Nurtured by centuries of tradition, the warm and hospitable people of Himachal Pradesh celebrate life in hosting a variety of fairs and festivals to sometimes honour gods and goddesses and on many other occasions to socialize by marking the season, be it with hope when spring is breaking out or by dancing and dining after the harvests bounty is done with.
These social gathering are a grand display of the local culture where trade, religion, sport and celebrations has a visiting tourist happily partake in these festivities.
Age old beliefs manifest in over 2000 village deities has each region and valley hold onto their faiths. Many religious fairs like the Kullu Dussehra, Chamba’s Minjar, Renuka ji Fair and Mandi Shivratri in recent years have gained much prominence.
To ring in the New Year, thousands of holidaymakers throng the popular hill stations of Shimla, Manali, Chail, Dharamshala, and Dalhousie each year to partake in the celebrations held. The local administration and the hospitality service providers often put up shows, events or fun competitions for the festive season to engage the tourists in their merry-making as the old year passes out and the new one is ushered in.
Manali Winter Carnival
Gaiety and fanfare mark the week-long Winter Carnival festival held in the first week of January at Manali. Before a large number of Indian and foreign tourists, cultural teams from many states put up folk dance performances. Competitions in solo dance, group dance, fashion show, musical performances are organized and even a Winter Queen beauty pageant/contest is held. Nearby in Solang Valley, a skiing competition is also conducted.
Lohri – Makar Sakranti
Celebrated on 13th January, Lohri brings the community together for an evening spent dancing to folk songs around bonfires in many parts of Himachal. The Pragpur in Kangra district even holds a fair for the occasion.
Held soon after the Winter Solstice on 14th January, Makar Sankranti marks the ending of long cold nights by holding celebrations with an early morning bath followed by religious prayers and a festive, neighbours and other guests. An aromatic ‘Khichadi’ (black gram and rice cooked together) served with ‘ghee’, is the special dish for the occasion. Tattapani hot springs, on the banks of River Satluj, near Shimla draws a lot of devotees to the place for Mass bathing on this day.
In deep winter Halda, held around the new year time, is a festival of the Chandra-Bhaga valleys of Lahaul. Villagers with torches of cedar wood lit up step out in the night to drive away evil forces. After the ceremony, singing and dancing around a bonfire follows that can go on for a couple of days. Shiskar Apa, a goddess of wealth, is also worshipped on the occasion.
Phagli, celebrated mainly to usher in spring from mid January onwards, in Lahaul’s Pattan valley is held by worshipping Shiva, Naga and the goddess Hadimba. Ritual dishes are also cooked and eaten at Kinnaur’s Sazi (or Sazo), which comes around this time too. In Parvati-Tirthan valley of Kullu masked dancers move from village to village singing folk songs and performing skits.
Basant Panchmi usually celebrated in February marks the arrival of spring. Every town in the lower hills appears to keep a reserve of color for the occasion, for the skies are filled with a medley of spectrum kites on the occasion.
This is a festival celebrated by Buddhists at monasteries in Lahaul – Spiti and other parts of the state. Ritual dances with an unbelievably rich imagery are held to some of the most spectacular performances. The stylized chhaam dance with elaborate costumes and masks, commemorates the assassination of a cruel Tibetan King. Wrongly called ‘the devil dance’, it actually symbolises the triumph of good over evil.
Celebrated with great fervour in many parts of Himachal Pradesh, Shivratri is a grand drawn out affair in Mandi, also known as Chhoti Kashi, where the festivities go on for a week, where the festival commemorates Lord Shiva, the presiding deity of Mandi.
It is on the arrival of Kamru Nag, the deity of Gohar, as the special guest for the occasion that gets the festival underway. On palanquins more than two hundred local deities, accompanied with folk bands, ride into town to pay obeisance to Lord Shiva at the Bhootnath Temple and to participate in the celebrations.
With deep religious devotion Shivratri is also celebrated with equal enthusiasm in rural areas of Kullu, Mandi, Shimla, Sirmaur, Chamba and Kangra. The aesthetically built Lord Shiva stone temple at Baijnath is decorated with flowers where devotees throng to offer milk and worship the deity.
