While rose-tinted skies and warm mugs of chai are the hallmarks of winter setting in, this is also the best time to travel across India and the season to indulge in festivities. Here’s our pick of some Indian festivals that take place only in the winter months and allow you to savour unique and varied cultural experiences. Take your pick from a kaleidoscope of music, art, dance, traditional and modern festivities that we witnessed first-hand.
Here are nine winter festivals in India you can’t miss:
1. Rann Utsav, Kutch, Gujarat
When we first set our eyes on the never-ending stretch of white sand, we could just stare in awe. Despite the camel-drawn carts full of tourists, if you walk a distance, you will find you’re in a quiet expanse of the white salty dessert. Rann Utsav celebrates this unique landscape along with the flavour of its people and their craft. The Tent City in Dhordo, which is 85km or 1 hour 45 minutes away from Bhuj, is usually where all the action is. You can also visit the unique Wild Ass Sanctuary in the Little Rann of Kutch.
We must recommend you take the time out to explore the unique art of Rogan and the only family in the world that practices it, in the village of Nirona. The village gained publicity when PM Narendra Modi gifted US President Barack Obama an exquisite piece of Rogan, originating from Persia many centuries ago. It is created free-hand using special paint, made using oil from castor seeds, mixed with pigments of the castor plant, but looks as if it was embroidered or printed. Although this art form was practiced by various families in Nirona and some nearby villages, today a lone family of the Khatri brothers headed by Gafoorbhai Khatri, guards the secret to this art form and keeps it alive.
We also visited Gandhi Nu Gam, which was devastated in the 2001 earthquake and then painstakingly reconstructed. The artisans’ homes, traditional bhungas (mud huts) are decorated with brightly painted murals on the outside and mirrors on the inner walls, and embroidery and woodwork are practiced there. The embroidery can be found on bed covers, cushion covers, dupattas, and dress materials. There are also beaded necklaces, armbands, embroidered purses, and wallets on offer.
Dates: Nov 1, 2021 – Feb 20, 2022
2. Hornbill Festival, Nagaland
The sounds of Naga folk songs about lore and practices echo through the region. Majestic log drums are beaten in the background and the performers of the ‘War Dance’ take centre stage. The ceremonial garb of the dancers resembles that of the warriors. The audience at the Naga Heritage Village in Kisama, 12 kms away from Kohima, is left spellbound.
Nagaland’s annual Hornbill Festival is a celebration of the indigenous tribes of Nagaland, showcasing a colourful spectacle featuring folk performances, sports and traditional ceremonies. As many as 16 tribes participate in the festival, which is named after the hornbill, a bird that finds a special place in tribal folklore. A variety of local handicrafts and handlooms are on display along with local food stalls. We recommend trying the rice beer. For the brave, there’s a Naga chilli eating competition too.
Dates: December 1-10, 2021
3. Christmas in Kolkata, West Bengal
Kolkata winters are beautiful. It’s not devastatingly cold and there is a freshness to everything around. In December particularly, as the city gets ready to welcome Christmas (known locally as Boro Din or ‘Big Day’) it’s a great time to visit the city of joy. Park Street is decked with lights and festoons giving it an outdoor carnival setting. From live bands performing to food stalls selling homemade goodies, this open-air party has it all.
It’s very difficult to talk about any festivities in Kolkata without its mouthwatering food. Snaking queues at the city’s popular old haunts like Flury’s, Peter Cat, and Moulin Rouge aren’t unheard of. The menus at the local clubs take us back in time to what it must have been like during the British Raj. Another interesting place to find great homemade fare is at Bow Barracks. During Christmas, the residents put up stalls where you can buy homemade meatloaf, homemade wines, cookies, and cakes. Another favourite that you absolutely can’t miss is Nahoum’s, a Jewish bakery that has been around since 1902. Braving the mad rush in the store during Christmas is worth it; don’t miss the Mince Pies. Thank us later!
Dates: December 20-25, 2021
4. Theyyam performance, Kannur, Kerala
A masked dancer enters the temple foyer to the sound of beating drums and a gaudily dressed priest performs the arati with fervour. The dancer is dressed in bright colours and has an overbearing headdress. The temple, in Kannur located in North Kerala, is packed, and devotees watch the ritual in awed silence. Of the many temples that Kerala has to offer, the Shri Muthappan Parassinikadavu temple is unique. This temple is dedicated to a hunter form of Lord Vishnu, Shri Muthappan, who was a meat eater and loved toddy. He is also believed to be secular and unbiased as he drank his toddy from the homes of the poor and lower caste people as well. People of all castes, religions and nationalities are permitted to enter the temple and participate in the worship. Fish and toddy are the offerings made to the lord even today in the temple.
The main mode of worship is not via idol worship but by ritual enactment of the Theyyam dance, performed every evening at the temple. After the performance, people queue up to make donations and seek blessings from the performer, who they believe, is possessed by the spirit of Lord Muthappan. He looks at the devotees and whispers into their ears, giving them a solution to their problems and predicting their future. He whispered in our ear too but since we don’t speak Malayalam and no one else was privy to this prophecy, I guess we’ll never know what the dancer said.
Date: While there is no particular festival or time of the year to catch this performance. North Kerala is gorgeous in the winters.
5. Poush Mela, Shantiniketan, West Bengal
On one of our visits, we saw a Baul singer dressed in his saffron robe, as he adjusted his cloth mat under a large Peepul tree. As we found a place to sit, the chattering of the crowd slowly died down and his fingers skillfully graced the iktara (one-string instrument). The sound of his rustic, earthy voice filled the air.
