Festivals of Darjeeling
Festivals form an integral part of the people's lives in Darjeeling. With the beginning of New Year in the month of January this district experiences festivity in each month due to the cultural blend of various religions, tribes and immigrants from neighboring states.
Darjeeling Festivals in Winter
(December - February)
At the start of the year in January the Lepchas and Bhutias celebrate their New Year in Darjeeling. Long processions are seen where people take part in traditional dances. At places fairs are organized. The fairs display local home-made handicrafts and food items very special to these clans like Thupka, momo and wanton.
Despite the chill of the month of January, Maghe Sankranti, is observed, the main ritual being to take bath in the rivers or streams. This day marks the beginning of the Nepali month Magh and this festival welcomes the spring season to bring to the people of Darjeeling good weather and fortune for the rest of the year.
On this day of maghe sankranti, the locals eat Tarool, a combination of various types of edible roots. The meals also comprise of 'Khichiri', a mixture of rice with lentils along with ghee (which is clarified butter made out of milk), spinach and sweet potatoes. Sweet dishes like sesame seed ball cakes called 'till laddoos' and molasses called 'chaku' are also quite common with local families. Fairs are also organized where the villagers meet and shop.
Losar is yet another New year celebration in Darjeeling for the Tibetans and takes place in February/March. This celebration lasts for 15 days. On the first day of Losar some members of the family go to a stream to fetch a bucket of water. Then after offering prayers to ward off the evil spirits, the members of the family pray for peace and harmony in the new year. Hot chaang is offered to all members of the family.
During Losar traditional food is served to the guests and visitors are welcome in the house. The youth perform Yak dance in colorful attire. On the fifteenth day of the festival Cho Nao Chopa, that is a large religious gathering takes place. A Tibetan lady told me that Losar is celebrated to appease the mountain Gods. Around the time of Losar, The Tibetan dance 'Cham' can be seen within the monasteries.
The lamas wear colorful masks and are seen to enact dramas, the main theme being 'conquering the demons'. The monks chant religious lore and the monasteries reverberate with the beating of drums, blowing of conch shells, flutes etc... a great scene to watch.
On Sri Panchami or Saraswati puja, normally held in end Jan or Feb, the Bengalis and Nepalese worship the Goddess of knowledge. On this day the Nepalese sow seeds heralding the start of the harvest season. The business community open their new account book on this day.
Another festival Bumchu takes place within the monasteries on 15th day of Tibetan Calendar Year (falls usually between January and February). A pot containing holy water is sealed and kept for an year and opened on this festival day. Once opened, the level of water in the container is said to indicate the level of natural calamity and change in fortune with respect to health and wealth in the coming year.
As Darjeeling is a home to many descendants of the British, the Christian community also celebrate Christmas and New Year Eve. Masses are held and candles lit within the church on Christmas day on 25 December. The ringing of the church bells amidst the chill of winter bring an end to the long list of religious festivals in this cozy and coveted hill station which is a tourists paradise on earth.
Darjeeling also comes alive with the popular Darjeeling Carnival in the month of November. The main feature of this carnival is rock and band music in English, Bengali and Nepali by the local talents. This lasts for 10 days and this also includes photography exhibitions, recitation of poetry by different groups and car rallies. Local and traditional food stalls are set up at the Mall. People of all ages flock to the mall to make this a big success. It goes without saying that this legendary carnival is the epicenter of different cultural communities coming together and breaking the barrier between different communities and tribes who dwell in this hill station.
Apart from the religious festivals, Darjeeling is the hub of Tea and Orange festivals.
The Teesta Tea & Tourism festival overlaps the month of November and December and attracts large number of tourists. One gets a chance to taste and cherish the fragrance of the world famous Darjeeling Tea.There is a spread of different varieties of tea and fairs are organized to promote this. Toy train ride, food stalls selling traditional local food are added attractions of this fest. The Tea festival also educates the Tea lovers and make them acquainted to the rich heritage of the Tea Industry.
Darjeeling Orange festival also attracts tourists and helps one to get acquainted with the fruit and its varieties, its quality and the methods of its conservation. Although oranges in Darjeeling are smaller and paler in color compared to what you see in the western India, they can be exceedingly sweet and delicious. Orange fest usually takes place in December.
