Unusual Festivals and Rituals In India
Strange things keep happening around us. But because we are born and brought up in a particular area or are familiar with the rituals of a particular festival, it may not really seem uncommon to us or unusual. But in India, there are several unusual practices that are followed and festivals that are celebrated which are unique only to India.
Pushkar Camel Fair
Pushkar Camel Fair which is now famous not only in India but very popular with foreign tourists as well is a unique fair held annually in Pushkar in Rajasthan. You might find it strange to see more than 50,000 camels being decorated and given attention which they don't get it everyday. The Pushkar Camel Fair is all about 5 days of giving the camel something back. There are contests held, charmers performing and even musicians playing. The town is about 45 minutes from Ajmer and one can head there by car to see the unique festival.
Celebrated around - Between October and November
The small town of Thrissur celebrates Pulikkali each year with a lot of grandeur. It sure is exciting to see men getting dressed in tiger print garments with makeup to give them the appearance of the tiger. But this is not tiger hunting contest. Rather it is a beauty contest for the men, who also display their talent. The best costume and performance wins the festival. Roar!
Lath Mar Holi
Can Holi, the festival of colours be celebrated in an unusual manner? Well not as long as you are playing it with color or maybe getting a tad dirty by using very dark colors. But the people of Mathura have a unique way of celebrating Holi. They have started using the dandia or play sticks that the lord Krishna used, to beat up the menfolk. Sure it is a fun way of celebrating and the hitting is more of a teasing. But beware men, if the girl wants to take out some vengeance, you don’t want to be around during Lath mar Holi!
Celebrated around - February to March each year
Madai festival, Chhattisgarh
Celebrated around: Between December and March
Tulini Festival, Nagaland
The Nagas know how to do the little things with splendor and around the month of July is the time to enjoy the benefits of their harvest. Prayers are offered to the Litsaba, a form of tribal deity, for getting blessings and hoping for a beneficial harvesting season. It is all about lavish meals that are followed by matrimonial consensus.
Celebrated around: July
Nazu Festival, Nagaland
Celebrated around: February
Sume-Gelirak festival, Odisha
This is one of the most crucial festivals celebrated for the Bonds of Koraput. Sume-Gelirak festival in Odisha lasts for 10 days and has a lot of rituals to follow. It includes sacrificing of animals and birds, drinking lots of liquor and even pleasing the deities with liquor. During this festival, the women have the option to choose their life partners. So it is the perfect time to get married too or at least get engaged.
Bija Pandu festival, Odisha
Another popular Odisha festival is the Chaitra Parva, which is seen in the eastern India regions. The Bija Pandu is part of these festival and is celebrated by the Koya tribes of Koraput in Odisha. It is dedicated to their resident deity, Gudimata. Animals are sacrificed here along with birds. The men have to go out and hunt for food, which is cooked when they come back. The women and men then dance together and celebrate the rituals.
Celebrated around - March/April
Bohaggiyo Bishu Festival, Assam
Deoris celebrates this festival all week long. The Bohaggiyo Bishu festival is a captivating spring festival that is held during mid-April. Here the different dance forms are performed and the deities are worshipped hoping for a prosperous harvest. It is celebrated with the Deodhani dance form and Husori or Carol song party. What makes it unusual is the way that the festivities go on for a week along with the traditional sacrifices made to please the gods.
Celebrated around - April
Vautha Mela, Gujarat
Well Gujarat celebrate something familiar to the Pushkar fair, only that it is for donkeys. This festival is dedicated towards the Lord Kartik and is called the Vautha Mela, celebrated in Saptasangam. At this time of the year, the donkeys are all decorated and traded. Gypsies come from far off areas to celebrate and trade their cattle for donkeys.
