India is a land of many cultures, myths and traditions. It’s home to some of the oldest civilisations on the planet and was the seat of learning for centuries. By all logic, India shouldn’t even be a country. It has no uniting language or culture, but instead has an unbelievably eclectic mix of both. Despite that, and the difficulties that might ensure while traversing such terrain, many travellers regard India as one of the warmest and friendliest countries.
For every trip gone wrong and every tourist that’s been ripped off there are hundreds of travellers whose lives have changed for the better after navigating their India. Ask any of the backpacking tourists you find in Goa, the avid trekkers in Himachal, the spiritual seekers in Dharamshala, or the retirees cruising the Kerala backwaters, and they’ll be likely to agree in unison about this. But the truth is, there’s so much beyond this holy trinity of rave-trek-spiritual destinations. Given all the fascinating ethnicities and religions we embrace,
Considering all these influences we’ve had throughout history, and all the cultures ethnicities and religions we embrace, it’s not difficult to imagine the wealth of cultural experiences to be had across the country. We’ve picked out 15 incredibly interesting ones that we think are worth travelling for—and spreading word about.
If we’ve missed out on any you think need to be in this list, tell us in the comments below.
I. Embark on a walking death tour in Varanasi
Varanasi local Nandan Upadhayay has been conducting walking tours of Varanasi for nine years. According to him, the only way to see the spiritual capital of India is on foot: the real Varanasi lives in its alleys. Temples and shrines, monasteries, ancient buildings, markets—everything can be found within the meandering alleyways behind the fabled ghats. He has three different kinds of walks, but the standout is the Learning and Burning Walk, which takes curious travellers from the ashrams of sadhus down to the cremation grounds and past sacred ponds and temples. If you’re interested in history, religion and spirituality, seriously consider this. After all, there’s no other city on the planet where people intentionally go to die—it is a well held belief that dying in Varanasi leads to moksha.
II. Witness an 8,000-year-old ceremony in Kerala
Theyyam is a form of ritual worship popular in the Kolathunadu area of Kerala: Kasargod, Kannur Districts, Mananthavady Taluk of Wayanad and Vadakara and Koyilandy Taluks of Kozhikode. This rich eight-thousand-year-old ritual is a dance or invocation that is performed in front of the village temple or shrine, or within houses as ancestor worship. Theyyam is believed to be derived from the word daivam, meaning god, and is based on the belief that spirits enter human bodies to perform a ritual dance that leads to divine revelation. The performers are decked out in elaborate costumes with headdresses and they move to drumbeats and incantations that are accompanied by the reciting of myths and legends in honour of the deity. As the beats intensify, the dancer channels the spirit of the deity or Theyamm and becomes ‘possessed’. In this heightened state, participants bless devotees and do the seemingly impossible: dance on fire and perform miracles.
III. Smoke opium with tribals in Rajasthan
The Bishnoi tribe live deep inside the Thar Desert, far from urban interference with only the magnificent sand dunes as company. They hold on to their culture fiercely—social structure hasn’t changed much in centuries and modern conveniences such as electricity are non-existent. Though only an hour from Jodhpur, the change is dramatic: gone is the vivid blue of the city, replaced by miles of golden, open sand and sky. Though banned in India, the Bishnois continue to consume opium, and the government doesn’t seem to mind—it’s probably easier to let this peaceful tribe continue their way of life rather than interfere. The tribe greets visitors by welcoming them into their homes for a traditional opium ceremony where cubes of opium are mixed with water in an elaborate procedure presided over by idols of Shiva. We recommend staying at Mihir Garh, a luxurious nine-suite desert oasis with plunge pools overlookin the desert. They conduct village safaris and will take you right to the Bishnois.
IV. Watch the last authentic Indian snake charming tribe work in Gujarat
Gujarat’s Vadi tribe are possibly the last remaining authentic snake charmers left. The tribe lives a largely nomadic life, moving every six months, and has a long-standing, almost mythical attachment to serpents—especially cobras. Children as young as two are trained and taught how to handle the snakes, including the ancient act of snake charming, with division between the genders defining their future roles: men learn how to charm snakes with the flute, while women are tasked with caring for the snakes. The entire training process takes ten years, after which the children are adept at handling snakes. Though the government banned snake charming in 1991, the Vadi still manage to hold on to their several thousands-year-old tradition.
V. Attend the ‘Rural Olympics’ in Punjab
The Kila Raipur Sports Festival, unofficially termed the ‘rural Olympics’ takes place every year in Kila Raipur, near Ludhiana in Punjab. It’s nothing like the actual Olympics, of course. The whole emphasis here is on the word ‘rural’. Sports include cart races, tug of war, athletics, kabbadi, cycle race, and loading and off-loading trolleys of paddy, amongst others. The festival has been happening since 1933 and attracts thousands of participants and viewers every year.
VI. Experience the Bani Festival in Andhra Pradesh
The Bani Festival takes place during Dusshera at the Devaragattu Temple in Kurnool, in Andhra Pradesh, where hundreds of devotees gather to hit each other over the head with lathis to commemorate the death of a demon at the hands of Shiva. It’s an all-out frenzy as medical teams and the police helplessly watch from the sidelines as mob mentality takes over and entranced devotees beat each other senseless and draw blood. The mayhem only ceases at dawn. We advise standing very far away. This is one celebration that you don’t want to get caught in.
