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Discovering India's Hidden Festival Gems

This year take an offbeat route and plan your travel around India's rich cultural tapestry through its lesser-explored festivals. Don’t worry. We already made a list

05 Jan '24
7 min read


It’s a different thrill to experience vibrant celebrations, ancient rituals, and intriguing traditions hidden in the folds of India's diverse tapestry. To explore the vibrant narratives woven into India's unique festivals, ensure it's on your travel agenda for the year.

From the spiritual fervour of the Hemis Tsechu Festival in Ladakh to performers dancing to divinity in Theyyam in Kerala, this blog brings to light the cultural gems and uncommon festivities that captivate hearts across the country. All you need to do is block your calendar and book the flight tickets. 

Kila Raipur Sports Festival, Punjab

Keen to explore Punjab’s rich sports culture? You must book tickets for India’s Rural Olympics, more formally known as the Kila Raipur Sports Festival. Generally held during the first week of February, its international reputation attracts participation by 4,000 men and women annually. The diversity is prominent as participants hail from different countries, aged between teenagers to the elderly to this event. 

The sports lineup is exhilarating, encompassing off-beat competitive events like cart races, rope pulling, dog races, air pistol shooting, kite flying, and ox cart races. You aren’t likely to see these in regular sports tournaments. Picture participants pulling vehicles with their ears, lifting bicycles with their teeth, balancing on multiple horses and performing motorcycle acrobatics, among other endeavours.  

Besides the above, there is kabbadi, Rasa Kashi (a tug-of-war between five teams), Akharas hosting Kushti or local wrestling shows, Sikh martial arts, locally known as Gatka, Kokla Chapaki, a rural kids' favourite, involves circling and cloth-passing, Tirinjen or competitive singing, etc. 

The festival comes alive with an abundance of cultural performances, from the energetic Bhangra to soulful folk singing and lively pop concerts. 

When: February 3-5

Velas Turtle Festival, Maharashtra 

The simplicity and surreal nature of Velas Turtle festival secures its place on the list. The joy of witnessing the hatching of baby turtles and their journey to the sea is unparalleled and is a must for nature enthusiasts. 
Taking place in Velas beach of Ratnagiri, Maharashtra, this festival is dedicated to the conservation of Olive Ridley turtles, an endangered species of sea turtles that come to the beach to lay their eggs. 

For the uninitiated, the female turtles return to their nesting beaches to lay eggs in a unique process called arribada. They carefully place the eggs in conical holes dug by their rear flippers. After 45 to 65 days, the eggs hatch, and the baby turtles begin their journey to the ocean. Organized by local villagers in coordination with an NGO called Sahyadri Nisarg Mitra, both parties ensure the safe hatching of eggs, and release of baby turtles into the sea.

When: February to April

Chapchar Kut, Mizoram

To see Mizoram in full glory, plan a visit in March when the state celebrates Chapchar Kut, an ancient Mizo festival. The celebration marks the transition from clearing fields for agriculture to the onset of planting. 

The sight of smiling natives adorned in vivid traditional attire casts a captivating spell. Together, they unite for an enormous communal celebration, rejoicing through song and dance, accompanied by the melodious harmony of flutes, cymbals, drums, and gongs. 

Originating between 1450-1600 AD when the Mizo forefathers inhabited Lentlang, this vibrant celebration is one of the most anticipated festivals as it brings the whole village together. Remarkably, the event catalyzed communal harmony, requiring disputes to be resolved and having a joyous time together. 

It’s a splendid sight to see different tribesmen and women come together and celebrate it with dance and music. Latter is the focal point of the festival where Mizo pop divas belt out popular folk songs. It’s a sight to see the crowd sing along with the musicians. 

But at the heart of Chapchar Kut is the Cheraw bamboo dance, where men synchronise their bamboo sticks' taps to the dance rhythm, while women gracefully adjust their moves in sync with the moving sticks. 

Chapchar Kut embodied the soul of Mizo heritage: a mix of tradition, spirited performances, and heaps of fun, making it a celebration to remember.