Celebrated around - October/November
Bani Festival, Andhra Pradesh
The Bani festival in Andhra Pradesh is all about getting killed or get killed. It seems strange but the Bani Festival celebrated in Devaragattu Temple, Kurnool perhaps doesn’t value the human life that much or rather that is what outsiders perceive. On the occasion of Dusshera, stick or lathi-welding devotees come to the temple and start hitting each other on the heads at midnight! This process goes on as the blood-soaked devotees celebrate the death of the demon. And in some sad cases, the death of the human too. This unusual ritual has been going on for more than 100 years, thankfully the axes used earlier were replaced with sticks. There have been no deaths in recent years, through the number of injured people is always high.
Nag Panchami or Snake Festival
Not sure if you get a little scared or creepy with the snakes but most people surely do. Strangely, Indians have always shared a bond with these snakes. Even though they may be scared of them in most avenues, the snakes do have a vital role to play in the mythology and folklore. In the month of Shravan or the rainy season, snakes are worshiped on the 5th day of the lunar month. This day is known as Nag Panchami. Live cobras are worshipped and that too without the removal of their venomous fangs. And the strange thing is that they really don’t bite on this day. In fact, they are sprinkled with flower petals and kumkum and haldi with their hoods raised right up. They are fed milk and rats, which they gobble up with ease. Scary but so true.
Celebrated around - July
Fire-Walking - Theemithi
In Tamil Nadu there is a ritual of walking on fire that is painful but so true. This is the festival of Theemithi that is now also celebrated across Sri Lanka and Singapore along with some other South-East Asian countries. Theemithi is not a ceremony alone but a part of a huge celebration that stretches over 2-3 months. The Mahabharata is re-enacted here and there are an array of other rituals performed too. It is celebrated in honor of Draupadi, wife of the Pandavas, who walked on a bed of fire after a huge battle and was not affected at all. The same is reenacted here.
Heart to the mouth is what the name of the festival does to you. This festival is celebrated mostly around the states of Karnataka and Maharashtra. This is a crazy ritual of tossing babies, both Muslims and Hindus at the Baba Umer Dargah in Maharashtra. They are dropped from a height of 50 feet and caught by men. This custom is also observed near the Sri Santeswar temple in Karnataka. Followed for more than 700 years, this festival is being observed by the National Commission For Protection Of Child Rights but no injuries have been reported yet.
Piercing The Body - Thaipoosam, Tamil Nadu
This festival is all about piercing the body and also hooking the flesh. It is called Thaipoosam in Tamil Nadu. Faith can really be scary at times. During the Tamil month of Thai, this festival is celebrated to honor Lord Murugan or Kartik, the son of Shiva and Parvati. It is celebrated because the army of Tarakasura was killed on this day. The devotees keep a 2 day fast and then pierce their bodies using skewers, lances, etc.. In fact some even pull heavy objects like tractors over their bodies. It is said that the devotees are in a trance and thus not affected by all of this.
Face The Raging Bull Jallikattu
Jallikattu in Tamil Nadu kind of takes you back to the Spanish festival or style of fighting the raging bulls. But the matadors are trained and protected. However, this sport in India is more rustic and brutal. Played for more than 100 years, this festival is a part of the Pongal celebrations. Jallikattu bulls are not your ordinary bulls. They are special bred and raised to fight humans. They have a special diet and are converted into sturdy beasts fit for fighting. The individual who snatches the prize from the horn is the winner. But the individuals or matadors are not allowed to carry any weapons. More than 200 people have died in this sport. Though the Supreme Court of India banned Jallikattu in May 2014, it is still practiced in some areas.
Roll Over Food Left Overs- Madey Snana
In the state of Karnataka another unusual festival is rolling over food leftovers or Madey Snana. The Kukke Subramania Temple here has a very weird way to celebrate the old tradition called Madey Snana or Spit Bath. As per this ritual, people from the lower castes roll over the foods that is leftover by the Brahmins. This food is left over on banana leaves and the lower caste folk roll on this food so that they can get rid of various ailments. It was supposed to be banned due to protests by many tribes but has not really stopped.
