Uttarakhand is popularly known as 'Devbhoomi' or the land of gods. It is a very famous pilgrimage site where people come from all parts of India and even the world to immerse in the spiritual and religious environment. From the sacred ghats of Ganga in Haridwar to the snow-capped mountains of Auli, Uttarakhand is viewed as a holy place. It has a varied and vibrant culture as it is home to people of different ethnic groups, tribal communities, and even immigrants. Here, people speak many languages like Hindi, Bhotia, Garhwali, Kumaoni, wear different traditional dresses and also celebrate various festivals. The beliefs and traditions of the Garhwali and Kumaoni people are a significant part of their life and also ascertain their identity.
Here is a list of Festivals of Uttarakhand which are celebrated by the people in full zeal:
1. Kumbh Mela
Kumbh Mela is one of the biggest and the most popular festival of Uttarakhand. Although technically it is a mela or fair, it is a significant occasion for the people of this northern state. It is the largest congregation of pilgrims which involves taking dips in the river of Ganga to rid oneself of one's sins. Devotees, saints, sadhus, or just onlookers, irrespective of their caste, creed or gender come from across the nation and even from around the world to bathe themselves in the waters of Ganga, hoping to get rid of the cycle of birth and death. This mela is a 3-month long festival and takes place once in every four years rotating between Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujjain, and Nasik, i.e., only once in 12 years in any one place. The exact date is picked by Vikrant calendar after elaborate rituals.
It is hard to determine when precisely this festival began although its origins can be found in Hindu mythology. It is believed that Lord Vishnu while transporting Amrit (drink of immortality) to Kumbh, i.e., the sacred pitcher, left drops of it at four places (the present day holy places). There is also reference to a battle between the devas and asuras for this Amrit in the religious texts which are cited as the reason for transporting this Amrit to a safe place. The first historical reference to the Kumbh Mela can be found in the writings of the Chinese traveler, Hiuen Tsang who came to India in 600 AD during the reign of Harshvardhan. He talked about a gathering on the ghats of Allahabad where people took turns bathing themselves in the river's waters.
Kumbh Mela of Haridwar attracts the most audience and even has a record of hosting the most significant human gathering in the world.
2. Basant Panchami
Basant Panchami is the festival which celebrates the coming of Basant or Spring season. It is a significant festival in Uttarakhand. This festival marks the end of winter, a season of death and decay, and is celebrated in the month of Magh or January/ February. The locals dress themselves up in yellow clothing, perform Chounphula and Jhumelia dances and fly kites. They worship Saraswati, goddess of knowledge and prosperity and the land. Sweet rice is made in almost every home.
3. Bhitauli and Harela
Among the people of Uttarakhand, every season has some festivals, and each festival is celebrated appropriately. Harela is a festival that marks the beginning of the rainy season or monsoon. The people belonging to the Kumaon community celebrate this festival during the month of Shravana, i.e., July-August. Mythologically, this festival commemorates the wedding of Lord Shiva and Parvati. People make small idols or dikars of gods like Maheshwar, Ganesh. This festival is followed by another, Bhitauli which is celebrated in the month of Chaitra, i.e., March - April. It revolves around agriculture where women sow seeds in the soil and by the end of the festival they reap the harvest which is called harela. This gives them the opportunity to test the quality of their seeds. During this festival, brothers also provide gifts for their sisters.
This festival of colours is a big occasion for the people of Uttarakhand. Holi is celebrated with a lot more fervour in the Kumaon region where the celebrations start as early as Basant Panchami. As per the mythology, Holi marks the triumph of good over evil. Unlike the plains where Holika Dahan (burning of a pyre) is an integral part of Holi, in Uttarakhand, as the crop is not harvested yet, ears of grains are not offered to the holy fire.
Folk music is another essential part of holi celebrations. Mahila Holi involves women singing to their heart's content; Khadi Holi involves the locals donning their traditional clothes, usually observed in rural areas and Baithiki Holi requires singing of different classical ragas. People also make the traditional gujiya, and fried potatoes called aloo gutuk which are served with a Himalayan spice called jamboo.