Come December, Shantiniketan is dressed in warm, festive colours. Home to Visva-Bharati University modelled on the gurukul system, the town is a hub for literature, music, dance, and fine art. It’s annually held Poush Mela is an event no art lover should miss. The six-day fair is known for its stalls selling handmade products and artworks and for live performances of Bengali folk music especially Baul music (Bauls are a group of mystic minstrels from Bengal, mainly belonging to the Vaishnava Hindu and Sufi Muslim communities.) The mela has been held continuously every year since 1894 except for two breaks during the Bengal Famine and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dates: December 24-26, 2021 (The fair officially lasts for three days, though vendors may stay until the end of the month)
6. The Winter Carnival, Manali, Himachal Pradesh
If you are looking for some snow served with a side of winter sports and a dash of Himachali culture, this is probably your best bet. Usually one of India’s most popular summer getaways, Manali leaves no stone or snowflake unturned to woo you in winter as well. At the Manali Winter Carnival over a hundred cultural tableaus and processions showcasing the local culture will take over the streets. Apart from dance, songs and local cuisine, you can dabble in winter sports such as skiing and snowboarding at Solang valley near Manali. The festival also hosts a ‘Winter Queen’ contest - a local beauty pageant that takes place at the open-air amphitheatre, in the middle of Manali town, in sub-zero temperatures. If you intend to participate in this contest we hope that you possess the powers that princess Elsa had in the movie ‘Frozen’.
Your cultural experience isn’t complete if you haven’t tried the local food. Before you leave, we highly recommend that you try the Siddu (a traditional Himachali steamed bread) and the salty tea from the stalls set up by local Mahila Mandals, at a temporary food court.
Dates: January 2-6, 2022
7. Makar Sankranti, Ahmedabad, Gujarat
The first time we discovered the joy of celebrating Makar Sankranti in Ahmedabad is when we were there for a friend’s wedding that happened to fall in the same week. We drove to Vastrapur area in the old walled city where a thousand kites seemed to be flying in the clear blue sky. The sun was out but a cool breeze made the kites sway gracefully. Kite flying can get competitive where opposing teams try to fly higher and cut each other’s kites, sending them swiftly spiralling ground-wards.
The festival is also known as Uttarayan in Gujarat. An evening prior to the festival families purchase kites from master kite makers who prepare special designs every year for the festival. Patang (kite) Bazaar, is the biggest kite selling site in the city. In the week heading to the International Kite Festival, Patang Bazaar is open all 24 hours. When you are in the city, don’t forget to try Uttarayan special delicacies such as 'Undhiyu' and ‘Til Chikkis'.
Date: January 14, 2022
8. World Sacred Spirit Festival, Jodhpur, Rajasthan
From Mongolian deep throat singers to dervishes, Qawalli, Folk, Bhajans, and modern music, set against the backdrop of two gorgeous forts, the World Sacred Spirit Festival is an absolute treat for the senses. Organised by the Mehrangarh Trust, the festival has two parts. The first three days of the festival take place at the Nagaur Fort. The setting is intimate and exclusive to visitors staying within the fort walls. Apart from witnessing the performances, one gets to chat with the artists and share ideas. Over the next three days, the festival moves to the Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur, where a larger audience gets to be a part of the festival. However, this year only the Nagaur leg of the festival will take place.
When we visited the festival a few years ago, we were treated to performances by artists from Iran, Egypt, China, Mongolia, Pakistan and India. One of our favourites was a collaboration between Kathak dancers from the Jaipur gharana and Flamenco dancers from Spain.
Dates: February 17-20, 2022
9. Khajuraho Dance Festival, Madhya Pradesh
Skilled dancers from all over India, present their craft against the beautiful backdrop of the Khajuraho temples, a UNESCO world heritage site. Many of India’s traditional dance forms have a history of being performed in temple premises. Live performances of classical Indian forms including Odissi, Kathak, Kuchipudi and Bharatnatyam are the highlights of the Khajuraho Dance Festival, which was first held in 2002.
If you stay on to visit the temple complex post the festival too, catch the spectacular Sound and Light Show. You are taken back in time with mythological stories and folklore. The music, the tales of kings and queens, the chanting of shlokas, and Amitabh Bachchan’s soul-stirring rendition of his father, late Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s poetry about Khajuraho’s sculptors, makes for an immersive experience.
Dates: February 20-26, 2022
10. Carnival, Goa
Who needs an excuse to go to Goa? Apart from being gorgeous in the rains and festive during Christmas and New Year, you must experience a different side of Goa during the Carnival. The carnival tradition was introduced by the Portuguese in the early 16th century and is celebrated before the fasting month of Lent. The four-day-long celebration commences on Saturday before Ash Wednesday and takes place in various parts of Goa including Panjim, Vasco da Gama, Margao, and Mapusa among others.
Dancing troupes, revellers wearing masks and costumes, live music, colourful processions featuring horse-drawn carriages, and decorated floats that are the highlights of parades, sports competitions and hedonistic pursuits like great food and drinking is what draws the crowds. Since tourists have been flocking to Goa all year round, despite the pandemic, if you are planning to attend the carnival, we suggest you make your reservations way in advance before hotels get packed and prices of flight tickets skyrocket.
Dates: February 26 - March 01, 2022