This nightjar is small and short-tailed with white corners to the tail, a golden nape and collar, dark cheeks and white patches on the sides of the throat. The crown is grey and the breast is finely barred in brown. The males have more white on the tail while the female is more heavily streaked on the crown. It is differentiated from Sykes's nightjar by the dark undertail and from Jerdon's nightjar by the shorter tail and white patches on the sides of the throat.
The call is distinctive and has been likened to a stone skipped on a frozen lake or a ping-pong ball bouncing rapidly and coming to rest.
It flies after sundown with an easy, silent moth-like flight. During the day, Indian nightjar lies still on the ground, concealed by its plumage; it is then difficult to detect, blending in with the soil.