By Krishna Ghosh Africa & Indian Subcontinent Specialist

India is a country that knows how to celebrate, seemingly spilling over with holidays and traditions to honour life's milestones. Spiritually enchanting, India is a land of vivid colours and rich flavours, the scent of smokey incense and the excitement of energetic streetside markets. Here, a diversity of religious traditions and customs play an integral daily role in the lives of its 1.2 billion people. Holidays and festivals – religious or otherwise – are a vital part of life in India, and are celebrated with an intense fervour rarely seen anywhere else on the planet. And visitors on holiday to India can participate, as well, provided they know the best places to go.

Nagaur cattle Fair – January to February

Every year towards the end of January, the Nagaur Cattle Fair kicks off. An intense and dusty week-long livestock trading affair, and the second largest of its kind in India, this is an event where live attractions are predominantly for the locals, and not the tourist contingent. For the visitor, the authenticity is the appeal.

The fair is a great way to experience a slice of the real India. It may not have the showmanship of some other celebrations, but the entertainment is magical. Take in folk music and dance, camel and horse races, and more eccentric events, such as tug of war. You'll also find the largest chilli market in the country.

In the evening, small campfires spark up and draw traditional storytellers. You may not be able to understand anything, but it provides a great piece of people watching - warm flickering bonfires reflecting on the listening expressions of the locals and traders. Also on show are jugglers and puppeteers, that latter a significant tool in the local storytellers’ repertoire.

But it’s the animals that take centre stage during the day, and to see them farmers sometimes travel hundreds of miles. Livestock traded include camels, goats, and cows, with the highlight being the Nagaur bulls. They are renowned for their speed, agility and light-footedness.

One day is enough to take in the full experience of the Nagaur Fair. By the end of the day you will find yourself in the similar state of mind as the locals – patient, observant, and an eye for the trade.

Cattle lined up to eat at the Nagaur cattle festival

Kerala's temple festivals – February to April

As charismatic engaging as Kerala itself, the state's temple festivals are a colourful and chaotic reflection of one of India's most popular destinations. Held throughout the months of February, March and April, and forming an important part of each temple's unique annual rituals, the temple festivals are a cacophony of colour and noise with elephants, musicians and excited crowds of revellers all adding to the mayhem.

Every village has its own temple and as a result its own festival. Some are therefore small, and others huge. Expect lavish costumes, traditional dancing, colourful floats, plenty of fireworks and impressive processions of garlanded elephants. The hiring of elephants is big business in India. Some festivals have their own, having been donated by wealthy local dignitaries, while others have to rent them.

The elephants are used to carry the symbol of the Hindi god in question, and as they pass people present gifts to these idols in the form of rice and homemade ornaments. With their lavishly caparisoned heads and the clamour surrounding their procession, elephants are a must-see part of the temple festivals. 

Guruvayur Temple, Elephant Race

Anayottam or ‘elephant race’ marks the beginning of the annual festival at the Guruvayur Sree Krishna Temple. The elephants race for the honour of carrying the Thidambu (a replica of the idol of Guruvayoorappan) on all festival occasions and other celebrations for a whole calendar year. If you haven’t seen an elephant run, this is your chance.

Attukal Temple, Pongala

This festival is famous for being the largest gathering of women for a ceremonial event anywhere in the world. Famously, over 3.5 million women attend the Attukal Bhagavathi temple in Thiruvananthapuram during the festival, and men are not allowed to participate. The women offer a dish made of rice, nuts, raisins, coconut and molasses called Pongala as a tribute to the festival deity, who is an incarnation of the Hindi god, Parvathi. 

Paripally Gajamela

More than 50 decorated elephants take part in the Gajamela, literally meaning festival of elephants. It takes place on the last day at the Kodimoottil Bhagavathy Temple at Paripally near Kollam. It’s a ten-day long festival, so make sure you time it right. 

Holi – March

There's a good chance you'll have seen photographs of Holi – India's 'Festival of Colours' is most recognisable for the throwing of vast quantities of powdered paint and water. Everyone is fair game, including the those on holiday.

Holi is a spectacular affair celebrating the victory of good over evil and the burning of the demoness Holika, as well as signifying the end of winter and the nearing of the spring harvest. The celebration is infectious and exciting with almost everyone taking part. By evening, it’s time to wash and visit friends and family to talk of the day's antics. It’s also a time of forgiveness, closing the door on the past and looking forward to the year ahead.

