Ages of rich tradition, warm and hospitable people, a landscape of breathtaking variety and beauty - all combine to pack each year in Himachal with a variety of fairs, festivals and celebrations. There are some 2000 deities worshipped in Himachal and numerous fairs and festivals are held in their honour. There are others that began as if just yesterday - and have added their colours to the grand collage. From religion to trade, from seasons to sports - and month by month - here is a joyous celebrations of life.
A cliche if you will - but often laced with snow - the year opens with a heady cocktail. Thousands of revellers head to celebrate the new year in Shimla, Chail, Manali and Dalhousie. Around the common calendar's new year comes Halda in Lahaul, which is a more private celebration of the event. Along the valleys of Chandra and Bhaga rivers, a few members of every household step out with lit cedar twigs to a west oriented place selected by the 'lamas'. These slender branches form the first flames of a bonfire which is then dispersed. Shiskar Apa, the goddess of wealth is worshipped, and the dancing continues for a couple of days.
There is greater sobriety, but no less joy, when Lohri or Maghi comes along in mid-January. This is the traditionary mid-winter day and also commemorates the last sowing of the Rabi crops. Community bonfires, folk songs and dancing, mark the festival. In tribal Spiti, Dechhang is celebrated at the height of winter, while the Lahaul area reserves it for early April. Paonta Sahib is a major focus on Guru Gobind Singh's birthday. The town and other gurudwaras close to it, are closely linked with the Guru's life.
On a mid-night towards the end of Paush (December-January), Phagli begins in Lahaul's Pattan valley with snow being packed in a conical basket - kilta.
This is upturned on a roof and resembles a Shivalinga. Shiva, Naga and the goddess, Hadimba are worshipped, and the younger generation also mark it by venerating the village elders. Chhang and lugari, locally brewed liquors flow freely, and ritual dishes are eaten. Kinnaur's Sazi (or Sazo), also comes at around this time.
More contemporary -events come in the form of the National Snow Statue Competition at Kufri, the Folk Dance Competition on Republic Day at Shimla. and the Water Sports Regatta at Kangra's Pong Dam. To make this wonderful time of year all the more attractive.
Snow continues to play a major part in February's festivals and Himachal's Winter Carnival is also held this month.
Gochi in the Bhaga Valley is an unusual festival when the villagers celebrate the birth of male children. Token marriages of children below the age of six are also performed - and a lighter side comes with the snow balling every child participates in.
The Baba Barbhag Singh Mela is held in Una and honours this sage who was renowned for his magical powers. Basant Panchmi marks the arrival of spring in the lower areas, and every town seems to keep a reserve of colour for the occasion and the skies are filled with a medley of kites.
Ritual dances and an unbelievably rich imagery mark Lossor. This is celebrated in Buddhist areas throughout the state - while Lahaul's monasteries have some of the most spectacular performances. On its eve, the stylised chhaam dance and elaborate costumes and masks, commemorate the assassination of the cruel Tibetan king, Langdarma in the 9th century. Often - though wrongly - called 'the devil dance', it symbolises the triumph of good over evil.
Centered around the temple of Trilokinath, Char is celebrated in Lahaul. The town of Mandi with Its ancient temples revels in the Shivratri fair for a whole week. On elaborately decorated palanquins, hundred of local deities are carried to the town. Accompanied by folk bands, they make their first stop at the Madho Rai Temple and\then go to pay obeisance to Lord Shiva at the Bhootnath Temple. This is followed by festivities - music and song, dance and drama. Yet, all the while the atmosphere is surcharged with deep religious devotion.
In March's third week, the fascinating Nalwari fair is held at Bilaspur. Cattle is traded, there are wrestling bouts – and aero and water sports shows are recent additions.
Holi's riot of colours and celebration of spring, comes with laughter and vitality. There are exuberant celebrations at Palampur and Sujanpur. By the banks of the river Yamuna. the shrine of Paonta Sahib in Sirmour is thronged by Hindu and Sikh devotees on this day. Also in Sirmour, the Balasundari fair is held at Trilokpur near Nahan; this coincides with the sacred days of the Navratras. The temple of Baglamata, near Bankhandi in Kangra is also a major focus during these days.
Chait, the first month of lunar calendar is celebrated by the dancing of women in Kullu and by folk singing in Chamba.
At the shrine of Deothsidh (Seo) on the district border of Hamirpur and Bilaspur, a month long fair spans March and April.
Held on the first Baisakh -.the 13th April - Baisakhi is one of Himachal's most important festivals. Rooted in the rural agrarian tradition, it bids a flnal farewell to winter. At Tattapani near Shimla, at the Rewalsar and Prashar lakes near Mandi, people take purifying dips in the water. Numerous village fairs complete with wrestling, dancing and archery are also held on this day.
In April, Rali with its clay models is marked in Kangra. Legend has it that the beautiful Rali was married against her wishes and on the way to her husband's home, she leapt into a stream. The husband jumped in after her and trying to save both, Pali's brother also dived info the fast flowing waters. All three died. Today, clay models are made in every house to mark that day, while unmarried girls pray for grooms of their choice and the newly-wedded ask for happiness and prosperity, At Chamba, the Sui Mala is thronged by women and children and at the village of Taraur in district Mandi, the Mahu Nag fair Is held. The holy Markandaya fair Is held near Bllaspur and the Rohru Jatar is held in honour of the deity Shikhru. This is also the time when fishing and low altitude trekking raise their winter barriers, while the Spring Festival Is celebrated in Kullu from April 28 to 30.
May gushes In with a whole series of river rafting festivals and water sports Regattas, through-out the state. Focused around the goddess Hadimba Devi, Kullu celebrates the Dhoongri fair. In the same district, the Banjar fair and the Sarhi Jatar are held in May.
