India is the land of diversity. There is a variety in just about everything in this country – the food, the clothes, the landscapes, the languages, the traditions and customs, everything. India is also the land of festivals, and almost every day is some or the other festival in India. But not all festivals are the usual forms of celebration and spreading the joy. Some of them are really quirky and very usual, there being a slim chance you would find anything similar anywhere else in the world.
So, here’s a list of some really unusual festivals celebrated in India that you must visit once in your lifetime and see for yourself the diversity and beauty that is India.
1. Onam Celebration – Pulikkali
Onam is a festival celebrated every year, by the people of Kerala (a state in India). At Swaraj Round in Thrissur in Kerala, every year during Onam, the tigers come to town! Pulikalli is a traditional art form of Kerala that originated in the late 18th century. In this art form, people dress up as tigers. Pulikalli means ‘tiger play’ or ‘tiger dance’, which is exactly what the performers of this art form do. The best performer amongst all is selected then. Dressing up for performing the Polikalli is a long and tedious process. The body is completely shaved, then the first coat of paint is applied. once it dries up in a couple of hours, the second coat of paint is applied. Dancing as a tiger is no easy feat either. This celebration is an interesting part of the Onam festival. Onam festival also has a lot of other festivities like the famed snake boat race, the Onam Sadhya and so much more! The festival falls mostly during August-September.
2. Kila Raipur Rural Olympics
As the name suggests, this is a rural sports event held in Kila Raipur, to the south of the city of Ludhiana in Punjab (a state in Gujarat). The festival has grown manifold over the past six decades and today attracts competitors from all over the world. The festival sees participation from over 4000 men and women, and involve more than 1 million spectators. Animals such as bullocks, camels, dogs, mules and others participate in this event and it is a sight to behold. There are dog races, horse dances, camel races, tractor races and even tug of wars. You will be able to catch unimaginable feats here like people lifting bicycles with their teeth, pulling cars and trucks with their teeth or their ears, people riding bicycles with burning tyres and so many other stunts. At the end of each day, a culture feast is held that involves top notch folks singers, bhangra performances, Gidha players, etc. The three day festivities continue well past midnight and take place in early February each year. The place – Kila Raipur has good connectivity to Ludhiana.
3. Karni Mata Festival:
The Karni Mata temple is a 300 year old temple near Bikaner in Rajasthan. The temple is home to thousands of rats. Here, rats are considered to be sacred, and are offered food and protection. This temple is dedicated to an ancient mystic and it is believed that they are the reincarnation of the Goddess Durga. It is a belief that Karni Mata’s soul resides in these rats. Twice a year during the festival of Navratri (once in March/April and once in September/October), pilgrims from everywhere flock to this temple, offer food to the rats. It is believed to be very auspicious to something that the rats have salivated over. If the rats scamper over your feet, it is considered to bring a lot of good luck. And if you spot a white rat, there is a lot of fortune coming your way. Bikaner is well connected to other cities around.
4. Nag Panchami
Nag Panchami is a festival devoted to snakes. snakes are dug out of the ground and worshipped during the festival. On the day of Nag Panchami snake charmers put the snakes out on display for people to worship. The people dance to the music and carry the snakes in pots on their heads in a procession to the temple. One the rituals of celebration are complete, the snakes are taken out from the pots and the temple priest sprinkles haldi kumkum (turmeric and vermilion) and flowers on their heads. The snakes are also fed milk as the ultimate sign of good luck. The festival has become controversial and has attracted the attention of animal rights’ activists who say that the snakes treated poorly and often die afterwards. giving milk to snakes is particularly dangerous as it is not their natural diet and are unable to digest it. The festival takes place on the fifth day of the bright half of the Hindu month of Shravan.
5. Kodungallur Bharani
This festival sees thousands of sword wielding oracles, both male and female, clad in red, flock to the Kodungallur Bhagavathy temple in Kerala’s Thrissur district. the oracles run around in a trance and flagellate themselves on their foreheads to draw blood. Devotees strike the temple rafters with sticks, hurl offerings, yell lewdly and sign sexually explicit songs. This temple is dedicated to Goddess Bhadrakali, a form of Goddess Kali. It is believed that the Goddess was angry and thirsty for blood after her victorious battle against the demon Darika, and her soldiers sung to her to make her feel better. The rather intense and gruesome festival event, called kaavu theendal, is a reenactment of it. The sticks are said to resemble the swords used in battle. Afterwards, the temple remains closed for a week for purification. The festival takes place during the Malayalam month of Meenam (March/April) every year. The temple is an hour away from Kochin.
