What better way to delve into the colours and community of a country than joining a local festival? The immersion into the culture and celebrations can be a life-changing experience that few outsiders may encounter. Usually crammed into a few short days, these festivals are a fleeting yet unforgettable experience.
We’ve rounded up our top 10 cultural festivals; from the spiritual Naadam Festival in Mongolia to Bhutan’s colourful spectacle that is the Thimphu Tshechu festival to the world-famous Holi Festival of Colours in India, each providing a unique, exciting and eye-opening opportunity for travellers eager to get their culture fix.
Naadam Festival - Mongolia
Mongolia’s Naadam Festival (also locally termed “the three games of men") is an ancient cultural spectacle that combines colourful costumes and performances with an exciting tournament of the traditional sports of archery, wrestling and bareback horse riding. This biggest festival of the year is usually held 10-13 July in Mongolia’s capital Ulaanbaatar and presents visitors with an incredible opportunity to experience the culture and people of this amazing land.
Holi Festival of Colours - India
Holi is one of the most anticipated celebrations in the Hindu calendar, most widely recognised as being India’s (if not the world’s) most colourful festival. Aptly named “Festival of Colours”, it involves covering everyone in brightly coloured powder and water. Celebrated annually on the last full moon day of the lunar month Phalunga, it usually falls during March or sometimes late February, and has many purposes: to celebrate the victory of good over evil, the beginning of spring with all its beautiful colours and vibrant life, the beginning of the new year, as well as new beginnings with relationships and conflicts. The colourful ritual is said to be based on the story of Lord Khrishna, a reincarnation of Lord Vishnu, who liked to play pranks by splashing maids with water and colours.
Kandy Esala Perahera – Sri Lanka
The Esala Perahera is one of the oldest and grandest Buddhist festivals in Sri Lanka, and one of the most colourful religious pageants in Asia.
Held annually to pay homage to the Sacred Tooth Relic of Lord Buddha, the festival involves a ritual of carrying the sacred tooth relic through the streets of Kandy in exceptional style, including a parade of singers, dancers, musicians, acrobats, all accompanied by decorated tuskers. The spectacle is a sight to behold, and locals use the celebration to beseech blessings from the gods for rain to enrich the crops of Sri Lanka.
Korzok Gustor Festival - India
For a unique look into the remote cultures of the Himalaya, take time out to experience the Korzok Gustor Festival, a colourful two‑day spectacle, attended by the Changpa herdsmen, the locals and their families. Set in the tiny hamlet of Korzok in Ladakh, this photogenic annual festival centres around the triumph of good over evil, and finishes with a dismemberment of the “Storma” (sacrificial cake) and celebration over the assassination of an apostate Tibetan King from the 9th century. Featuring colourful rituals, masks and dances, the photo opportunities of the festival are wide and varied, you can capture the elaborate demonic and animalistic faces masks, traditional costumes, musical instruments and theatrical dances - or simply turn your attention to the glass-like expanse of Tso-Moriri and the snow-capped peaks that hug the shore.
Combine your festival experience with an active adventure in India.
Jambay Lakhang Festival – Bhutan
If your idea of a good festival involves naked midnight dances, then speak no more! The Jambay Lakhang festival in Bhutan features the most spectacular midnight sacred dance (tercham), done to purify sins and predict a good harvest. Complemented by an extravagant fire ritual, this festival lasts for five days in November and includes a number of cultural dances during the day with significant cultural stories and meaning behind them.
Witness the spectacle of Bhutan's colourful festivals on these cultural journeys
The Hornbill Festival - India
Situated in the north-east of India, Nagaland is the uncontested “wild-east” of India. On the edge of the India and Myanmar border, it is an otherworldly place that once a year is home to the “festival of festivals”, otherwise known as the Hornbill Festival. The week-long event is complete with traditional performances, sports, ceremonies and games, exposing the great culture and traditions of the great Naga communities.
Held in the first week of December, this festival is a rich cultural treat for the inquisitive traveller looking for a deeper insight into the remote communities of India.
Time your Hornbill Festival experience with an active adventure holiday in India.
Thimphu Tshechu Festival - Bhutan
Bhutan is home to a number of exciting cultural and religious festivals, but you’ll be hard pressed to find one as colourful and spectacular as the Thimphu Tsechu festival. One of the biggest in the Himalayan country, it runs over three days and is preceded by the Dromchoe; three days and nights of prayers and rituals to invoke the gods. One of the many highlights is the impressive ethnic folk dance performed in the courtyard of the famous Tashichho Dzong. Dancers in colourful costumes perform culturally and religiously significant dances to purify the ground, influence the spirits. and teach lessons about how one's behaviour affects the afterlife,
This colourful celebration is must-see. Find your options to take part in Bhutan's Thimphu Festival
Timket Festival - Ethiopia
In what is considered the most colourful event of the year in the country, Ethiopia’s Timket festival is an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian festival marking Epiphany. Each year, thousands of pilgrims flock to Gondar to re-enact the baptism of Jesus on the River Jordan, taking a dip in the holy waters of the historical Fasilides Bath. The two-day event begins with a procession of the sacred “tabots”, holy replicas of the Ark of the Covenant. After the ceremony, the festival becomes a jubilant celebration with rollicking dances and singing – an unforgettable scene of spectacular colour and joy.
See the Timket Festival in Ethiopia.
Inti Raymi - Peru
Also known as the “sun festival”, the Inti Raymi festival is a religious ceremony that dates back 500 years to the Incan Empire’s heyday, and honours one of the most venerated gods in the Inca Empire, Inti. Celebrated on the shortest day of the year, on 24 June, also known as the winter solstice, the event traditionally involved the sacrifice of an animal to ensure healthy crops. The sacrifice was banned by the Spaniards, and today the festival involves a procession through the streets with music, prayers, dancing, scattered flowers, with women with brooms to sweep away the evil spirits and priests and participants dressed as snakes, condors and pumas. It’s the second largest festival in South America with hundreds of thousands of people travelling to Cusco to celebrate the week-long event.
See it for yourself and plan your active adventure in Peru.
Saga Dawa Festival - Tibet
Tibet’s Mt Kailash has long been regarded by Hindus and Buddhists as the Mythical Mount Meru: a sacred mountain considered the navel of the earth and the axis of the universe. Mount Kailash is revered in both Hindu and Buddhist legends. Each year it is at the centre of the Saga Dawa festival, where thousands of pilgrims from throughout Tibet and beyond gather to pay homage to the mountain and celebrate the renewal of the Tarboche flagpole. People from all over Tibet flock to attend the festival and attach their small prayer flags to the new pole. It is believed that good deeds and prayers are multiplied a thousandfold during the event.
This mesmerising religious event is an absolute must for travellers interested in straying far from the tourist tracks. Contact our team to find out about the best ways to take in the Saga Dawa festival and Mount Kailash.