What India’s festivals can show us about global citizenship

Your fascination with India’s culture starts now.

January 26, 2016 - Picture yourself amid energetic crowds, thousands of people celebrating a joyful occasion with lights, music, dancing, colorful clothing, and delicious food. Chances are, you’re imagining a festival in India. It’s true that India’s festivals are legendary, and evoke visions in our imaginations of fabulous spectacles and nonstop revelry.

Today is Republic Day, India’s holiday to celebrate the date which the Constitution of India came into effect in 1950. It is the world’s longest Constitution.

An annual parade in New Delhi, the nation’s capital, honors the diversity of the nation with one parade float to represent each of India’s 29 states and 7 territories. (Side note: just imagine a parade in the USA with Wisconsin, Texas and Hawaii floats…what would be featured on each float?)

Beyond the cultural parade, Republic Day is also about strengthening India’s ties to the global community. The holiday recognizes an important step in the country’s transition to an independent republic. To highlight the importance of international cooperation and diplomacy, India’s President invites a fellow head of state to be the chief guest. In 2015, U.S. President Barack Obama was the chief guest. This year, France’s Prime Minister Francois Hollande will be the honoree.

Above all, India’s festivals have become global ambassadors in their own right, as iconic symbols of India’s diversity and culture.

Travelers who visit India are amazed by the total delight of the senses experienced during a festival. But more so, festivals can provide a glimpse into India’s emphasis on intercultural values. Did you know that India is one of the most diverse countries on the planet? The stats build a strong case. With over 1,600 languages spoken, 1.2 billion people, and 6-9 major religions (depending on who you ask), it only makes sense that co-existence is a hallmark of the culture in a very tangible way.

Take Diwali (or “Deepavali”), the biggest festival of the year. It’s an annual 5-day celebration with origins from Hinduism, but this autumn festival of lights is also celebrated by Jains, Sikhs, and other religious groups. Now, exactly how amazing is this multi-religious holiday? When you stop to consider how conflicts can emege from cultural misunderstandings, it’s starts to put it in perspective. Together, these communities celebrate Diwali by decorating their surroundings with oil lamps, lighting off firecrackers, playing games and drawing rangolis (a geometric pattern that symbolizes hospitality).

Holi, the colorful springtime festival, is the original muse of every Color Run you’ve seen on Instagram. To rejoice in the arrival of spring, revelers mingle and douse each other with Holi powder, a rice flour mixed with colored dyes. This festival creates some of the most vibrant crowd scenes on the planet, and has inspired a handful of copycat celebrations worldwide, some religious and some secular.

These festivals are only scratching the surface. Check out these links about Ganesh Chaturthi, Dussehra, Gandhi Jayanti, and Independence Day for more resources.

If India’s festivals have become the envy of the world due to their liveliness, they also show us that peaceful results are possible when major religious and national events are inclusive of different cultures, religions, and even other countries! That’s pretty amazing, right? A major part of global citizenship is learning to celebrate our differences instead of hiding or eliminating them, and we can look to India for some remarkable examples of this type of intercultural diversity.

Now, let’s talk about how you’re going to get there to see it for yourself. Every year, AFS exchange students immerse themselves in India’s culture and return home with a newfound sense of membership in the global community. AFS offers full scholarships to study abroad for free for one high school year in India. Two-week programs are also available. Applications are open now! You can always get individualized support by calling our Specialists at 1-800-AFS-INFO, or by email to studyabroad@afsusa.org.

Bonus! Get a glimpse of the experience in the gallery below, with pictures sent in by real AFS participants.