Many villagers from over 50 villages participate in this festival offering fresh produce from their gardens. It's a great time to same a few oranges. In fact oranges from Kurseong are said to be sweetest of the lot, and the ones from Kalimpong are very juicy as well as sweet. Some times the orange festival of Darjeeling is held outside Darjeeling to draw larger participation and buyers.
Update January 2015: A 7-day long annual festival called Darjeeling Winter Festival has been initiated for the first time. This year it is scheduled between January 4 - 10, 2015 and held at Mall (Chowrasta) where recently a concrete large stage has been built at one end for such occasions. Many bands as well as dance groups from Nepal, Sikkim, Darjeeling, Delhi etc will be performing over the 7 days. The idea is to attract tourists during this lean period. The festival has been organized jointly by GTA (Gorkhaland Territorial Administration) and the West Bengal state tourism department. The first day of the program started with dance performances by Teesta Rangeet Group followed by Kala Niketan Academy, both of Darjeeling. The highlight of the first day was performance by Nepal based singer Adrain Pradhan from the 1974 AD band.
Update January 2016: Darjeeling Orange Festival began on Jan 2nd this year at City Center in Siliguri for 3 days. The main theme of the event this year has been to address and prevent the continuous fall in production of oranges in the hills for various reasons including plant disease, inclement weather etc.
Update December 2017: Following a reshuffle in GTA (Gorkha Territorial Administration) and having taken a serious brunt of tourist flow this year due to agitation, Teesta Rangit Tourism Fest has been planned jointly by GTA and State Tourism. This will be held across various parts of Darjeeling district on different days in December. The tourism fest is aimed towards wooing tourists. It would showcase Darjeeling's unique offerings including cultural & musical performances, Darjeeling Tea, Himalayan Toy Train rides and lot more. An industry meet will also be held in a Ghum resort.
Darjeeling Festivals in Spring
(March to April)
Holi, the festival of colors in the month of March is mostly popular among the Hindus of Darjeeling and most Nepalees and Bengalis are Hindus. On the night prior to Holi they lit bonfires and on the day of Holi they smear one another with a variety of powdered colors ranging from pink to red to green.
The Nepali Hindus come alive on the streets of Darjeeling in another festival in March, the Chaita Dasai. They dance and play Damp, a traditional musical instrument. They also worship the Goddess of Power, that is Devi Shakti to conquer evil. The elders bless by putting a 'tika' on the foreheads of the young generation. The 'tika' is made by adding color to rice mixed with curd.
On the same day the Hindus of other communities celebrate Ram Navami - Lord Ram's birthday. Chariots are drawn on the streets of Darjeeling district with Ram's idol sitting on it. The Month of March festivals will be incomplete without mentioning Chotrul Duchen celebrated also by the Nepalese when offerings are made to the goddess.
Darjeeling Festivals in Summer
(May - June)
Buddha Jayanti, the birth anniversary of Lord Buddha is another festival held in May whose celebration start in the monasteries of Darjeeling by the Buddhist monks, the Lamas. They take out processions around the town carrying holy book of the Buddhists and also Lord Buddha's idol. Such processions are held with musical accompaniments and thereby the entire hill station becomes vibrant.
Saga Dawa is also celebrated by the Buddhists in the month of June. This festival is almost similar to Buddha Jayanti but it features all three aspects of Buddhas life, his birth, attaining salvation and his death. Holy processions are seen in the town and this is thus known as the Triple Blessed Festival. On the fifteenth day of the Nepali month Asar (which falls in June), the Nepalese celebrate Ashar Ko Pandara by eating beaten rice called chewra with curd. There is a saying that one can attain salvation through this ritual as on the same day Lord Shiva was given chewra and curd by Goddess Parvati.
Kalimpong Half Marathon
is usually held on 1st May every year. The purpose of this event is to inspire the local youths to run and find an identity for themselves, and show the world their capability. Several youths from Kalimpong Half Marathon are selected and sponsored for the annual Mumbai Marathon which is annually held in January.
Darjeeling Festivals in Autumn
(October to November)
Durga Puja is one of the main festivals celebrated by the Hindus particularly the Bengalis who are primarily settled in the foot hills of the Himalayas, the Siliguri subdivision of the Darjeeling district. It is the worship of 'Goddess Durga' who represents 'Shakti' or 'Power' through the killing of the demon. Durga Puja is celebrated mostly in the month of October.