When: March 1, 2024

Theyyam, Kerala 

Deep within the vibrant tapestry of India, lies a ritualistic art form that transcends the ordinary: Theyyam. This isn't just a dance; it's a portal where divine spirits descend upon human performers, unleashing a spectacle of vibrant costumes, electrifying energy, and ancient rhythms. tells the stories of ancient tribal gods and heroes.

Dance, mime, and music come together at night to honour ancient tribal gods and heroes. With over 400 unique Theyyams, like Raktha Chamundi and Muchilottu Bhagavathi, each performance from December to April in Kannur and Kasaragod temples is a colourful, awe-inspiring experience. Artists dress in magnificent costumes, headgear, and ornaments, embodying mighty heroes and captivating the audience. Each Theyyam persona carries a potent story, sung by drumbeats and echoed in trance-like movements. 

What makes Theyyam truly unusual is its raw intensity. The performers sway in a hypnotic state, striving to embody the very gods they depict. The intention is not just to morph into the deity they depict but also bridge the gap between spectators and their gods, blurring the lines between humanity and divinity. It is a glimpse into the strong faith of locals, making it worth a visit. 

When: December to April

Hemis Festival, Ladakh

Ladakh's enchanting Hemis Tsechu Festival  at the majestic Hemis Gompa makes for a perfect excuse for you to visit the place. This two-day cultural extravaganza commemorates Guru Padmasambhava's birth anniversary, symbolizing the triumph of good over evil. Also known as Guru Rinpoche, Padmasambhava played a pivotal role in spreading Buddhism in Tibet, fabled to have vanquished darkness through Vajrayana Buddhism.

Devotees and tourists fly from across the globe to witness this celebration where the air resonates with rhythmic drum beats, clashing cymbals, and the sonorous chime of bells. The monastery's adorned walls, featuring thangkas (Buddhist paintings)  portraying Buddhist icons, exude an aura of serenity. Enthralling the crowd, giant thangkas are unveiled on both days for public viewing.

A highlight of the festival is the Chaam dances, performed by lamas and monks. Decked in elaborate masks depicting Guru Padmasambhava's different avatars, these dances symbolize the eradication of evil. During one poignant ritual, a red-colored dough sculpture is ceremoniously destroyed with a sword by a masked lama, signifying the triumph of good. Each dance holds deep thematic significance, subtly conveying profound messages that captivate audiences and offer a mesmerizing spectacle to behold.

When: June 16-17 (tentative)

Thimithi, Tamil Nadu

In October when India commemorates Lord Rama's triumphant return to Ayodhya, villages in Tamil Nadu honour Draupadi, the Pandavas' wife, in a unique and extraordinary manner. Called Thimithi, the festival is unfamiliar beyond this southern state.

The story follows that Draupadi vowed to wash her hair with Duryodhana's blood after his humiliation attempt. Following the Pandavas' victory, she fulfilled the vow and walked on burning coals, symbolizing her purity, in the tradition known as Thimithi.

The festival preparation starts months ahead with devotees fasting and adhering to a strict vegetarian diet to purify themselves. Rituals include daily prayers and reading of the Mahabharata. A flag with the photo of Arjuna and Hanuman is hoisted to initiate the event. The celebration includes Keechaka Samharan enactment and a silver chariot procession in numerous villages, signifying Pandavas' victory. Devotees also perform Kumbuduthandam, rolling around the temple ground thrice as a spiritual act.

The Thimithi day commences around 4 AM with temple prayers, followed by the challenging ritual of walking on a blazing coalpit. Participants wear sacred yellow threads on their wrists as the chief priest leads, carrying a matka filled with holy water. It's believed that only those as pure as Draupadi can reach the end unscathed.

When: October

Bali Jatra, Orissa

Bali Jatra, which translates to 'A Voyage to Bali,' is a vibrant Odisha festival celebrated during Kartik Purnima. It commemorates Odisha sailors' historic voyages to distant lands like Java, Bali, Borneo, Sri Lanka, and Sumatra. To honour this legacy, locals make artificial boats using materials like paper, banana tree bark, and cork, setting them afloat on the water. The festival also involves the tradition of lighting lamps on these boats, known as Boita Bandana, creating a stunning scene with countless illuminated boats adorning the water.

When: October-November

Category : Travel


Written by Madhuwanti Saha

Writer, Journalist , Photographer