Cannibalism and Necromancy
The Aghori way of life in Banaras is something that you will really find formidable. The sadhus of this group are easily recognized because of the red ash that they have smeared on their bodies. This offbeat method of connecting with god is really 'purity in the filthiest’ of forms. They eat the remains of human beings after the cremation. They also have intercourse with corpses so that they get powers of witchcraft.
Weddings of Animals
To please the rain gods, animals are married in some of the states of India. Frogs are married in the states of Assam and Maharashtra. In the state of Karnataka, donkeys are married. There are some cases where even dogs are married here. It is said that the ceremony is conducted by the priests and the same is done to please the rain gods.
Cow Trampling or Govardhan Puja
In the state of Madhya Pradesh the sacred cows are made to trample devotees. The festival is celebrated in the Bhiwdawad village, in Maharashtra. On the first Ekadakshi, a day after Diwali, villagers color and decorate their cattle. They then lie down to let the animals trample them. The festival goes on for at least 5 days to please the gods.
Garudan Thookam, Kerala
In Kerala, this festival of hanging by the hooks makes one shudder. The same is performed at the Kerala's Kali temples where dancers get dressed as the Garuda, which is also the vehicle of the Lord Vishnu. Mythology has it that the god quenched the thirst of Goddess Kali after slaying a devil named Darika. The devotees perform a dance and then they hang themselves like eagles from a shaft. Flesh is hooked off the back of these devotees.
The ritual of Kesh Lochan or hair plucking is practiced by the saints of Jain community. It is a part of giving themselves to the lord. The concept of the ritual is attain nirvana and give up on attachments to anything mortal. The hair is plucked by hands and one hair strand is pulled off at a time. The entire process is rather daunting and painful. Sometimes, even kids as young as 10 go through the process of giving themselves up for the lord.
Dhinga Gavar, Jodhpur
This festival is all about the art of deception and though it is unusual, it sure is fun. You actually come to realize that sometimes being different is good. This is a part of the Rajasthani Gangaur festival, Dhinga Gavar. But it is only celebrated in Jodhpur. According to legend, Lord Shiva, the husband of Goddess Parvati had once tested him by dressing up as a tribal woman. This festival celebrates the same fun theme, where women dress up as tribal women. The statues of Dhinga Gavar are set at 11 locations and decorated with more than 30 kgs of gold! It is also said that these women take out processions and hit people if they try to touch their deities. What’s more it is said that any man who is hit by the woman’s stick would get married soon.
Celebrated around - February to March
Agni Keli, Mangalore
In the month of April a festival named Kateel Durga Parameswari Temple is celebrated in Mangalore, over 8 days. Though rest of the festival is not really as intriguing, the Agni Keli ritual is. It is about hundreds of devotees throwing flaming palm fronds at each other. The spectators are allowed to watch as the men keep throwing the blaze at each other. If they suffer from a burn during the process, they are sprayed with water of the kumkumarchana.
Celebrated around - April
In the state of Tamil Nadu, there is a weird festival of smashing coconuts on the heads. It is celebrated on the 18th day of the Tamil month of Aadi. 1000s of devotees come to the Mahalakshmi Temple, Mettu Mahadhanapuram in Karur District of Tamil Nadu. Here they allow the priest to smash a coconut on their heads for getting good luck and prosperity. According to folklore, 187 coconuts were found at the temple location. The British wanted to build a railway here but the locals protested. The Britishers said that if the villagers managed to break these stones on their heads, they would be saved. And they successfully did it. Since then, the festival is celebrated here.
This one is all about putting barrels of water to please the rain god. It is performed in the states of Maharashtra and Karnataka along with Tamil Nadu. The priests immerse themselves in the barrels of water to please the Lord Varun’s and take his name one lakh times.
