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Asia's Great Festivals

| Words by Zoe Crane | , , , ,

It’s nearly midnight at one of Bhutan’s oldest temples and the icy Himalayan air whips around you. Fires pierce the darkness and you can feel the excitement building. Then they appear. This is what everyone has been waiting for, the naked dancers.

Festivals expose some of the most intimate and often ancient aspects of Asian culture. They are the perfect way to meet the locals, indulge in authentic cuisine and experience local custom first-hand. There are a plethora of festivals in Asia, but seek out one of the lesser-known festivals for a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience.


Unmissable: The Lanterns of Gion festival

 Kyoto Gion Festival


The Kyoto, Gion festival in Japan

Where?

Kyoto, Japan

When?

Mid-July

What to expect

The ancient streets of Kyoto bloom with culture and history, accentuated at the thousand-year-old Kyoto Gion Matsuri . Thirty floats, or ‘yamaboko’, are each elaborately adorned and topped with children playing musical instruments as they parade through Kyoto’s streets. Locals believe that evil spirits are kept at bay with ‘omamori’, or good luck charms, bought from the floats. It is possible to see the age-old court dance at the nearby Tasaka Shrine on the night before the parade.

History

This festival owes its existence to a purification ritual held in 869 to placate the god Gozu Tenno, who was thought to be behind a plague outbreak. The ritual included prayers and the offering of decorated weapons, and it was carried out whenever a new outbreak of the plague occurred. Just over a hundred years later it was declared an annual event, which became increasingly lavish over the centuries as rich merchants sought to use it to show off their wealth. The focus is now on the procession itself, which, thanks to protests, survived an attempt by the shogunate to stop all religious festival in 1533.

You can find a more detailed history of the festival over here

 Takayama Matsuri Festival


The ‘yatai’ of Japan’s Takayama Matsuri festival

Where?

Takayama, Japan

When?

Mid-April and mid-October

What to expect

Once in fall and once in spring, Takayama lights up to hold one of the liveliest festivals in Japan. Beautiful ‘yatai’ floats display animated puppets which move and dance. As the evening draws on, each float is decorated with dozens of lanterns, glowing against the night sky. Admire spectacular costumes and gain an understanding of local culture. During the spring festival, the shishimai lion dance is performed while bells and drums are played by locals donning hats trimmed with bird feathers. If you are lucky, this will all be set against the early blooms of the famed cherry blossoms. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese flock to this festival from across the country, so advanced bookings are recommended!

 Thimpu & Paro Festivals


The bringing of Buddhism to Bhutan

Where?

Bhutan

When?

September or October and March

What to expect

Being in Bhutan during one of their tsechus (festivals) is like wandering through a kaleidoscope. The towns come alive with traditionally-dressed crowds flocking in from nearby villages. All around you, dancers in brightly-colored masks perform folklores and locals bargain animatedly for special purchases. Thrill your senses as the sounds of Bhutanese songs fill the air and taste local delicacies, like a minced chicken curry, served up along the streets.

History

Bhutan’s festivals are religious events, the origins of which lie with an 8th/9th century mythical scholar named Padmasambhava (also known as Guru Rimpoche), who is said to have travelled Bhutan and Tibet converting people to Buddhism. It was Padmasambhava who threw the first tsechu, which featured the dances he used to ward off local spirits when converting people. Now tsechus are held in honour of his having brought Buddhism to Bhutan.

 Jambhay Lakhang Festival


Jambhay Lakhang Festival festival

When?

Bhutan

Where?

October or November

What to expect

Bumthang is an unassuming and remote village in central Bhutan for most of the year, until the Jambhay Lakhang drup packs the town. For days, people walk from secluded villages to visit the festival. Held at one of Bhutan’s oldest temples, see the colorful masked dancers strut to traditional music and wander the lane-ways of the surrounding fair as you feast on local cuisine. For the more tenacious, venture back out late at night through the crisp Himalayan air to witness the naked dance, where up to 20 men wearing only ceremonial masks perform a sacred dance, believed to wash away the sins of those in attendance.

History

Like the Paro and Thimphu festivals, the Jambhay Lakhang festival honours Padmasambhava/Guru Rimpoche.

 Pushkar Festival


India’s Puskar is a fascinating insight into traditional Rajasthan culture

Where?

India

When?

October or November

What to expect

One of the biggest camel and livestock fairs on earth, the Pushkar mela is a montage of Rajasthani tradition and style. Each community showcases their unique dress in a cacophony of color with arms laden with sparkling bangles and brightly-hued turbans as far as the eye can see. No less dazzling are the camels, ornately clipped and caparisoned, ready for potential buyers. There is a schedule of fascinating events, from camel races to a moustache competition and on the last day the devotional bath in the Pushkar lake.

History

Though it’s held over five days, the festival’s main day is full moon day, which is said to be when Brahma, Hindu god of creation, created the sacred Pushkar lake. The present Brahma temple dates to the 14th century, though it’s thought that there’s been one on this site for two thousand years. The camel fair has grown up around this place and time of pilgrimage.

 Wat Phou festival


Monks of southern Laos at the temples of Wat Phou

Where?

Champasak, southern Laos

When?

February

What to expect

Held at the hugely significant and normally tranquil UNESCO World Heritage site of Wat Phou in Champasak, this festival is loudly celebrated with traditional music and dancing, a parade of elephants and horses, processions of monks and displays of locals foods, crafts and sports. The climax on the final day is a Tak Bat, or alms ceremony, which is attended by prominent dignitaries and religious leaders from across Laos.

 Wat Phou festival


Archers in competition at Naadam

Where?

Mongolia

When?

Second week of July

What to expect

Mongol men are manly men, and the Naadam festival is the proof. These days the Mongolian festival of ‘manly sports’ includes women and children also, competing in the three national sports of horse racing, wrestling and archery. The capital Ulaanbaatar holds the biggest celebration, while more intimate festivities are held in rural areas, amidst untouched landscapes or sweeping plains and alpine forests.

History

These contests of skill and strength, celebrated across the country, have drawn nomadic tribes for hundreds of years. Military parades and games were traditionally held in celebration of events such as weddings, and were also a means of training soldiers. These days Naadam officially remembers the 1921 revolution and the creation of the new state of Mongolia.

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