Originally a cattle fair held in March, the Nalwari fair at Bilaspur is a time for fun, sport and festivities. Cattle are still traded but the wrestling bouts at the fair draw large attendances.
Like elsewhere in the country, Holi is celebrated with great fervour. At Palampur (Kangra) and Sujanpur (Hamirpur) fairs are held. At Paonta Sahib, on the banks of river Yamuna in Sirmour, Hindu and Sikh pilgrims come together at the famous Gurudwara associated with Guru Gobind Singh to celebrate the popular festival.
The springtime of March-April is a religious and festive time when a large number of pilgrims do visit some very revered temples in Himachal Pradesh. The religious fervour along the Shaktipeeth circuit of Naina Devi ji temple in Bilaspur, Chintpurni Devi temple in Una, Bajreshwari Devi temple in Kangra, Jwalamukhi temple at Jwalamukhi and Chamunda Devi temple at Chamunda take on a festive look with the entire townships participating in the celebrations.
Elsewhere, in Sirmour, the Balasundari fair around this time is held at Trilokpur near Nahan. Devotees in large numbers visit the Baglamukhi temple at Bankhandi in Kangra to seek the goddesses blessings. Community feasts are part of the Navratri celebrations that are spread over 9 days.
At the hilltop cave shrine of Deotsidh (Seo), on the district border of Hamirpur with Bilaspur, a month long religious fair is held in March and April.
Held on the threshold of summer, Baisakhi abides by the solar calendar and falls on 13th April. Many village fairs are held where wrestling, dancing and archery competitions are conducted on this day.
In April, Rali is celebrated in Kangra. The festival commemorates a beautiful maiden Rali, who leapt into a stream after she was married against her wishes. The groom and her brothers jumped after but none survived. For the festival clay models of all three are made to which maidens pray for grooms of their choice and the newly-wedded pray seeking happiness and prosperity.
Sui Mela, Chamba
Overlooking Chamba at the Sui Mata Temple a festival is held commemorating a queen who ended the towns water scarcity in 10th century. Only celebrated by women and children, they take a day out to pay obeisance at this temple. Stalls displaying local merchandise make brisk sales during the festival.
Mahu Nag Fair Karsog, Mandi
In April, the Mahu Nag fair at Taraur village of Karsog is a big draw. The local deity in a planquin carried by devotees arrives in a procession dancing to the lively drum beats of local bands. The social gathering is well attended by women and children from neighbouring villages and is a good occasion to glimpse the vibrant culture.
Other fairs and Activities in May
Several spring and summer fairs are held in May. At Markandeya Temple near Bilaspur a religious fair is held and in Rohru, a Jatar fair is held commemorating the local deity Shikhru
Kullu holds the Spring Festival and Manali celebrates the Dhoongri fair in honour of Goddess Hadimba Devi, the presiding deity of the popular tourist township. In Parvati-Tirthan valley of Kullu, the Banjar and Sainj fairs are held and at the Sipur glade below Mashobra, near Shimla, the Sipi Fair is held during the month.
At the height of summer, in early June, the Shimla hold a Summer Festival with a variety of programs which include flower shows, exhibitions of paintings, photographic competitions, book festivals and power packed cultural evenings. Star entertaining actors share the stage with budding local talent and local schools also put up performances during the festival.
In Solan, on the third Sunday of June, the Shoolini Fair is a grand spectacle. The festival is held in honour of goddess Shoolini, the presiding deity of the region, who also graces the function. Besides cultural programs, wrestling bouts, the archery game of Thoda and other sporting events are also played at this festival.
Ghantal Festival, Lahaul
After a long cold winter, summer is a season to celebrate and revere the gods. In June, on a full moon night, the Ghantal festival is held at Lahaul’s oldest Guru Ghantal Buddhist monastery . It is a time for prayers and festivities. Tourists passing through, camping or trekking nearby join the festivities at Guru Ghantal Monastery, where they get a rare glimpse of an age-old culture.
Keylong, the administrative headquarters of Lahaul, also holds the Lahaul Festival during the summer months. Stalls put for the festival are a good time to shop for local merchandise.