5. Makar Sankranti
Makar Sankranti is a famous festival celebrated in many states of India. For the people of Uttarakhand, this festival marks the change of season. As per the Hindu religious texts, Makar Sankranti marks the day of Uttarayani, i.e., the sun has entered the zodiacal sign of 'makar' (Capricorn) from 'kark' (cancer) and has thus started moving towards the north.
On this day, people worship the sun at sunrise and bathe in the river waters. The locals prepare Khichdi and til ke laddoo. The popular fair of Uttarayani also takes place during this time.
6. Kale Kauva or Ghughutia
During the time of Makar Sankranti, the festival of Ghughutia or Kale Kauva is also celebrated. The locals prepare sweets made from deep-fried flour in different shapes like knives, swords, etc. By feeding the crows and migratory birds, the locals welcome them and also hope that they come back next year as well. The children also sing songs to attract these migratory birds.
7. Phool Dei
Phool Dei is a festival that celebrates the year's harvest and the coming of the spring season. It takes place on the first day of the Chaitra season (March-April) as per the Hindu calendar and is also known as the harvest festival. As the name suggests, it is the time when flowers blossom and this is accompanied by the ceremonial pudding called dei which is made by the locals using jaggery or gud, curd and flour. This dish is an integral part of the festival.
Young girls are an integral part of this festival of Uttarakhand. They go from house to house, singing the folk song of 'Phool Dei' with offerings of jaggery, rice, and coconut. It is believed that they bless the homes by placing flowers and rice on the doorsteps. In return, the young girls are offered along with sweets and blessings for their act.
8. Ganga Dusshera
Ganga Dusshera or Dasar is a festival that celebrates the advent of the holy river Ganga from the heaven above. This festival falls on Dashami (tenth day) of the month of Jyeshtha and is a ten-day long festival. It is observed on the ghats of Ganga in Haridwar, Rishikesh, and Allahabad where devotees take a dip in the river water hoping to rid oneself of their sins for ten consecutive days. This is considered a purification act. Darshans are held, and watermelons and kakdi are offered to the deity. Ganga Dusshera is a big festival that attracts a lot of devotees.
Kandali festival is celebrated by the Rung tribe in the Chaundans valley of Pithoragarh district in the Kumaon division. This Uttarakhandi festival marks the flowering of the flower Kandali which blooms only once in 12 years.
This festival celebrates the defeat of Zorawar Singh's army, a general of the Sikh Empire who tried to invade this region in 1841. As per the local stories, it was the women who defended this region against the soldiers who tried to loot the villages and hid in the Kandali shrub. In this process, the shrub was also destroyed. Another legend states that a young boy died after applying the Kandali plant on his wounds, and subsequently his mother cursed the plant and ordered the women to rip it out of the ground when it reached its full bloom.
It is a week-long festival in which the people of the valley worship the idol of Lord Shiva made from barley and buckwheat and pray for victories over their enemies. This is followed by puja, a ceremonial feast and then the raising of the flag. Victorious cries are uttered, and the scene of resistance is also recreated. The locals even proceed to attack the shrub of Kandali. Local liquor is also an integral part of this festival. Festivities and celebration take place all night.
10. Bat Savitri
Bat Savitri is another famous festival in Uttarakhand. During this, married women fast for an entire day for the welfare and prosperity of their husbands and offer prayers to the deity Savitri and a banyan tree or bat.
In the Hindu religion, Banyan tree is considered holy. The origin of this festival can be traced to the Mahabharata in which Savitri, whose husband Satyavan died within a year of their marriage, fasts and prays and finally her devotion pays off as her husband returns from the dead. It is under the banyan tree that this act takes place. This festival takes place on Amavasya (day of the full moon) in the month of Jyestha, i.e., June.
