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7 Greatest Cultural Festivals in the World

Thousands throng the streets of Pamplona every year during the week-long San Fermín Festival in Navarra, Spain

Thousands throng the streets of Pamplona every year during the week-long San Fermín Festival in Navarra, Spain

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The sharing of traditions, rituals and belief systems are arguably the strongest bonding exercises for communities, especially before the advent of the concept of modern sovereign states. For outsiders, such festivals offer a glimpse into the soul of the people and the land and a chance to understand the sociology of culture of particular communities on a more abstract, spiritual level. So if you’re looking for a new vacation destination this year, perhaps it’s time to be immersed by the sights, sounds and colors of seven of the greatest cultural festivals on the planet?

♦ Garma Festival of Traditional Cultures | Northern Territory, Australia

Held annually in Gulkula, Arnhem Land, the Garma Festival of Traditional Cultures is a celebration of the rich culture of the ancient indigenous tribe of Yolngu. It was first held in 1998 in recognition of the 40,000 years’ history of the Yolngu, the original inhabitants of the land, as well as to serve as a platform to discuss emerging social, economic and land rights issues involving Australian aborigines.

During the festival, over a thousand tents will sprout at the stringybark eucalyptus forest near the Gulf of Carpentaria as about twenty indigenous clans converge to participate in the traditional song (manikay), dance (bunggul) and drawing (wangga) ceremonies. Keep an eye out for the famed didgeridoo and clapsticks, the prototypical trumpet and cymbal.

Women from the Yolngu tribe preparing for ceremonies at the 2011 Garma Festival in Arnhem Land, Northern territory. Image courtesy of Wayne Quilliam Photography / Yothu Yindi Foundation
Women from the Yolngu tribe preparing for ceremonies at the 2011 Garma Festival in Arnhem Land, Northern territory. Image courtesy of Wayne Quilliam Photography / Yothu Yindi Foundation

♦ Duanwu Dragon Boat Festival | China

The 2,000-year-old festival is celebrated nationwide in China and held on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar. The origin of the festival can be traced back to the legend of Qu Yuan, a minister in the Kingdom of Chu in feudal China. Exiled by the King after being discredited by his political rivals, Qu Yuan would go on to become a much-loved writer for his patriotic poems.

However, after news emerged that the neighboring Kingdom of Qin was on the verge of conquering the nation, the heartbroken Qu Yuan drowned himself in a river rather than live under the control of the oppressive Qins. Villagers frantically searched for his body in the river even as fishing boats raced upstream to find him. Meanwhile, the womenfolk threw zongzi (glutinous rice dumpling wrapped in bamboo leaves) into the river to tempt the fishes to eat the dumplings instead of his corpse.

Today, the Duanwu festival involves lots and lots of dragon boat races in major cities. Zongzis are also made in almost every household – and more are sold in street stalls, restaurants and malls. A secondary tradition entered into folklore a couple of centuries ago – tying five-colored silks on the wrists of children and placing perfume pouches in their pockets to ward off evil.

A dragon boat race in the Ronggui province in Guangdong, China. Image courtesy of Hao Cai Guan
A dragon boat race in the Ronggui province in Guangdong, China. Image courtesy of Hao Cai Guan

♦ Inti Raymi: Festival of the Sun | Cuzco, Peru

The Inti Raymi festival dates back to the birth of the Incan Empire itself around 700 years ago. It is celebrated during the Winter Solstice in honor of the Sun God Inti and his consort, Pachmama, the Goddess of Fertility. There are whispers that the original Inti Raymi involves human sacrifices – or at least animals. However, the modern version, held on the remains of the Temple of the Sun, Qorikancha, in the ancient Incan capital of Saksaywaman, doesn’t shed even a single drop of blood. Instead, a reenactment is performed by actors, and thereafter, the streets are lined with singing and dancing and scattered flowers, as well as brooms as wards against evil. Watch out for the street vendors selling trinkets – they have different pricing systems for locals and tourists.

Inti Raymi (Festival of the Sun) at the ancient citadel of Saqsaywaman, north of Cusco, Peru. Image courtesy of Cyntia Motta
Inti Raymi (Festival of the Sun) at the ancient citadel of Saqsaywaman, north of Cusco, Peru. Image courtesy Cyntia Motta

♦ Thaipusam | Batu Caves, Malaysia

Thaipusam is a semi-religious festival celebrated in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and by the Tamil Indian diaspora in Malaysia and Singapore. It is celebrated to commemorate Parvati, the Hindu Goddess of Love’s gift of a magical spear to her son, Kartikeya, which the latter used to kill the asura demon Soorapadman.

The celebration of Thaipusam in Malaysia is probably the most well-known. Devotees, with varying levels of sacrifices, along with a few hundred thousand onlookers, participate in a procession that begins at the Sri Mahamariamman Temple in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, and ends eight hours and nine miles later at Batu Caves, a limestone hill that is the site of a sacred Hindu temple.

The Thaipusam festival at Batu Caves in Selangor. Image courtesy of Andre Oortgijs
The Thaipusam festival at Batu Caves in Selangor. Image courtesy of Andre Oortgijs

♦ San Fermin Festiva | Pamplona, Spain

Despite the dozens of deaths associated with the event over the years, the nine-day festival continues to attract record-breaking crowds every year. Named in honor of Pamplona’s patron saint, Saint Fermin, the festival began to gain international attention after being featured in Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel, “The Sun Also Rises”. The most popular part of the festival is when six bulls are released behind a few hundred clearly unstable individuals running for their lives in a narrow, thousand-yard long street. Yes, there is a very real risk of these men being gored to death by one of the magnificent beasts.

An example of a deranged individual trying to be gored by a mighty bull during the San Fermin Festival in Pamplona. Observe the maniacal expression on his face. Image courtesy of Adam Jones
An example of a deranged individual trying to be gored by a mighty bull during the San Fermin Festival in Pamplona. Observe the maniacal expression on his face. Image courtesy of Adam Jones

♦ Yuan Xiao Lantern Festival | Pingxi, Taiwan

Held on the fifteenth day of the first month of the Chinese lunar calendar, the Lantern Festival commemorates the wisdom, bravery and valor of the bearded warrior Guan Yu. Organized by the Taiwanese Tourism Bureau, the small town of Pingxi turns into a magical wonderland of floating lights amidst the cacophony of exploding firecrackers during the festival. The designs (animals, inanimate objects, buildings, and even people) and staggering number of lanterns released into the sky will astound you.

The Lantern Festival at Pingxi, Taiwan in 2014. Image courtesy of Jirka Matousek
The Lantern Festival at Pingxi, Taiwan in 2014. Image courtesy of Jirka Matousek

♦ Mardi Gras | Louisiana, USA

Although the event is celebrated worldwide, Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday in French, has become synonymous with New Orleans. A hybrid of the pagan spring festivals of Saturnalia and Lupercalia and Christian Lent, Mardi Gras was first celebrated in the state by French settlers along the banks of the river Mississippi in the early 18th century. Three hundred years later, Mardi Gras has grown into arguably the most famous street carnival in the world, famed for its parades, costumes, music, dancing and lost nights (yes, people have actually lost whole weekends in New Orleans).

A Mardi Gras parade held in Sydney, Australia in 2013. How long before the Australians import the flashing for beads tradition? Image by Hasitha Tudugalle.
A Mardi Gras parade held in Sydney, Australia in 2013. How long before the Australians import the flashing for beads tradition? Image by Hasitha Tudugalle

 

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