India is blessed with a huge number of festivals, and several are so spectacular that you would be a fool to miss them if you were remotely within spitting distance. They start with the secular Republic Day Festival in Delhi each January, which includes elephants, a procession, and plenty of military might and Indian princely splendour. Holi in February is one of the most exuberant Hindu festivals in the north of India. It marks the end of winter and basically involves throwing coloured water and red powder over as many people as you can in one day.

The 10-day Shi'ite Muharram festival commemorates the martyrdom of Mohammed's grandson. It's marked by a grand parade and dedicated penitents scourge themselves with whips in religious fervour. It's best seen in Lucknow, the principal Indian Shi'ite city and takes place in April/May for the next couple of years. The massive Kumbh Mela festival commemorates an ancient battle between gods and demons for a pitcher (kumbh). During the fight for possession, four drops of nectar fell from the pitcher and landed in Allahabad, Haridwar, Nasik and Ujjain. The mela is held every three years rotating through these four cities. The next festival takes place in Haridwar from 1 February to 11 May, 1998.

Don't mistake the great car festival Rath Yatra for a rally race. This spectacle in Puri in June/July involves the gigantic temple car of Lord Jagannath making its annual journey, pulled by thousands of eager devotees. One of the big events of the year in Kerala is the Nehru Cup Snake Boat Races on the backwaters at Alappuzha (Alleppey), which take place on the second Saturday of August.

The festival of Ganesh Chaturthi in August/September is dedicated to the popular elephant-headed god Ganesh. It's celebrated widely, but with particular enthusiasm in Maharashtra. Shrines are erected, firecrackers let off, clay idols are immersed in rivers or the sea, and everyone tries to avoid looking at the moon. September/October is the time to head for the hills to see the delightful Festival of the Gods in Kullu. This is part of the Dussehra Festival, which is at its most spectacular in Mysore and Ahmedabad.

November is the time for the huge and colourful Camel Festival at Pushkar in Rajasthan. Diwali (or Deepavali) is the happiest festival of the Hindu calendar and is celebrated over five days in November. Sweets, oil lamps and firecrackers all play a major part in this celebration in honour of a number of gods. It may be a tired old scene, but a beach party in Goa is still the only place to be for Christmas.






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