Holi is celebrated with more than a little enthusiasm throughout India, although the best places to witness the festival at its most colourful and riotous are generally in the north, especially in the towns of Mathura and Vrindavan, four hours from the capital Delhi, where celebrations can last for upwards of 40 days. However, if you're a little reluctant to venture too far from the tourist trail there's spectacular Holi celebrations to be found in both Delhi itself and the Rajasthan capital Jaipur – both part of the well-trodden route through India's Golden Triangle.  

Young girl covered in colourful powder for Holi

A young girl covered in colourful powder for Holi

Ganesh Chaturthi – September

The important Hindu festival of Ganesh Chaturthi celebrates the birth of the elephant-headed Lord Ganesh, son of Shiva and Parvati and one of the most revered gods in the Hindu religion. All around India, families buy or make small clay models of Ganesh to worship, eventually submerging them in water after the festivities.

Mostly celebrated in the southern states of Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, the best place to see this spectacular ten-day celebration is in the city of Mumbai, making it one of the more accessible festivals in the Hindu calendar. Make your way to the vast temple of Siddhivinayak in the Mumbai suburb of Prabhadevi, where thousands of devotees offer prayers to Lord Ganesh before heading to one of the flamboyant street parties that take place throughout the city, where local communities compete against each other to see who can come up with the most spectacular displays.

The festival provides opportunities for local artists and business people, who often come together to commission the best, biggest and most ornate Ganesh they can – the largest so far reaching 70 feet high. Once built and paraded in the street, the priest is said to give life to the idol, accompanied by the chanting of mantras.

If you attend Ganesh Chaturthi, don’t forget to try modak, a sweet dumpling made from steamed rice or wheat flour, and stuffed with grated coconut, jaggery, and dried fruits.

Small red clay statue of Ganesh

A statue of Ganesh waits for its turn to be dipped underwater

Diwali – November

Diwali, also known as 'The Festival of Lights', is possibly India's best-known festival and is celebrated by Hindu's throughout the country with the lighting of clay lamps, known as diyas, and some of the most impressive firework displays imaginable.

The five-day festival signifies the start of winter and the Hindu New Year, and celebrates the return of Lord Rama and his wife Sita to their kingdom in Ayodhya after 14 years in exile The diyas and candles are lit to guide Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, into the family home. Diwali is also the time for the cleaning and decorating of houses with traditional Hindu art, exchanging gifts and sweets and enjoying festive meals in the company of family and friends.

There are plenty of options for travellers wanting to experience Diwali, with celebrations taking place across almost the whole of India, perhaps with the exception of Kerala where it is less celebrated.

One of the best places to spend Diwali is the riverside town of Varanasi, where huge firework displays light up the temples along the sacred River Ganges and the ceremonial ghats are illuminated with thousands of oil lamps, creating a truly magical sight.

The holy town of Amritsar in the state of Punjab, while having a mainly Sikh population, is another spectacular spot to enjoy the Diwali celebrations. Join tens of thousands of Sikhs and Hindus at the famous Golden Temple, covered in what seems like a million lights, and marvel at one of the most impressive firework displays around.

For a different take on the Diwali experience, head to the southern state of Goa, known for its beautiful palm-fringed beaches and delicious seafood curries. Here the celebrations take on a different slant with the burning of the evil demon Narakasura, the wayward son of Lord Vishnu and Bhu Devi the earth goddess. Villages, towns and cities across the state try and outdo each other by constructing the biggest and most frightening Narakasura effigy possible, before setting fire to them at dawn on the main day of the festival amidst lavish celebrations. 

Clay diya oil lamp for Diwali

Diamond-panelled Diwali lanterns for sale

Paper star-shaped Diwali lanterns for sale

Pushkar Camel Fair – November

Each year, the small lakeside town of Pushkar in the desert state of Rajasthan, plays host to the world's largest camel fair - a five-day extravaganza of camel trading and religious ritual, attracting over 300,000 traders, pilgrims and tourists from across the region and beyond, along with an astonishing 10,000 camels.

Located on the edge of the Thar Desert and surrounded by vast sand dunes and arid desert plains, the town itself is one of the oldest in India and is home to a large number of temples, many of which can be found on the tranquil shores of Pushkar Lake, which forms the centrepiece for the festival's religious activities. As the fair gets underway, thousands of pilgrims come to bathe on the day of the full moon, an auspicious event that dictates the dates of the fair each year.

Meanwhile, just outside of town, on the huge expanse of the desert plains, a huge carnival featuring a dizzying array of musicians, magicians, snake charmers and acrobats gets into full swing as camels are made-up, paraded, raced, traded and even entered into beauty contests. With competitions such as ‘the longest moustache’ t's as wild and wacky as it sounds, and is without doubt one of the most incredible sights to be found anywhere in India.