6. Bhandara Festival
It is easy to mistake the Bhandara festival for Holi. However, the yellow glaze of the air is actually turmeric. Thousands of devotees cover the temple premises in turmeric as an offering to the god, Lord Khandoba. At noon, his idol is taken out in procession with his wife Malsha to have a bath in the nearby river. This holy bath is carried out to recreate their marriage, and many believe that the turmeric ritual comes from the Hindu tradition of applying turmeric powder to the bride and groom before the wedding. Devotees sing and dance. The celebrations are not all lighthearted though. Some pilgrims undertake violent devotion (ugra bhakti) to get their wishes fulfilled, inflicting all kinds of pain on themselves such as whipping themselves in public and piercing their flesh. The festival takes place on the occasion of Somvati Amavasya – a new moon night that falls on a Monday, and it happens two-three times a year. This temple is close to Pune in Maharashtra.
7. Jaisalmer Desert Festival
The exuberant Jaisalmer desert festival is a wonderful opportunity to experience the sandstone city of Jaisalmer and surroundings at their magical best. You can enjoy a host of weird and wacky activities such as a parade of camels and fancily dressed locals, camel races and polo matches, turban tying competitions, and competition for the finest facial hair. The festival kicks off with a morning procession, exhibiting the life and culture of the desert, from Sonar Fort to the Shahid Poonam Singh Stadium. Competitions, including Mr. Desert and the longest moustache, are held next followed by music and dance performances. The fun continues on the second day, with a host of bizarre camel related activities at Dedansar Stadium. Camel decorating, camel fur cutting, and camel polo will keep you amused for hours! In the afternoon, the activities again return to Shahid Poonam Singh Stadium where the Border Security Force Camel Tattoo takes place. Marvel over gymnastics on camel back, and camel band with formation dancing. On the third day, the festival culminates with a gala Rajasthani folk concert under the stars in the Sam sand dunes. Also catch a cricket match, camel race, parachuting, and Air Force display in the dunes. The festival takes place in late January or early February. Jaisalmer is easily accessible by road and rail.
This Hindu festival is celebrated by the Tamil community, and is dedicated to Lord Murugan, the son of Lord Shiva and Parvati. It commemorates the day that Goddess Parvati gave him a lance to slay an evil demon army. During the festival, devotees pray to Lord Murugan and show their endurance in order to receive his grace to overcome obstacles. Some fanatical devotees go to extreme lengths to please the Lord and try to get rid of their sins. They pierce various parts of their bodies with hooks, skewers, and small lances. Apparently, the devotees enter into a trance state and don’t feel pain or bleed from their wounds. It’s horrifying yet fascinating! One of the biggest Thaipusam celebrations takes place over 10 days at Sri Dandayudhapani Temple in Palani, near Madurai in Tamil Nadu. The temple is regarded as one of the six abodes of Lord Murugan. Devotees walk long distances to attend, many carrying a kavadi (an offering that can take various forms such as a pot of milk or a decorative altar on a frame). It’s believed that those who do so will have their life burdens lessened by Lord Murugan. The festival takes place on the full moon day in the Tamil month of Thai (January or February) each year. Palani is close to Madurai.
9. Angalamman Festival
Every year, the small town of Kaveripattinam in Tamil Nadu is flooded with tens of thousands of devotees who come to worship the Goddess Angalamman, who is considered to be a reincarnation of Goddess Pavarti (the wife of Lord Shiva). The goddess is an extremely fierce guardian, to be appeased with blood. Devotees, including children, paint their faces and dress themselves to resemble her before going to the temple to pray. This festival also attracts some devotees who oddly pierce lemons all over their torsos. The festival takes place on the day after Shivratri every year in February/March. Kaveripattinam is in Tamil Nadu and is close to Bengaluru in Karnataka.
10. Hemis Festival
The two day Hemis Festival commemorates the birth of Guru Padmasambhava, who founded Tantric Buddhism in Tibet. It’s held at the 300-year-old Buddhist monastery of Hemis Jangchub Choling, near Leh. This monastery is the biggest and richest Buddhist monastery in the Ladakh region. The highlight of the Hemis Festival is the Masked Dance, performed by the lamas, that illustrates good prevailing over evil. The performers wear elaborate and bizarre costumes and brightly painted masks. These masks are the most vital part of the dance. The dance movements are slow, and the expressions grotesque. The music is characteristically punctuated with sounds of cymbals, drums, and unwieldy trumpets. Each colorful mask depicts a different figure in the legend that’s being portrayed. The Padmasambhava dance, which shows the conquest of the ruta demons, includes Yama — the God of death, and the black-hatted sorcerer, Guru Trakpo — the vanquisher of all demons. The festival takes place in June or July every year. Leh can be reached easily by road or by air.