Ambubachi Mela, GuwahatiAmbubaachi Mela celebrates the process of menstruation. Done at the Kamakhya Temple in Guwahati, the festival is slightly more than unusual. It is said that when Goddess Sati had set herself on fire, Lord Shiva got angry and carried her around the country on his shoulders. While doing so different parts of Sati’s body fell in different places. At this site, the vagina of the goddess fell. The Yoni temple celebrates this festival around the month of June, when the goddess goes through her menstrual cycle. During this time of the year, the temple is shut for 3 days and is said to turn red. Ambubachi Mela is celebrated around the same time, where tantrik and witchcraft practitioners flock to the area to get formidable psychic powers. Red dominates all the rituals performed during the ordeal.
Celebrated around - June
North Malabar's Theyyam ritual worship is all about bringing out the god within you. Here the devotees are will know how intimidating it can be. Dressed in elaborate make up and headgear, the devotees dance and with each beat, the dance becomes more intense. It is said that the metaphysical combines in the realm and the dancer tends to metamorphoses into the deity or the Theyyam. The devotees remain in a possessed state and dance on fire and sometimes tend to do weird things too. After the dance, they do not remember what they did or what happened.
Karni Mata Festival
In honor of the Goddess Karni Mata, this festival is celebrated in Bikaner every year. It is celebrated in a little desert citadel of Deshnoke. There is a 600 year-old Karni Mata temple here, which is the home to millions of rats. At this temple, the reincarnation of the Goddess Durga is known to reside. Devotees flock to the Deshnoke during Navratras, in April/May and October/November. Food is offered to the rats in tonnes and one can see thousands if not lakhs of rats being fed around the temple premises for good luck and prosperity.
Celebrated around - March/ April and September/ October
Kila Raipur Rural Olympics
Olympics may be a Greek invention but one of the most prominent rural sports festival in India that is closer to the same is the Kila Raipur Rural Olympics. It is held each year in Kila Raipur near Ludhiana in Punjab. The festival is immensely popular and attracts competitors from across the country and the world too. The event has gained enormous popularity over the past six decades that it attracts competitors from all over the world. The three-day long festival celebrates different kinds of sports with more than 4000 sports men and women taking part. Even animals like dogs, camels, etc. take part in the festival. Some pull trucks from the teeth, while others fight with each other or wrestle.
Celebrated around - February
India is a melting pot of incredible and diverse cultures whose celebrations manifest in some of the most beautiful yet unusual ways. Here’s The Sherp’s pick of the oddest events that take place in nooks and corners of the country, through the year.
1. Thaipusam Festival
Where: Palani, Tamil Nadu
When: January to February
The Thaipusam Festival is a particularly gory South Indian festival that involves all forms of piercings and bodily torture. The festival is quite similar to the Vegetarian Festival of Phuket in Thailand where people parade around with random skewers, hooks, pins and other scary objects pierced through their bodies. The festival is celebrated to commemorate a significant part of Hindu mythlogy – when Goddess Parvati gifted Lord Murugan a vel or spear to fight a demon or an Asura. The act of piercing oneself during this festival is an act of hardcore devotion which Goddess Parvati is supposed to be impressed by. What makes it more difficult to endure? All the devotees who practice this custom abstain from food and water for a few days before piercing themselves.
2. Vautha Mela
Where: Vautha, Gujarat
Vautha Mela is a bit dorky if not funny. The festival, that takes place in Gujarat is essentially a massive mela where the trading of donkeys is its most significant feature. The gypsy traders who sell and buy donkeys decorate their animals in gaudy and bright colours, making them the highlight of the country fair. This trading mela attracts over 50,000 people and includes the exchaging of around 4000 donkeys.
3. Kila Raipur Rural Olympics
Where: Raipur, India
An unassuming festival that attracts thousands and thousands of tourists every year, the Kila Raipur Sports Festival is a rural event depicting salt-of-the-earth sport and games from Punjab. If you do manage to make it to this 3 day event, do not miss out on the bullock cart races, camel races, the tractor races, the horse dance(?!) and last but not least the legendary tug-of-war. This competition (which demonstrative of some serious skill) is important entertainment for the locals, and is taken quite seriously. If you’re into adventure sports and are backpacking across northern India, this would be an apt pit-stop for you.
