From Kullu Dusshera in Himachal to Bhoota Kola in Karnataka — these are some of India’s best cultural experiences and festivals that should be on your travel bucket list.
Being widely diverse in its cultural heritage, India is known for offering a variety of traditional experiences across its dimensions. From Kashmir to Kanyakumari and from Gujarat to Assam, the length and breadth of the country is steeped in rich customs.
Therefore, we have made a list of some of the best and extraordinary cultural experiences from across India that should definitely be on your bucket list.
1. Kullu Dussehra at Kullu, Himachal Pradesh
The Kullu Dussehra, celebrated in the Kullu Valley, is one of the most popular events of Himachal Pradesh. The annual week-long festival observed in the month of October attracts thousands of visitors from across the world.
This grand Dussehra celebration that takes place at the Dhalpur Maidan at Kullu signifies the triumph of good over evil. The folk flavour of the festivity, rituals and traditions make it stand out from the Dussehra celebrations that happen in the other parts of the country.
The festivities in the backdrop of beautiful landscape and breathtaking views from the valley adds to the beauty of the celebrations. With music, dance and huge feasts the festival symbolises happiness and joy.
The history of the festival dates back to the 17th century when the ruler of Kullu, King Jagat Singh installed an idol of Lord Raghunath from Ayodhya in order to eradicate a curse. With his prayer and devotion, the curse was lifted. That’s when he started this unique Dussehra festival which is celebrated for seven days after Vijaya Dashami.
Location: Dhalpur Maidan at Kullu, Himachal Pradesh
Dates: 5 October to 11 October 2022
2. Bhootha Kola at Tulu Nadu, Karnataka
Celebrated commonly in the coastal regions of Karnataka, Bhootha Kola or Bhootha Aradhane is a spirit worship ritual. ‘Bhootha’ means ‘spirit’ and ‘Kola’ means ‘play’ in Tulu. This ritual is performed in honour of the deities worshiped by the Tulu speaking community in rural parts of Dakshina Kannada and Udupi districts.
During the ritual, idols representing the spirits are taken out for a procession with drum beats and firecrackers. The Kola is then performed by professionals with an elaborate costume accompanied with music and recitals in Tulu speaking about the origin of the spirit. These recitals are known as paddanas.
The spirits are said to possess the performer, who carries a sword and jingling bells, thus making him dance fiercely and to perform the pooja rituals.
Location: Different parts of Dakshina Kannada and Udupi districts.
Dates: Performed during the months of December to May.
3. Ganga Aarti at Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh
A mesmerising ritual performed on the banks of the holy Ganges, the Ganga Aarti takes place at the ghats of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh every evening. Performed by a group of priests on the ghat, the ritual is a visual treat involving huge brass lamps lit with oil accompanied by the chanting of holy mantras and the blowing of the conch shell.
The priests wearing kurta and dhoti perform the aarti with the multi-tiered brass lamps for about 45 minutes. Devotees float small diyas on leaf platters in the holy waters of Ganga.
The aarti can be witnessed either from the ghat stairs or on the boats at the banks.
Location: Dashashwamedh ghat, Varanasi
Time: Performed every day post-sunset ( 6:00 pm – 7:00 pm )
4. Hornbill Festival at Kisama Village, Nagaland
The Hornbill festival held in the first week of December every year showcases the rich and diverse culture and traditional arts of the indigenous tribes of Nagaland. The festival that revolves around agriculture promotes their unique heritage and customs of the state.
Organised by the Government of Nagaland, the Hornbill Festival is held at Kisama village which is about 12km from Kohima. With participation from all the tribal communities of Nagaland, the festival is a true celebration of their traditions involving music, dance and art forms.
Location: Naga Heritage Village, Kisama in Kohima
Dates: 1 December to 10 December
5. Losar at Lamayuru, Ladakh
One of the most important festivals in Ladakh, the Losar festival is celebrated annually from the first day of the first month in the Tibetan Lunar calendar. This religious festival extends to 15 days of celebrations marked with ceremonies that represent the conflict between good and evil.
In the Tibetan language, the term Losar means New Year. The festival involves elaborate events like traditional folk dance, music performances, feast and gathering of hundreds of people at sacred places.
During the festival, people clean their houses, prepare traditional cuisines and wear traditional and colourful attires. They also make offerings to the Buddhist gods at home. This vibrant festival can be witnessed in several monasteries across Ladakh.
Dates: 21 February 2023
6. Chhau in Purulia, West Bengal
Chhau dance is one of the popular tribal dances in India that originated in the Purulia district of West Bengal. The word Chhau in Sanskrit means mask, shadow or image and is known as Seraikella Chau in Jharkhand, Mayurbhanj Chau in Orissa and Purulia Chhau in West Bengal.
The dance form, believed to have been inspired from martial arts, presents stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata in elaborate costumes involving masks and headgear indicating battle and war.
The Purulia Chhau is mostly performed in the countryside, especially during religious ceremonies where dancers perform on the ground with the audience seated in circular shape around them. The performance is usually accompanied by instruments like Dhol, Shehnai and Dhamsa.
Location: Performed at different locations and time.
7. Kalbelia dance at Jaisalmer, Rajasthan
The Kalbelia dance is a traditional dance form performed by a Rajasthani tribal community called Kalbelia, a community of snake charmers. Also known as ‘Sapera Dance’ or ‘Snake Charmer Dance’, the dance is a visual treat with graceful swirling and movements involved.
Performed by women wearing black skirts and gleaming jewelry, they try to replicate the movements of serpents to the musical beats played by the men. As the dance progresses, the tempo of the dance increases along with the dance steps.
Location: Performed at different locations and time.
8. Theyyam at Kanathoor, Kerala
The Kanathoor Nalvar Bhoothasthanam is a prominent Theyyam festival observed at the Kanathoor village in Kasaragod every year. Theyyam is a ritualistic art form originated in Northern Kerala that involves dance and mime along with music. The art form attributes great importance to the worship of heroes and ancestral spirits and are mostly performed in temples.
The Kanathoor Theyyam festival held in December for five days presents an array of Theyyams, including Chamundi theyyams and Vishnumoorthy theyyams. The performers wear colourful and heavy make up and wear flamboyant costumes along with a huge headgear and ornaments.
Location: Kanathoor, Kasaragod
Date: 28 December to 1 January 2023
Kullu Dussehra: Significance Of Dussehra In Himachal’s Kullu Valley, by Debjani Chatterjee; published by NDTV on 26 December 2020.
Bhoota Kola – Bhootha Aradhane
A visual treat – Ganga aarti of Varanasi
All you need to know about Losar Festival in India, by Tina Choudhury; published by EastMojo on 2 March 2022.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)