As we swing into the final leg of the year—and with it, the highly awaited festival season, one has to wonder whether the celebrations are best experienced back at home amidst the familiar glow of twinkling lights and neighbourhood festivities or far away from the known—seeking either solace or imbibing in unique traditions in a new city or state. Be it the draw of a million diyas lighting the Ganges in Varanasi and the colourful carnivals of Jaipur or seeking an all-rounded escape from the crowds in Kasauli—here’s a list of destinations our readers favour in India.
Favourite Festival Destination: Varanasi
My favourite place to travel during this season of festivities is Varanasi. To me, Varanasi is ‘the’ place to be in during the festive season due to the many spiritual, historical and gastronomical delights it offers. The lighting of the diyas on the ghats, devotees in deep meditation, people dressed their best and taking part in the celebrations all add to the overall jubilation that is in the air here. I always visit Varanasi during Diwali to observe and photograph the festivities. I’ve been lucky enough to catch the Dev Diwali celebrations a few times, where the Ganges lights up in the flare of over a million diyas. The entire spectacle, followed by the many aartis (prayers) which take place, make for an incredible experience.
Favourite Festival Destination: Udaipur
The regal city of Udaipur has always courted my favour when it comes to travelling during the festive season in India. During Diwali especially, the historical structures of the Rajasthani city pay a dazzling tribute to Indian traditions and cultures—and the sight of the entire city lit up in celebration is a memory that will remain tattooed in your mind. Besides this, a visit to Udaipur will always offer a double bonanza: because along with taking in the celebrations of the festive season, you also get to enjoy a splendid holiday filled with a variety of different activities. I always look forward to the magnificent lantern festival that takes place during this season in Udaipur. Due to the pandemic, I couldn’t keep to my tradition of visiting the city, but will be ringing in the festivities on a beach in Goa instead. This Diwali will be spent taking in the crackle sounds of the waves.
Favourite Festival Destination: Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan
While Kolkata, during the five-day exuberance of the Durga Puja festivities, is a sight to behold, the overbearing crowds and road snarls lead my family and I to make an annual escape out of the city during these days. Our aim in travelling during the festival season is to firstly take a break from the Puja chaos and also to celebrate festivities in different parts of the country. Two such places my family and I escaped to in the recent past are Himachal Pradesh, where we were lucky enough to catch the Kullu Dussehra celebrations—watching the small hamlets twinkle in the light of the string lights strung on narrow streets. And the other was Rajasthan—with its historical fort visits and us participating in the Ravan Dahan on the tenth day of Dussehra in front of the famous Jodhpur Clock Tower, under a sky lit up by fireworks.
Favourite Festival Destination: Kolkata
To me, there is no other metro city in the whole country to turn to during the festive season like Kolkata. The City of Joy looks like an expanded gallery of art installations during the five days of Durga Puja. The smell of shiuli, hunger-pang-inducing aromas from food stalls and locals dressed in all kinds of festive colour add to the charm of the annual celebrations.
Favourite Festival Destination: Jaipur
During the festive season, Jaipur holds fort as a city with a multi-cultured vibe, because people from all across the country visit to witness the celebrations, carnivals, and light. From the many shops and showrooms to even the monuments are decked up in a unique style every Diwali. The warm hospitality of the locals inviting one to partake in the festivities and the almost seamless road management making intra-city commute highly convenient—all add to the overall experience of spending the most exciting part of the year in this Rajasthani city.
Favourite Festival Destination: Dharamsala
I always seek the peace found in the mountains during the bustling festival season. With the ethereal Dhauladhars in the background, my Diwali spent in Dharamsala, overlooking the sweeping Kangra valley, is always magical. Although not as festive as Kullu’s Dussehra, Dharamsala offers a breath of fresh air—the autumn night of Diwali, with its colourful lights and shimmering sparklers in the valley, outshining the stars above.
Favourite Festival Destinations: Kasauli and Pangot
I had never been a big fan of the mountains, but after relocating to Delhi, a quick getaway meant heading north, either to the scenic Himachali towns or to the rustic sojourns in Uttarakhand, especially during the festive season holidays. Both these northern states offer spectacular and picturesque stays that are soothing and soulful. My personal favourites are Kasauli and Pangot. These two quaint spots offer solace from the bustling festive crowds in the capital. If you, like me, are seeking to unwind during the overcrowded festive season—these places offer a new lease of life amidst nature.