11. Purnagiri Mela
Bearing the name of the temple in which it is held, the Purnagiri Mela is a sacred festival that is celebrated to commemorate Goddess Sati. At an elevation of over 1650m above mean sea level, not only do the vibrant colours bring life to the festival, the picturesque views of the Himalayas that are on display are a sight to behold. In terms of its religious significance, the area in which the Purnagiri Temple is now situated is believed to be the place where the navel of Sati and Savant Prajapati was cut down by the Vishnu Chakra and is also one of the 108 'Siddha Peethas' (sacred) which is visited by pilgrims throughout the year.
This Mela takes place annually during the period of Chaitra Navratri and spans for over a period of two months.
12. Syalde Bikhauti Mela
An annual fair that is annually held in the months of April-May in the town of Dwarahat (Almora), the Syalde Bikhauti Mela is held in two phases; the first being held in the Vimandeshwar Temple and the other in the Dwarahat marketplace. During the mela, one can witness folk dances and songs with traditional foliage being adorned by the gathered people. An important ritual, 'Oda Bhetna' refers to the striking of the stone (Oda).
As per legend, the ancient times saw people worship their deity in a temple nearby and due to some friction between the followers of the two groups, a brawl broke out that lead to bloodshed.The leader of the group that lost the fight was beheaded and a stone (Oda) was placed near it to commemorate the fallen leader. The numerous traditions on display and the lip-smacking Indian delicacy of 'Jalebi' being an integral part of the fair, the Syalde Bikhauti Mela is one of cultural convergence.
13. International Yoga Festival, Rishikesh
Yoga, the age-old Indian science of mental health and physical wellbeing, sees the gathering of thousands of yoga enthusiasts in Rishikesh to celebrate the techniques devised by sages of yesteryear. In today's fast-paced lifestyle, Yoga has changed lives via its holistic techniques. The first edition of the International Yoga Festival was held way back in the year 1999 in the Parmarth Niketan Ashram, under the guidance of Pujya Shri Swami Veda Bharatji but ever since its inception, it has grown leaps and bounds in terms of its attendees. With the 2019 edition set to be held during 1st -7th March 2019, one can be assured to celebrating the various aspects of Indian culture via the Sattvic food, 'Bhajans' and 'Kirtans' and humble abode, features that are sure to arouse your senses. The true religious spirit of Rishikesh is further celebrated as evenings of the weeklong
The one-week Festival covers over 70 hours of Yoga classes with the general daily program being:
Classes start at 4 AM. One-hour yoga class at 6.30 AM, followed by a simple breakfast. Several two-hour hour yoga sessions start at 8.30 AM. Inspiring lectures from revered saints and yogacharyas at 11:00 AM. Traditional Indian lunch from 12:30 PM to 1:30 PM. After a short rest, three Yogasana classes from 3.30 PM to 5.00 PM. From 6.00 PM to 7.00 PM, attend the Aarti, on the banks of the river Ganga. Dinner at 7.00 PM. Special evening programs of Satsang, cultural song and dance performances, campfires, etc. Lights out at 9.30 PM.
14. Ghee Sankranti
A festival that portrays the gratitude of the locals who earn a living via the occupation of farming by marking the onset of the harvesting season, the Ghee Sankranti also known as the 'Olgia' festival, is celebrated on the first day of the month of August (Bhado); a time wherein the crops are thriving and the milk-laden cattle are ready to be milked. In terms of how the celebration has gradually evolved from over the years, the ancient tradition saw nephews and sons-in-laws give presents to their maternal uncles and fathers-in-laws respectively. However, today's context is summarised by the fact that agriculturists and artisans give presents to their landowners. Common presents that are exchanged include axes, ghee, datkhocha (metallic toothpick) and firewood. As the name suggests, an important ritual of this festival includes that of eating ghee and chapatis stuffed with urad dal!
Marked as the festival of pastoralists and agriculturalists, the 'Hill Jatra' festival was first observed in India in the Kumaour village. The ceremony is related to the 'ropai' (the plantation of paddy), for which one must sacrifice a buffalo to please the Gods who will ensure a good yield for the ongoing farming season.
