradesh district of Chhatarpur in India’s central region. Once the sun sets, spectators really get a show as when the temples are illuminated in golden light, the perfect backdrop for a journey from past to present. The sounds of the tanpura and flute set the mood while the tabla beat and the mridangam (a double-headed, barrel shaped Indian drum) carry out the rhythms echoed by a string of bells called the ghungroo often strapped to the dancer and carrying out the beats of the movements. This festival, in one of India’s most famous temple towns, is a highlight for any performance art enthusiast.

Khajuraho Dance Festival

4. Onam

Onam is one of the most significant festivals in the state of Kerala, in southern India. This distinguished Hindu festival is a harvest celebration revered by people from all across the state to cherish King Mahabali–it is said his spirit visit’s Kerala during Onam. Onam starts at the onset of the month of Chingam, the Malayalam calendar’s first month and lasts anywhere from four days to ten days with the first day and the last day being most prominent. Prior to any festival celebrations, around ten days before Onam officially kicks off, locals prepare floral arrangements and set them outside their front doors on the ground, like an offering. During the festival, the shining star is an event called Puli Kali, which is a unique and electrifying type of dance, drama, folk art, and music. There are also snake boat races, elephant processions, exquisite dances, lively games, and extravagant feats.

Onam flowers india

3. Nehru Trophy Boat Race

In beautiful Kerala, on the Malabar Coast in southern India, the Nehru Trophy Boat Race proceeds along the languid backwaters of the Alleppey, a regatta held on the second Saturday each August since 1952. The power coming from the rowers in this championship race is palpable–you’ve not seen or heard such enthusiasm since the World Cup. The best way to catch the race is to head there as early as you can manage and grab a spot along Punnamada riverbanks where you can watch the lengthy “snake” boats, called Chundan Vallam, each holding four rowers at the helm and more than 100 at the main oars. Though the Chundan Vallam races are the most exciting and popular, there are several different racing categories featuring different boats. You can buy VIP passes to Nehru Trophy Boat Race for under $30 USD or go with the basic standing room along the bamboo terraces for less than $2 USD.

Nehru Trophy Boat Race

2. Jaisalmer Desert Festival

Rajasthan’s Jaisalmer Desert Festival is another celebration held in mid-February, which almost seems to be festival month in India. This is the ultimate in India’s exotic festivals, and one that features an incredible and completely unforgettable fiesta. For three long and tireless days, locals play mesmerizing music, dance without end, host fascinating competitions–think turban-tying, a pageant for “Best Desert Man,” and best mustache along with fantastic handicraft bazaars. This is, hands-down, the essential festival for all things Rajasthani and one of the most popular festivals attended by tourists, both foreign and Indian. Besides the cultural performances, food, and music, there is camel polo, camel rides, and a tug-of-war with (you guessed it) camels! This all happens with an ideal backdrop: the Jaisalmer fort, with fireworks lighting up the sky at night to end the perfectly festive days.

Jaisalmer Desert Festival

1. Goa Carnival

Goa’s biggest and best street carnival is one you won’t want to miss if traveling into the region in the first week of March. In fact, it’s a festival worth traveling for if at all possible. The Goa Carnival is a kaleidoscopic show of bright, dazzling floats adorned with dancers and performers dressed in a rainbow of colorful costumes–the air is filled with spirit, celebration, and endless music. This carnival is a legacy, one that follows Christian traditions heralded into Goa by the Portuguese in 1510. Each year, the carnival begins on the Saturday prior to Ash Wednesday and continues for four straight days. This fete combines the celebration of diverse beliefs, cultures, and religions with street shows happening alongside religious ceremonies. The vivid and energetic parades take place in four cities: Vasco, Margao, Mapusa and the capital of Panaji.

Photo by: Youtube/JoeGoaUk
Photo by: Youtube/JoeGoaUk