Favourite Festival Destination: Jaipur
My favourite Indian destination to travel to during this festival season is Jaipur, Rajasthan. The royal city is a perfect place to witness five days of jubilation: straight from Dhanteras to Bhai Dooj. From Dhanteras shopping in Johari bazaar to the lit up Nahargarh Fort and the Jal Mahal—which offers a dynamic reflection of firecrackers, Diwali in the city is a feast for the eyes. While Akshardham Temple basks in the light of a thousand diyas, Gaurav Tower hails as a famous hang out spot where one will always come across locals dressed their best. Nehru Bazar and Bapu Bazar are the gateways for Diwali shopping, and the Albert Hall Museum is decked up lavishly.
Favourite Festival Destination: Vadodara
For me, festivities means home and family. And so no matter where I am during Diwali, I always travel back home to Vadodara. Back home, the festive season brings with it good food, games and togetherness. Morning kicks in with my sister and me sitting down to make the rangoli and by the evening, every corner of the house is lit up in the glow of diyas. There are no small delights in spending the festive season in the familiar comfort of one’s home.
Favourite Festival Destination: Kolkata
From a subjective point of view, there is no place better to celebrate Durga Puja than Calcutta. Even if it requires me to take additional days off from work, I make it a point to be in Calcutta during this time. The city, during the festive season, offers a good mix of pandal hopping and street food, elaborate cooking and of course adda with family and friends.
From bonedi bari pujas (the traditional, aristocratic houses, which have been organising pujas for over 100 years) and community pujas (sarvajanin barowari pujas)—pandal-hopping in the city during the festival is as exciting as it is insightful—considering that each puja is inspired by the current socio-cultural climate. I was in Calcutta for this year’s Durga Puja, however, due to the high Court’s order banning the entry of visitors inside pandals (due to the pandemic), celebrations were muted—but no less enjoyable.
Favourite Festival Destination: Goa and Sindhudurg
Every year during the festive season, I make it to the annual Narkasur celebrations, either in Goa or the Sindhudurg district of Maharashtra, where locals celebrate the victory of Krishna over the demon Narkasur on the eve of Diwali. Much like Diwali in the rest of India, locals in Goa and Sindhudurg string lights around their houses and make rangolis outside their front door. The traditional dish for the festival includes poha, coconut and jaggery.
In the evening, villagers gather together to celebrate Naraka Chaturdashi, where locals bring forth statues of the demon Narakasur, usually made from grass remaining on the rice fields. At night, they burn the statues. Narkasur statues. Burning the Narkasur symbolises the burning of all negative things in life, and the ushering in of all positive things.
Favourite Festival Destination: Amritsar
During Diwali, the Golden Temple in Amritsar is spectacularly illuminated with earthen lamps or diyas. The holy echo of shabad kirtan takes over your mind and soon you’ll find yourself lost to the ultimate level of spirituality. Every day, lakhs of people visit the Golden Temple, which welcomes people of all faiths. Every year during the festive season, I travel to the world-famous temple from my home in Alwar.
Favourite Festival Destination: Rajasthan
During the festive season, Rajasthan always remains at the top of my list, for the way the traditions and culture is still preserved and put on display in the state during the various festivities of Navratri and Diwali. I have travelled to Rajasthan: both on occasions to celebrate the festival during Diwali as well as to take a break from the festivities after Navratri.
I usually visit Pushkar, Jodhpur and Udaipur during the Navratri and Diwali season, places where the old world rustic charm of the festivals still prevails.
On the occasion of Diwali, mandalas in coloured sands are made on the floor of the courtyards. Dance and music festivals, along with an explosion of colour and lights, enthuse bystanders to partake in the madness around them. On the steps by the Pichola Lake in Udaipur, women float offerings into the water, after arranging a few diyas and flowers neatly in floating boxes. I never miss tasting the Mawa Barfi, which is a sweet made of milk and sugar and sprinkled with almonds, which delights me every time.