Where: Tamil Nadu
When: July – August
Aadi Festival of Tamil Nadu centres around the aspect of smashing coconuts on peoples head. The ritual is a common practice of devotees of the Mahalaxmi Temple in the Karur district of Tamil Nadu.
How did people start wacking each other with coconuts you ask? Blame it on the British Raj. Back in those days the locals and the British colonialists indulged in an unusual bet, where the locals would have to break stones on their heads to avoid the construction of a railway track across a temple. The villagers took on the challenge willingly and won it, thus keeping their temple safe. The festival has been celebrated ever since.
When: Not specified
This festival has garnered a lot of negative attention as it’s basis stems from the rigid Hindu Caste system. At the Kukke Subramania Temple in Karnataka, people from lower castes roll over the leftover food of Brahmins on banana leaves. This nauseating and insensitive ritual is supposed to help people get rid of ailments and such.
5. Puli kali
When: During Onam every September
Puli Kali is a festival of folk dance and music, during Kerela’s biggest harvest festival – Onam and takes place in Thrissur. During this ceremony performers paint themselves to look like tigers and enact roles of the animal to the beats played in the background. The Maharaja of Cochin pioneered this practice to celebrate Kerela’s wild and celebrated macho spirit. It is the most fascinating and striking feature of the Onam festival and is often considered a festival itself.
6. Nag Panchami
Where: Through out India
When: All through the year
Nag Panchami has to be India’s weirdest addition to global culture. The most hardcore and craziest celebrations of this festival take place in Baltis Village of Maharashtra where snakes are actually worshipped by people. So much so that, they bring them to temples to offer them milk and fat rats. After this bizarre ritual the snakes are let go into the wild. Another dangerous aspect about Nag Panchami is that none of the snakes worshipped are supposed to have their fangs or venom removed.
7. Agni Kheli
The term Agni Kheli quite literally translates to playing with fire and that is exactly what this celebration is about. Every April, hundreds of men in nothing but loin cloths take on the challenge to throw fireballs at each other, walk on fire and perform the most dangerous feats. Usually, these men are divided into two teams where one team throws balls of fire and the other team is supposed to catch them. If a player catches fire, he is given a mystical and special ‘holy water’ called Kumkumarchane to satiate him. One thing is for sure, Agni Kheli is truly a spectacle to watch.
8. Lath-mar Holi
When: March – April
This is a festival takes takes place in the anticipation of holi, only in Mathura. A legend has it that Lord Krishna was once chased out of Barsana by women with sticks because of his consistent teasing and playfulness. To reenact this story, men from the neighbouring village come to Barsana only to be chased out by women with lathis or wooden sticks.
9. Raja Parba
Here is a festival celebrated in Orissa that likens the fertility of harvest to that of a woman, thus celebrating a girl’s onset of womanhood i.e. menstruation. Raja Parba is essentially a festival of harvest held during four days in June, that inaugurates and welcomes a nourishing harvest through the year in Orissa. The biological symbolism of this event comes from the the moistening of the sun dried soil with the first showers of the monsoon in June, thus making the it ready for productivity. The premise of the festival, is like how women menstruating is a sign of fertility, Mother Earth also menstruates for these three to four days, and thus all agricultural work will be suspended. Now even though this may be a celebration, during the three days of Raja Parba ,women must adhere to traditional customs observed during menstruation. As per orthodox Hindu traditions, women must suspend all house work and not touch anyone else, which indicates the supposed ‘impurity’ of the female body .This acts as a paradoxical factor of a festival that supposedly ‘celebrates’ women. Rituals like rising before dawn, covering their bodies in tumeric paste and taking a ‘purifactory’ bath in a river or tank are common practices as well.