Near Shimla at the exquisite glade of Sipur below Mashobra, the charming Sipi fair is held. It is trationally a time for match-making.
Throughout Himachal a variety of programmes are organised by the Department of Languages, Art and Culture. Dharamsala's summer festival and the programmes organised by the Tibetan Institute for Performing Arts, lift their curtains. The skies are blue and clear for the Hang Gliding Rally at Billing near Kangra, white Summer Skling glides smoothly in at the Rohtang Pass.
A wide spectrum of national talent, a variety of programmes and a splendid setting make Shimla's Summer Festival a memorable event. Shimla also hosts the Red Cross Fair, sport tournaments, flower shows, a photographs and posters exhibition and a fashion show based on folk costumes. The Kangra Festival is also held in June at Kangra, At Solan, on the third Sunday of the month, the Solan Fair honours the goddess Shilooni, the presiding deity of the region. On June's full moon night, the Ghantal festival is held at Lahaul's Guru Ghantal Monastery. And of course, given the time of the year and the possibilities it offers, there are various camping and trekking expeditions.
In the arid trans-Himalaya, at Kaza's Ladarcha fair, the old trade routes come alive as traders barter and sell a variety of goods and produce. At Keylong, the Lahaul Festival is also held this month.Elsewhere in the state, Haryali (Rhyali, Dakhrain) announce the advent of the monsoon rains.
Shravana Sankranti is celebrated at Nahan; at Arki, buffalo fights mark the Sair fair, and conducted in honour of Banar devta of Shari, the Rampur Jatar is held near Jubbal in district Shimla. July also heralds the travelling and trekking season to Kinnaur and Lahaul & Spiti.
Chamba's famous Minjar fair which celebrates the bounty of nature and prays for a good harvest is normally held in August. 'Minjars', maize shoots or silken strands, are cast on the waters of the river Ravi and the town immerses itself in a week of celebration.
Also in Chamba, the Manimahesh Yatra to the sacred tarn of Manimahesh is held immediately after the festival of Janamashtmi. At Bharmour, 28 km short of the lake, the nomadic Gaddis hold a fair for six days.
Celebrated in Chamba, Kullu and elsewhere, Chrewal, Badronjo or Patroru is a festival of fire and flowers - and a time for purification of the fields.
In August, several places in Chamba, Bilaspur and Sirmour have the Gugga fair which is connected with the worship of Gugga, the Nag Devta. The same month witnesses the Dal fair in Upper Dharmsala. At Udaipur, in the Lahaul valley, the Trilokinath temple becomes a focus; this is sacred to Hindus and Buddhists alike. The Shravan fair is held at the shrine Naina Devi, while the Ashapuri fair is held in Kangra.
As the rains end. autumn sends fiery colours racing through the hills. In Kinnaur, the festival of flowers, 'Fullaich' (Phulech) opens a window to its remarkable people and their beautiful countryside. Villagers scout the hillsides for flowers which are collected in the village square. These are then offered to the local deity. Then comes a spate of revelry - singing, dancing and feasting. Kalpa has some of the most vibrant celebrations and every twelve years, there is the special festival. Also in September, at the village of Chhatrari, near Chamba - and centered around the exquisite temple of Shakti Devi - a fair is held and masked dances performed.
The Kangra valley celebrates the festival of Sair. This is also celebrated with stalls, singing and buffalo fights at Arki dnd Mashobra. both near Shimla. At Nurpur in Kangra, under the watchful walls of its old fort, the Nagini fair bids the summer farewell. In the same district. on September 27, World Tourism Day is celebrated. In Sirmour, there is a Regatta at the Renuka Lake, and Nahan hosts the Bawan Dawadashi fair.
There is a Regatta on the waters of the Gobindsagar, anglers vie for the largest catch in the Sangla valley and paragliders sail the skies at Billing. More traditionally, over two hundred deities converge on Kullu for its unusual Dussehra celebrations. They pay homage to Lord Raghunath while music and colour fill the 'Silver Valley'. Numerous stalls offer a variety of local wares. This is also the time when the International Folk Festival is celebrated. The Jwalamukhi Temple in Kangra becomes the venue for a major fair. At Killar and Panai (in Chamba's Pangi valley), the Phool Yatra witnesses a remarkable display of neighbourly affection and the Dehant Nag is worshipped.
With winter Just a hop and skip away, the age-old Lavi fair fills Rampur with a burst of activity. The town was once a major entrepot on the old trade routes to Kinnaur, Tibet, Ladakh and Afghanistan. Even today, the tradition is as vibrant as ever. By the churning waters of the river Sutlej, a variety of goods including wool, dry fruits and horses are bartered and sold.
The Kharif crops have been harvested when at the legendary Renuka lake, a fair graces its banks. There is trade, recreation and amusement. Idols of Lord Parshurama and Renuka are ceremoniously dipped in the sacred waters of the lake – and it is a time when a lot of matchmaking is done. Water Sports Competitions are held on the Pong Dam and Gobindsagar.
As winter arrives, anglers shift to the Pong Dam .With the blessings of Nobel Laureate, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the International Himalayan Festival is held in Kangra district. Troupes from the Himalayan nations are present. The winter winds carry all the delights of ice-skating at Shimla. The extravaganza of the Ice-Skating Carnival is normally reserved for December. Christmas celebrations overtake Shimla and Dalhousie and as the church bells chime, they carry away another event-packed year, To visit the traditional fairs or to participate in the festivals, do confirm the dates as many vary from year to year.A range of accomodation is available at, or close to almost all the places.