Ladarcha Fair, Kaza – Spiti
Summer is a brief season in the highlands of Spiti valley. In July/August, Kaza the headquarter of Spiti Valley holds the Ladarcha fair. Originally Ladaracha was a trade fair and where a variety of goods, local produce and curios are still bought and sold; games, song, dances and cultural festivities add more attraction to this festival. It is also a good time to glimpse the culture of this spectacular land.
Minjar Fair, Chamba
At the time of sprouting of silk strands (locally called Minjar) from fruiting maize corns in July/August that Mionjar fair is held in Chamba. Celebrating nature’s bounty, the farming community prays for a good harvest by offering the first ‘Minjar’ to the waters of River Ravi. For a whole week, the entire town wears a festive look. Many stalls selling local crafts and produce are set up and for the evenings, cultural performances are held.
Manimahesh Yatra, Bharmaur – Chamba
The simplicity, grandeur and intense belief system of Bharmaur valley can be witnessed during the holding of the Manimahesh Yatra in August/September. This festival is held after Janmashtami. The Yatra is an arduous and difficult trek to the scenic mountain lake (altitude 4190 meters) lying at the foot of the commanding Mount Kailash at Manimahesh. At Bharmaur, 35 km short of the lake, the nomadic Gaddi tribesman hold a fair that goes on for six days.
At its prime in August / September the scenic Dal Lake, in Upper Dharamshala, hosts a fair that has a lot of natives, Tibetans from McLeodganj, domestic and foreign tourists participate in the merry making.
The popular hilltop temple of Naina Devi in Bilaspur holds the religious Shravan Fair in August. Many pilgrims visit the temple during this time. Stalls set up sell many types of merchandise and community feasts are also held on the occasion.
As the monsoon rains withdraw, the meadows in Kinnaur mountains for September come alive with a rare crop of wild flowers. ‘Fullaich’ (Phulaich). A festival of flowers is celebrated with villagers walking distances to gather this wild bounty and offer it to the deities, then comes a spate of revelry – singing, dancing and feasting. Kalpa has some of the most vibrant celebrations and every twelve years a special festival is held.
Shakti Devi Fair, Chhatradi – Chamba
At Chhatradi in a lesser known corner of Chamba countryside, a fair centered around the aesthetically built temple of Shakti Devi is celebrated with much fanfare. The dance performance at the festival leaves the audience spellbound.
Much different from the Dussehra celebrated elsewhere in the county, the Kullu Dussehra has a tradition that goes back to many the small idol of Lord Raghunath was brought from Ayodhya and established in the valley.
Revered as the presiding deity of Kullu and its erstwhile royal family, on Dussehra, the idol, all decorated up, is brought out riding in a magnificent wood chariot that is pulled by devotees into Dhalpur ground to get the week long celebration started. In attendance are over 200 village deities and their followers who come to participate in the festivities. Numerous stalls offer a variety of local wares. Cultural evenings are held at an open air theatre which even have foreign troupes participating.
Held after the harvest is done in the valleys, Lavi fair is the outcome of a trade treaty signed in 1681 between an erstwhile princely state of Rampur and Tibet. Even though there is no trade with Tibet anymore but the fair is still celebrated with much fanfare for three days. Starting from 11th November many stalls come up at open places at Rampur Bushair, the gateway town to Kinnaur.
Traders from far and near join in to trade in Kinnauri woolens – garments, wool, pashmina, shawls, handwoven tweeds, metalware, pottery, jewellry, crunchy apples, Kinnauri horses, the dry fruits of chilgoza, walnuts, almonds and dried apricots. The evenings are given to cultural performances where the crowds is entertained to some lively music, plays and pop star shows.
More than a religious festival, Renuka fair, held in the scenic environs of Renuka Lake near Nahan in Sirmaur. This is a time after harvest that gives neighbours time to socialise, trade surpluses and instill civic pride.
The week long festival in November commemorates the reunion of Lord Parshuram with his mother Mata Renuka. For the festival, Lord Parshuram is brought in a palanquin from the temple at Jamu Koti village and it departs after taking a holy dip in the lake. Dressed in colourful traditional attire, the devotees dancing to age old folk songs put to music with some lively drum beats livens up the festivities.