In regards to the actual ceremony, it can be broadly classified under three categories: worship and ritualistic services forming the first set of activities followed by numerous pastoral activities. To conclude the ceremony, songs are recited and people are seen to be wearing marks that express the rich cultural heritage of Uttarakhand. Traditional dances like that of the 'Chanchari' are performed, thereby making the entire festival a wholesome and immersive experience.
Held in the Pithoragarh District of Uttarakhand, the Kandali festival is one that has been known for its cultural appeal and charm over its travelers. Coinciding in the months of August-October, the origin and history behind this festival yet remains unclear; variations include the defeat of Zorawar Singh's armed forces which had been claimed to have assaulted Pithoragarh in the late nineteenth century.
17. Kanwar Yatra
The onset of the Hindu month of Shravan (July) marks the commencement of the sacred pilgrimage journey of the 'Kanwar Yatra'. During the month-long yatra, millions of devotees of Lord Shiva from all over the country make a journey to the banks of the River Ganga (cities like Haridwar, Gangotri, Gaumukh, etc) and carry back sacred water from the river to a Shiva temple. The dedication of the devotees is such that they even carry their deity on a 'Kanwar' and travel to the holy river bare feet. Large camps and gatherings can be seen in Haridwar and Gangotri during the yatra with numerous makeshift accommodations that are constructed across the journey for the Kanwarias to rest. The magnanimity of the event can be fathomed when considered that the gathering on the ghats of the River Ganga in Haridwar has been recorded as one the biggest human gatherings in India.
18. Bissu Mela
Organized in the Chakrata Block of Dehradun, the Bissu Mela is an expansive fair that is celebrated by the Jaunsari tribe, whose origins can be traced back to that of the Pandavas. Celebrated for over the period of a week in virtue of a good harvest season in Uttarakhand, a major attraction of the fair sees villagers from all over gather together to shower their love and affection to 'Santoora Devi', an incarnation of Goddess Durga. One can indulge in the cultural diversity by grooving to the folk music wherein men and women sport vivid and flamboyant traditional clothes while bringing to life lost traditions for the younger generations to feast upon.
19. Nanda Devi Raj Jat Yatra
Also known as the 'Himalayan Mahakumbh', this festival marks a commemoration to Goddess Nanda Devi wherein devotees from both the Garhwal and Kumaon regions of Uttarakhand come together to be a part of the sacred yatra. Held for a duration of three weeks and being organized once in every twelve years, the Nanda Devi Raj Jat Yatra which spans over 280 km takes almost 22 days to complete. During this yatra, all sections of the society take part- dalits play drums, thakurs blow bhankauras, and brahmins take care of ceremonial parasols.
20. Magh Mela
Known to be one of the most popular fairs in the Uttarkashi district in Uttarakhand, the Magh Mela is a religious fair that has gradually become an important source of income via tourism. Held during the month of January, (14th-21st January) dolis or palanquins carrying the deity, are seen flocking to the Ramlila Ground where devotees immerse themselves in the river Ganga. A fair which exhibits local produce and handicrafts of local artisans from all over Uttarakhand, in the modern time is not restricted to Uttarkashi district- a skiing ground being prepared in Dayara Bugyal, a premier meadow in India.
21. Uttarayani Mela
The second week of January, the auspicious day of Makar Sankranti marks the onset of the Uttarayani Mela which is held in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand (Bageshwar, Ranibagh, Hanseswari and so forth). The Bagnath Temple in Bageshwar serves as the ground for the fair which usually spans for a week. Festivities and cultural heritage of the area is illustrated by a plethora of local artists singing Jhoras, Chancharis and Bairas (folklore). Local produce such as iron and copper vessels, baskets, casks, mattresses and many more items can be purchased while at the fair.
According to the local people of the area, when the sun moves from the Southern Hemisphere to the Northern Hemisphere, a dip in the water of the river is reckoned to be auspicious and claims to cleanse the spirit.
Uttarakhand is home to people of varied culture, but many of their festivals revolve around harvest and agriculture, which is an integral source of their livelihood.