Mar 14


Southeast Asia

Hinduism is the world’s third largest religion (following Christianity and Islam).  However, as the result of foreign influences and other divisions, its practices and beliefs tend to vary slightly between geographic regions or social groups.  The most widely recognized Hindu traditions are often those with the most widely distributed or greatest number of adherents.  A combination of these two factors has likely led to the popularity of the Thaipusam festival celebrated throughout India and other parts of Southeast Asia.

Celebrated by the Tamil (an ancient populace that is now spread primarily across India, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka), Thaipusam is often an opportunity to exhibit one’s religious devotion.  The festival celebrates the story of a battle between two groups of deities, the Suras and Asuras.  The former, having suffered multiple defeats, finally entreated the goddess Parvati (recognized as the source of victory for good over evil).  In assistance, she provided Murugan (her son and the god of war) with a powerful javelin so that he could help the Suras defeat their enemies.  The nature of this tradition, which recognizes the benevolence of Parvati, has led Thaipusam to also serve as a time to seek aid from or express gratitude to the gods.

The traditional practice on Thaipusam is to offer something to the gods in return for their aid.  The offerings are known as kavadi, and in their simplest form involve gifts such as pots of milk.  However, the term kavadi implies much more than a gift, it indicates a burden.  Hindus participating in the festival willingly undertake hardships as proof of their devotion.  This may mean the traditional practice of carrying one’s gift for the gods, usually upon the head, to the temple.  However, many choose to exhibit their faith in a more demanding and somewhat gruesome way.


Kavadi often take the form of body piercings, which can become extremely elaborate.  The simplest forms often involve a rod that extends through the tongue, preventing speech as its bearer proceeds to the temple.  The purpose of such piercings is to serve as a constant reminder of the gods, allowing for complete focus on devotion during the religious holiday.  For those seeking a greater challenge, complex structures of piercings are often created, with longer lances serving as symbols of the javelin given to Murugan according to Hindu tradition.  Even the lightest of burdens, however, demands a great deal from worshipers on Thaipusam; the journey to the temple often requires them to carry their kavadi for several kilometers.


An even more difficult journey awaits practitioners in Malaysia, home to an ancient temple at the Batu Caves.  Hindus bearing kavadi trek up to fifteen kilometers before reaching the religious site, where almost three hundred steps stand between them and the entrance to the caves.  Practitioners carry massive pots of milk and other offerings, often supported by the piercings characteristic of Thaipusam, for hours before they are able to present them to be offered at the temple.  The holiday, during which its observers willingly endure pain and suffering, stands as a rare and unique example of devotion.


Mar 14



Although the Gregorian calendar was widely adopted as the international standard to avoid confusion and eliminate the need for conversion, many cultural festivities still coincide with traditional seasons and astrological signs.  This is especially common with New Year’s celebrations; although the majority of nations formally recognize the beginning of a calendar year on the first of January, many rituals recognizing the new year follow older customs and therefore correspond with other Gregorian dates.

Such is the case with Songkran, the nation-wide New Year’s celebration of Thailand.  Because Thailand did not officially recognize January 1 as the first of the year until 1940, traditional celebrations (originally based on the position of the sun) still take precedence.  Now celebrated between the thirteenth and fifteenth of April, the Songkran festival is a unique tradition particularly because of when it is held.

Mid-April falls at the hottest time of year in Southeast Asia.  Consequently, Songkran typically arrives at the end of Thailand’s dry season and marks the highest temperatures of the year.  As a result, the festival has essentially become a large-scale water fight, with complete strangers dousing one another in the streets.  Most residents, who are given time off from work, and visitors spend the holiday carrying a bucket or a water gun, seizing any opportunity to soak passersby.


While throwing water serves as a friendly, and cooling, gesture in modern celebrations of Songkran, its association with the celebration holds more traditional roots.  In preparation for the new year, it is customary to thoroughly clean one’s home and property.  Public temples and statues of Buddha are also cleaned during Songkran, and an early tradition involved catching water that had been used to clean these religious monuments, then gently pouring it over elders as a sign of respect and blessing.  Younger generations began taking liberties with this practice, until throwing water became the hallmark of Songkran.  Similarly, wet chalk used by monks to write temporary blessings at religious sites is now smeared over strangers in the streets.


Although traditional practices remain, today’s celebrations of Songkran are much better known for revelry than religion.  Temple-goers are far outnumbered by those flocking to the streets and bars.  Beauty and talent pageants have become more popular attractions than statues of Buddha.  Nevertheless, important aspects of Songkran have been preserved.  Many people take the holiday to return to their hometowns, reuniting with family and friends to celebrate the coming year.  Reverence for elders is still highly valued.  Water can still be seen as a sign of cleansing and purification.  And most importantly, the holiday promotes solidarity, bringing complete strangers together in celebration.


