Mass Effect: India’s great gatherings

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In the world’s second most populous country, ANURAG MALLICK & PRIYA GANAPATHY showcase unusual gatherings besides the Maha Kumbh Mela – bizarre festivals, wildlife spectacles, wedding marts, sporting jamborees, tribal meets and more

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Kodava Family Hockey Festival
According to a local saying a Coorg boy is born with a gun in one hand and a hockey stick in the other. Like Punjab, this tiny region in Karnataka has given the country many brave generals and excellent hockey players. Little wonder that Coorg hosts the world’s largest hockey tournament. Recognized by the Limca Book of Records, the month-long ‘Family’ festival in April-May sees hundreds of far-flung Kodava families converging to represent their clan. Into its 17th edition, the annual festival is named after the maneypeda (clan name) of the organizing family, with cultural programs, feasting and matchmaking on the sidelines.
When: 14 April-12 May, 2013

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Kabini elephant congregation 
Come the hot summer days of May when the river Kabini shrinks down to a trickle, massive herds of elephants gather by the dry riverbank. Groups of up to 500 Asian elephants that would otherwise be scattered in the dense forests of Nagarahole, Wayanad, Bandipur and Mudumalai, congregate to graze and bathe here in their quest for water in the dry season. Visitors speak of walking in fields of elephant dung! Base yourself at Kabini’s excellent wildlife resorts to witness the summer spectacle.
When: May-June

Saurath Mela
Every year, the tiny village of Saurath in North Bihar’s Mithila region hosts a mass marriage mart. A unique congregation of Maithil Brahmans, Saurath Sabha Gachchhi is held in a 22-bigha orchard donated by the Darbhanga Maharaj. Participating villages are allotted a dera (sitting place) where fathers scout for suitable grooms for their daughters aided by ghataks (middlemen). Marriages are fixed in a transparent manner after matching horoscopes by panjikars (registrars), who issue a certificate of non-relationship based on panji, genealogical records dating back to 14th century. The only catch, no ladies here!
When: 20-29 June, 2013

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Shravan Mela 
In the month of shravan, lakhs of kanwariyas collect holy water from the Ganga at Sultanganj, carry it in pots on a kanwar (sling) and walk 105km across hills and rivers to offer libations on the jyotirlinga at Baidyanath Dham in Deoghar. Saffron-clothed devotees traverse the path from Bihar to Jharkhand, which becomes an unending sea of orange with chants of ‘Bol bam’ in the air. On Mondays, a day holy to Shiva, traffic rises up to 4 lakh pilgrims. Some do it on foot, some measure the length with their bodies, while another class of devotees called dak bams complete the spiritual marathon in 15-17 hours, without stopping for a single moment.
When: 21 July-21 August, 2013

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Snake boat races of Kerala
Though Kerala is famous for epic festivals like Thrissur Pooram where temple deities are paraded on caparisoned elephants and Bharani mahotsavam at Kodungallor where devotees hurl abuses to awaken the goddess, the snake boat races are something else. The chundan valloms are 100-foot long crafts with a prow like the raised hood of a snake and require synchronized paddling by hundreds of oarsmen, making it the largest team sport in the world. Champakulam, the oldest boat race, kickstarts the racing season followed by the prestigious Nehru Trophy, Payippad, Kumarakom and Aranmula races.
When: August-September

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Pushkar Camel Fair 
Bihar’s month-long Sonepur cattle fair and UP’s Bateshwar Mela are well known, but Rajasthan’s Pushkar Mela has evolved into a carnival. Rajasthani women in dazzling veils, men in fluorescent turbans, camel races, cultural programs, moustache competitions, tug-of-war between locals and visitors; there’s a lot going on. Besides trading in camels, horses and elephants, eye-catching stalls sell colourful stirrups to agricultural implements. Get a birds’ eye view from a giant wheel, explore the fair in a leisurely camel cart ride, try Israeli or Indian cuisine at a rooftop restaurant overlooking the lake or visit the only Brahma temple in India with active worship.
When: 9-17 November, 2013

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Hornbill Festival
Held at Naga Heritage Village in Kisama, a permanent site 12km from the capital Kohima, the Hornbill Festival is the best place to catch all of Nagaland’s 16 tribes in one place. Ringing the arena are morungs (communal huts) of each tribe, where young boys learnt stories on culture and folklore from elders of the host family who sat around a fireplace and sipped thutse (rice beer). On showcase are traditional song and dances, archery, Naga wrestling, indigenous games and local delicacies like smoked pork. Buy Konyak beads and necklaces, Wancho wood-carvings, Phom black pottery or vibrant warrior shawls of the Angami, Yimchunger and other tribes. Besides rock concerts, motor rallies and fashion shows, there are also competitions to eat the dreaded Raja chilli (also called Nagahari or Tezpur chilli)!
When: 1-7 December

Winter migratories
Every winter, migratory birds flock to India by the thousands at various lakes and wetlands across the country. From Nal Sarovar and Little Rann of Kutch in Gujarat to India’s largest coastal lagoon Chilika Lake in Orissa, India becomes a large wintering ground for geese, pelicans, ducks, cranes and other aquatic avifauna. Spot painted storks at the tiny village of Kokarebellur near Mysore or flamingoes at Mumbai’s mudflats, Chennai’s Pallikaranai marsh and Sambhar, India’s largest inland saline lake. But the most amazing spectacle is the congregation of demoiselle cranes at Khichan, a tiny hamlet near Jodhpur. Being staunch vegetarians, the village community of Jain Marwaris idolizes the kurja (crane) for its vegetarian diet and monogamous nature. As part of a systematic feeding program, chugga ghars (feeding enclosures) on the village outskirts host these cranes with two feeding sessions daily (each 90 minutes) as the birds hop across from the dunes and the sky turns black with their wings!
When: Jan-February

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Joydeb Baul Mela, Kenduli 
If songs of love and freedom, poor sanitation and three days of camping defined Woodstock; the Joydeb Mela is rural India’s answer to it. Held around Sankranti on the last day of Poush to the second day of Magh to celebrate the birth anniversary of  poet saint Jaydev, the festival draws baul singers, kirtanias and wandering minstrels of Bengal. Hundreds of pandals or temporary shelters on the banks of the Ajoy River resonate with songs of the divine and philosophical musings of Vaishnava saints. Nightlong dramas and dance ballets bring stories of mythology alive as visitors ramble about the terracotta temple of Radhabinod checking out stalls selling household goods, toys, stoneware and crafts.
When: Mid-February

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Kila Raipur Sports Festival
What started off in the 1930s as a local village festival has transformed into an iconic event hailed as India’s Rural Olympics. The brainchild of Sardar Inder Singh Grewal, founder father of Grewal Sports Association, the bizarre sports meet at Kila Raipur near Ludhiana aimed to galvanize local youth of Punjab’s Doaba belt into sports. Expect tug-of-war, tent-pegging, freestyle kabaddi and races for camels, elephants, bullock-carts, khachhars (mules), tractors and even 80-year-olds! Locals showcase their unique talents – twirling gas cylinders, motorcycle daredevilry and towing vehicles with their teeth, hair, ear or beards. Adding colour to the proceedings, are Bhangra dancers, troupes of Malwai gidda, nihangs (blue-clad warrior Sikhs) performing stunts on horseback and running commentary by maraasis (traditional stand-up comedians).
When: First weekend of February

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 15 May 2013 in Conde Nast Traveller online.

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2 responses »

  1. I wouldn’t call the Hornbill Festival as unusual. It is a festival of Naga heritage and there’s nothing unusual about it.

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