VII. Wander around at India’s most famous camel and cattle fair at Pushkar in Rajasthan
The world famous Pushkar Mela that draws 50,000 camels and hundreds of thousands of spectators hardly needs an introduction. Every November, the dunes of Pushkar transform into a riot of colour and culture as cattle and camel traders converge for the festival. Most of the trading is completed prior to the actual festival itself, and instead, the week that follows is characterised by sporting events, moustache competitions, races, and dancing. The gathering is a mix of Indian and foreign tourists who throng the shores of the lake to witness this amazing spectacle. Book a hotel room in advance as prices tend to skyrocket during the festival. Bonus tip: Book a hot air balloon ride with Skywaltz and take in the mesmerising sight around you.
VIII. Watch fire walkers at the Thimithi Festival in Tamil Nadu
Every year, during the Tamil month of Aipasi (between October and November on the Georgian calendar), the Thimithi Festival is held in honour of Draupadi, wife of the Pandavas. According to legend, at the end of the Mahabharata, Draupadi walked through fire to prove her purity—the festival is held to commemorate this event. During the festivities, devotees enact scenes from the Mahabharata, followed by days of ceremonies. On the last night, the fire pit is prepared and between 4 am and 11 am, participants attempt to walk through unscalded—and it is believed that true believers will emerge unscathed.
IX. Gawk at the Baby Tossing Festival in Maharashtra
Though it might sound rather absurd and illogical, the so-called Baby Tossing Festival in Sholapur has been taking place for over 700 years at the Baba Umer Dargah. The dangerous ritual is undertaken with the belief that dropping infants a staggering height of 50 feet into a sheet that’s held by men on the ground ensures good health and prosperity for the families involved. Interestingly, this isn’t restricted to one community or religion—the region’s Hindus and Muslims both participate, making it a local, though worrisome, festival
X. Watch people being trampled at the Govardhan Festival in Maharashtra
The Govardhan Festival is held annually on Enadakshi (the day after Diwali) in celebration of Krishna. However, in Maharashtra’s Bhiwdawad village, it takes on a sinister turn. Here, villagers decorate their cattle with flowers, henna and colour before prostrating themselves in their path and allowing the cattle to trample them in the belief that it would appease the gods and get their prayers answered.
XI. Be amazed at the power of belief as devotees hang from hooks in Kerala
During Garudan Thookam at Kerala’s Kali temples, devotees dress up as Garuda, the vehicle of Vishnu and perform. After the dance, the devotees, called garudans, take part in a ceremony known as choondakuthal, where the skin on their back is pierced by a sharp hook and they are hoisted on to a tall pedestal and taken round the temple. The most famous Garudan Thookam takes place at the Elamkavu Devi temple at Vadayar in the Vaikkom taluk of Kottayam.
XII. Witness traditional cosplay at its best at the Dhinga Gavar festival in Rajasthan
Dhinga means ‘fun by deception’, and gavar (also known as Gangaur or Parvati) is the consort of Shiva. The festival, celebrated only in Jodhpur, begins a day after Holi and participants dress up in traditional Rajasthani clothes and worship clay idols of Shiva and Parvati, seeking marital bliss. On top of that, offerings of cannabis are made to the idols. The idols are installed at 11 locations and adorned with gold jewellery. Women carry sticks and dress as goddesses and patrol the streets all night, protecting the idols. According to legend, an unmarried man who crosses their path and is beaten with a stick will soon find a suitable match.
XIII. Watch devotional fire flinging at the Kateel Durga Parameshwari Temple in Karnataka
Every April, the festival of Agni Keli takes place at the Kateel Durga Parameshwari Temple in Karnataka over eight days. This incredibly unique ritual sees hundreds of devotees fling flaming palm fronds at each other in a bid to appease the goddess Durga—and thousands of spectators gather to watch. The rules are simple: two groups face off against each other. Each participant only gets five throws, so each shot counts. At the end, the team that takes down the most opponents win and those who have been burned are sprayed with water of the kumkumarchana.
XIV. Watch a priest smash devotees’ heads with coconuts in Tamil Nadu
Every year, on the 18th day of the Tamil month of Aadi (mid-July to mid-August), thousands of devotees gather at the Mahalakshmi Temple in the Karur District of Tamil Nadu to have their heads smashed by coconut-wielding priests for good luck and health. The festival has its roots in folklore: 187 coconut shaped stones were dug out of the earth at the temple’s location. During the Raj, the British wanted to build a railway line that would cut across the temple, but the villagers protested. In a bid to test their devotion, the British made a deal with the locals—if they could prove their devotion by successfully breaking the coconut shaped stones on their heads, plans for the railway line would be aborted. The villagers miraculously succeeded and the rest is history.
XV. Embrace the divine feminine at the Menstruation Festival at Kamakhya Temple in Assam
The sacred feminine is celebrated at the Kamakhya Temple in Guwahati. According to legend, Sati, the wife of Shiva, was unable to bear her father’s insult to her husband and jumped into the flames. Enraged, Shiva began the terrible Tandav Nritya while carrying her corpse. As a result, parts of her body fell at various places on the Earth, forming shakti peeths, and the Kamakhya Temple was formed where the yoni (vagina) fell. Every June, the goddess goes through her menstrual cycle and the temple is shut for three days and is believed to turn red. This is when the Ambubachi Mela is celebrated. This so-called fertility mela attracts tantriks and sages from across the globe and everything around is red: red flowers, vermillion, and red cloth. Magic and mysticism reign supreme here.
Researched by Karan Khosla