This unity extends beyond Thailand, as several other nations in Southeast Asia celebrate Songkran as well (although each has its own name for the holiday).  Water festivals take place in Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, and parts of China and India.  Of course specific traditions and practices vary between nations, but the basic purpose and spirit of Songkran remain unchanged across borders.  Like any celebration of the new year, it is a time of jubilation and hope for the future.

Feb 14

Inti Raymi

Sacsayhuamán, Peru

Christopher Columbus’ landing in the so-called New World during October of 1492 would irreversibly change the course of history.  Unfortunately, for many of the indigenous populations of the Americas, the future was bleak.  Once thriving empires would be crippled by foreign diseases and conquerors, and the native way of life was greatly altered by missionaries whose good intentions often led them to condemn preexisting traditions.

One of the most notable victims of the influx of European influence throughout Central and South America was the Inca.  A wealthy and powerful civilization, the Inca Empire quickly became the target of conquistadors seeking New-World riches.  As the Inca eventually fell under foreign rule, they were forced to abandon much of their traditional culture.  This was especially true of those practices related to their polytheistic religion, which worshiped the sun as a supreme power.  The practice of some of the most important Inca festivals in honor of the sun god (who was referred to as Inti) were entirely stopped by the middle of the sixteenth century.

One such festival, however, has undergone a relatively recent revival.  Beginning in 1944, Peruvians began elaborate reenactments of Inti Raymi (the Festival of the Sun).  Performers in traditional Inca clothing carry out the historic festival for growing numbers of tourists, exhibiting the most important aspects of what was originally a nine day celebration over a much shorter period of time.  Held annually on the winter solstice, the recreation of Inti Raymi brings historical accounts of the most important Inca festival to life, offering a window into the distant past.



Inti Raymi served a variety of purposes for the Inca.  It was a time of relaxation and jubilation for an industrious people, allowing them to enjoy the fruits of their labors.  The festival was also an important religious time, when animals were sacrificed to gain the favor of the sun god and ensure a successful harvest.  Perhaps most important for modern performers, however, is the symbolic nature of many of the festival’s elements.  Dances and other public displays conveyed the story of the Inca’s rise to power and a variety of other native legends.  Early records have preserved these tales, allowing re-enactors to accurately convey Inca history and culture.


The site of these reenactments also offers an important look at the Inca.  Sacsayhuamán, an imposing fortress built from massive stones, is a testament to the resources and capabilities of the once powerful empire.  Boulders were cut to size and then hauled (by hundreds of men with lengths of rope) to the hilltop where the fortress was to be constructed.  Workers then precisely carved the stones to fit into place.  The structure provides an appropriate backdrop to modern renditions of Inti Raymi, juxtaposing the cultural and physical remnants of the Inca Empire.


The annual performance of Inti Raymi has become popular for its historical accuracy.  However, lesser-known versions of the festival may be more closely linked to the original.  In difficult-to-reach areas of the Andes mountains, Inca traditions were often preserved.  Even when missionaries reached the most remote communities and converted them, many held to their roots.  Inti Raymi and other native celebrations were often tied to religious holidays, but the customs were largely unaltered and remain so today.

Jan 14

Lantern Festivals

Across many regions and cultures, light holds a symbolic meaning, often serving as an image of life or hope.  As a result, it holds a significant place in a large number and variety of global traditions.  This is the case in many regions of Asia, where certain celebrations and commemorations are accompanied by the soft glow of paper lanterns and the sudden eruption of fireworks.


Lanterns and pyrotechnics are the main attractions of an annual Taiwanese celebration that is orchestrated between two districts, Pingxi and Yanshui.  Although the festival originated from ancient traditions, it was only made official at the end of the twentieth century.  Fortunately, however, this allowed for the Taiwanese people and their government to pool resources for the event, resulting in more ambitious projects and spectacular displays.

In Pingxi, elaborate lanterns up to ten feet tall are displayed throughout the streets.  Lanterns originally served a practical purpose, signalling that the town was secure.  Today, many are used to represent figures from popular culture as well as ancient folklore.  The most prominent lanterns often represent astrological signs, as the festival corresponds to the end of the lunar year on the Chinese calendar.


Pingxi is also filled with innumerable handheld lanterns during the festival, carried by residents and tourists who inscribe their wishes on them.  These are released in large number to be carried into the sky, further contributing to the spectacle.


