One Essential Ingredient for an Incredible India Journey
Whether someone is helping you plan your trip, you are in search of a group offering that feels like a good fit for you, or you are putting it all together yourself, there is ONE ESSENTIAL INGREDIENT that you should have on your itinerary for an incredible India journey. If you want to ensure an authentic and extraordinary experience, here is one of Inspired Exploration’s secret weapons to make it crazy, real and phenomenal.
Plan to be in India during one of her many festivals or holidays.
The big ones such as Diwali, Holi, the Pushkar Camel Fair that get a lot of well-deserved attention. There are many other opportunities though. It is said that Hindus have a holiday for every day of the year. Some say that is quite an understatement! Either way, whether it’s to celebrate the change of seasons, the harvest, fertility, brothers and sisters, or to honor a particular deity or an event from Hindu mythology, it is fairly easy to find a festival celebration to include on your incredible India itinerary.
Indian festivals create a heightened sense of excitement, devotion, unity and a spark that takes on a cultural life of its own. It gives you, the traveler, a chance to learn more about the culture and religion, and what’s even better — to participate in it!
There is a string of holidays that take place in the month or so before Diwali, for example. When we got off of our plane from Delhi arriving in Dharamsala, our esteemed bus driver, V.K. had a surprise for us. We hopped on our mini-bus and V.K. handed out prasad (holy food/food blessed by a priest) to each of us, in little serving cups. Culturally, the prasad was to honor the holiday of Navratri, a festival of nine (nau) nights to celebrate the nine different manifestations of the Goddess Durga. Using my fingers to scoop out the sweet, hot cereal-like food and bringing it to my tongue, I remember the sheer delight I felt in this thoughtful, cultural gift. The sweet goodness was yummy to my taste buds and even more lovely was the warm, warm welcome that made me immediately feel a part of the local culture.
Burnin Down the House
Another holiday, Dussehra is a festival that takes place on the tenth day (das), after the final day of Navratri. An evening or so after arriving in Dharmsala, V.K. and our beloved friend Ashish took us to the fair grounds in McLeod Ganj where the Dussehra festival celebrations were just beginning.
Taking in the scene from a top a large berm as we approached the fair, people were gathering around cotton candy stalls, balloons, a kid’s jump house and a center stage with dancers and musicians performing a mix of traditional and bollywood dance, as the music boomed from the speakers. Friendly Indian families milled about. Excitement and anticipation lingered in the air.
Dussehra is an important celebration of the defeat of the demon Ravana by Lord Ram and his monkey army, enabling Lord Ram to reclaim his kingdom. Similar to Diwali and so many other Indian festivals, Dussehra is a festival honoring the triumph of good over evil. All of the excitement built up to this: three giant effigies at the focal point of the fairgrounds, representing the demon Ravana and his two brothers, were lit up in blazing flames and burnt to the ground, one-by-one. The crowd cheered like crazy as each of the ‘demons’ burned down to ashes and the cheering did not cease during the 45 minutes of ‘crackers’ (firecrackers) that followed.
To top this off, with the amped up energy and excitement, I expected that by the end of the night the crowd could get rowdy. I was totally wrong. This crowd remained incredibly friendly and fun. As an example, with throngs of people making their way towards the exit after the crackers, our group held hands making a human chain and made our way through the crowd, who for the most part, saw that we needed to stick together. They smiled (or laughed at us) and allowed us to pass through the fairgrounds and through the streets, all ten of us in tact. (Someone shouted out to our linked chain weaving through the crowd, “It makes a new meaning for group travel!!”)
Navratri, Dussehra, Diwali, Durga Puja, Kali Puja…
There is nothing that can explain how much I cherish my memory of feeling like a ‘local’, laughing, cheering, taking selfies beside the residents of Mcleod Ganj, in a celebratory festival. And I have similarly cherished memories from celebrating Diwali over chai, sweets and more ‘crackers’ in a family’s personal home in Kolkata; and walking wide-eyed from crazy decorated pandal to pandal (a temporary shrine set up to venerate a god or goddess) for Durga Puja and Kali Puja; or sitting mesmerized by the drumming and chanting during one of these holy festivals.
If I haven’t made it clear yet, coordinating your trip to incredible India during a festival time is well worth the planning! You will be rewarded tenfold with delight and wonderment, feeling like you have just been dropped inside another universe and lovingly welcomed-in.
Even if your trip to India is already booked and you are committed to a certain timeframe, check to see when and where the local festivals are. Tell your guide you are interested in getting a real, insider experience. In India, I have found that most often, all you have to do is ask and you will receive.
One other thing to keep in mind: different regions of India often celebrate different festivals with varying fervor, especially the ceremonies that are dedicated to local gods and goddesses. So dig a little deeper into the area you want to visit to see what regional festivals might be going on. Find that essential ingredient for your itinerary and seal the deal on your incredible India trip.