Durga puja usually lasts for 4 days and is associated with a lot of activities. People of all ages can be seen hopping pandals which are make shift arrangements of housing the idols of Goddess Durga. Worshipping the deity takes place within the enclosure of the pandals but the ceremony pervades the streets. Roadside food stalls serve food through the night and for most new clothes are a must. Even in Darjeeling there is beating of drums and chanting of holy lores, the mantras.
One of their custom is to put a red bindi on the forehead of passersby. This symbolizes blessing and the bindi is made from raw rice grain which is dried and then made into a powdered form. On the last day of Durga Puja after the immersion of the deity there is distribution of sweets and exchange of love by hugging one another.
This day is also observed as Dussehra by the Nepalese. This is one of the famous festivals when the effigy of Lord Ravana is burnt on the streets of Darjeeling. This symbolizes destruction of evil. The Nepali people on this day make a offering of a huge quantity of meat to Ma Durga which they later consume. The elders also put a kind of grass called Jamara behind the ears of the young.
Fulpati is another Nepali festival celebrated at the time of Durga Puja. The people of Darjeeling dance all the way from Ghoom Monastery to Darjeeling wearing white dresses and head gear. This is a big procession meant for worshipping Nature.
Diwali, the festival of lights follows Durga Puja in about 15 days. This festival is known as Tihar and on each day an animal is honored by putting a garland and tika. The first day is known to honor the crows (the 'Kak Tihar'), the second day is kept for the dogs ('Kukur Tihar') and the third day for the cows. On each day the animals are well fed. Crows are worshiped to avoid grief because they symbolize sadness. Dogs are honored because they are believed to be the messengers of the God of death. And the cows are considered symbol of prosperity and wealth. The horns of the cows are painted with bright colors. On the third day diyas are lit and all the houses are decorated with colorful lights. The entire hill station sparkles and fire crackers lit up the entire town.
The people of Darjeeling offer prayers to the Goddess of wealth, Laxmi. The day before Diwali groups of girls go around the town in colorful clothes to bless, singing songs like carols called Bailo. They also receive alms. In a similar way groups of boys take the street singing songs called Deusi on the day of diwali.
The main attraction is however the ceremonious celebration of the 'brother sister bond'. The day after diwali, the sister fasts the entire day and garlands the brother. They smear vermilion on each others forehead and the sister lights a small fire by sprinkling oil all around her brother. This symbolizes protection of the brother from all evils. Gifts are also exchanged between them. On a cold October night the hill station bustles with festivity and the lighted houses against the backdrop of the lofty mountains is splendid to watch indeed!
The annual Darjeeling Cultural and Tourism Festival is usually held in the month of October/November over a week. The main objective of this festival is to showcase the unique culture and tradition of Darjeeling district to the tourists.
Update November 2015: This year Darjeeling Cultural and Tourism Festival is held between November 1 - 7 in Darjeeling. It is also held in the sub-divisions of Kurseong, Kalimpong and Mirik. Most of the dance and cultural functions are held at Gorkha Ranga Manch (also known as Bhanu Bhavan) on Mall Road where tourists have thronged. However the highlight of this year's festival is an open coach which has been added to the toy train of 10.40am between Darjeeling to Ghoom and back. Local performers and even tourists have been allowed to board the trailing open coach and dance as the train moves and goes for its regular joyride, and outsiders from the street watching and enjoying the dance.
Judy (January 2017)
Hi Raj, My partner and I will visit Darjeeling in March and will also be there on 13 March when the Holi festival takes place. I was wondering what it is like in Darjeeling on this day and if there is anything what we need to know. We would leave Darjeeling on 14 March. Would the traffic then be ok again? Thanks.
Raj (darjeeling-tourism.com) January 2017
Hi, Holi in Darjeeling is celebrated much like in rest of India. All play with colors, stores and establishments remain closed. Don't stray around on the streets, strangers can apply colors on you, and stay away from the drunken lot. You are unlikely to find any transports on the day of Holi, but should be normal by next day.
Neha Sharma (September 2016)
Our hotel manager asked us to visit Lebong as there was some big function on independence day... we went there and we got enlightened to see the patriotism of people of that side.. there was a huge gathering, we didn't get a proper seat so we came back early. I mean as I am from north side I have never seen such a big function for independence day.