In contrast to the peaceful scene in Pingxi, the Yanshui district recognizes the ending of a lunar year with a relatively unreserved tradition.  A pyre of fireworks is lit at the start of the evening and burns for hours (long into the following morning), creating a spectacular show.  The practice stems from similar displays, often put on outside of temples, that were meant to protect the district from evil.  Like the lanterns in Pingxi, the fireworks display in Yanshui not only draws visitors, but preserves important aspects of Taiwanese folklore and culture.

taiwan travel tainan yanshui beehive firewokrs festival



Another well-known lantern festival is observed annually (although at varying times in different regions) by the people of Japan.  Known as the Bon or Obon festival, it is a both a somber and joyful time as the Japanese honor their deceased relatives and spend time with their living families.

Bon, which has been practiced for hundreds of years, was named after a monk whose legend inspired the tradition.  The story holds that, with Buddha’s aid, the monk was able to bring peace and comfort to his mother’s spirit in the afterlife.  He also realized the full extent of her love and sacrifice for him, and came to appreciate her even more.  Following his example, the Bon festival typically revolves around the well-being of lost ancestors.  Families reunite and spend time cleaning the graves of the deceased, praying for their spirits, and generally honoring their lives.


Communal activities also take place throughout the festival.  Most notable is the Bon dance, a traditional performance meant to welcome and celebrate spirits of the dead.  The festival concludes with paper lanterns, representing the visiting spirits that are to depart once more.  Families place the lanterns on the river to be carried away, symbolizing the peaceful return to the afterlife that they wish their ancestors.  Bon serves to preserve tradition and recognize the contributions of the deceased while bringing families and communities together.  Fireworks and other celebrations often follow the conclusion of this socially important practice.


Many similar festivals take place throughout Asia at different parts of the year, each keeping history alive in its own way and promoting solidarity.  Furthermore, the practices have been carried across the globe by immigrants and expatriates, giving new life to age-old traditions.

Oct 13

Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival

Harbin, China

Northeast China experiences especially harsh winters, with an average temperature of -16.8 degrees Celsius (just over 0 degrees Fahrenheit) and a minimum as low as 35 below zero (-31 degrees Fahrenheit).  While the climate would be a natural deterrent to most tourists, one city in the region has found a way to capitalize on the cold weather.

Harbin, capital of China’s Heilongjiang province, turned a long-standing tradition of the northeast region into an annual spectacle.  Since 1963, the city has hosted the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival, the largest celebration of its kind in the world.  Traditionally beginning on January fifth and lasting one month, the festival welcomes both traditional and modern sculptures.  As of 2007, Harbin boasts the Guinness World Record for largest snow sculpture.

The record-holding sculpture, 250 meters long and 8.5 meters high (over 270 yards long and more than 9 yards high, for comparison), was built in honor of Norman Bethune.  A Canadian physician famous for his revolutionary medical inventions, Bethune was also well-known for his anti-war sentiments and Communist ideals.  The snow sculpture created in his memory, called “Romantic Feelings,” featured elements reminiscent of the doctor, his work, and his homeland.

Snow sculptures are, in most cases, carved from a single block of packed snow (“Romantic Feelings” had to be created in two sections because of its immense size).  Sculptors use a wide range of tools, from hand shovels to hatchets, painstakingly shaping their masterpieces before crowds of onlookers.  In similar fashion, many popular attractions at the Harbin Festival are carved from ice.

Ice sculptures at the festival come in many forms.  One of the most common creations is the ice lantern, which has been popular in the region since long before the festival began.  These works are hollowed out by the sculptor and illuminated from within by a small candle; they are seen in both simple, traditional form and much more complex varieties.  Larger ice sculptures are often formed through a process very similar to that used to make snow sculptures: artists carve and chisel details into a solid block.  However, some artists have chosen to stray from traditional methods.  Implementing the latest technology in their work, some ice artists now sculpt with lasers.  This has allowed for increasingly intricate pieces to be made, and is one of the many reasons that Harbin continues to surprise visitors each year.


The festival is sponsored entirely by the government, with funds allocated from both the city and provincial treasuries.  Two areas of Harbin are designated for especially large projects, including one known as “Ice and Snow World.”  Open each night, this attraction features full-scale ice buildings.  Workers build the structures with blocks cut from the city’s river (the Songhua) and illuminate them with electric lighting.  Numerous other works, commissioned and unofficial, can be found throughout the city streets each year.


Tourists and locals also enjoy alpine sports, such as skiing and snowboarding, during the festival.  For the adventurous, sections of the Songhua River are open to swimming and diving from icy platforms.  Although infamous for snow and ice, Harbin also features pyrotechnics and fireworks to complement the festival’s frozen features.


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