Wanderlust: Asia's fiery festivals

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“Perpetual fire-laughing motion among the slow shuffle of elephants.” That’s how novelist DH Lawrence described Sri Lanka’s 10-day Esala Perahera, one of the world’s oldest religious festivals. And having recently returned from this kaleidoscopic Buddhist festival held every August that combines fire dancing, Kandyan drumming and agile acrobats with a procession of lavishly painted elephants adorned with fairy lights, I’ve found it to be an extremely apt description. But behind all this gaudy but delightful pomp is the event’s original mission – to pray for the rain – which involves carrying what adherents claim is the Buddha’s sacred tooth from the island’s holiest temple, Dalada Maligawa, or Temple of the Tooth, through the streets. 

This cacophonous melee got me thinking about my other favourite festivals around Asia, starting with Nyepi, the Balinese New Year, which falls in late March or early April. One must arrive at least the day before, in time for nightfall, when Balinese families parade through the streets with giant monster dolls known as Ogoh-Ogoh. At their village Hindu temple, they symbolically burn this paper-mâché creature to exorcise evil spirits for the year to come. Then the island itself must be purified, in reality an excuse for all to run amok through the night, smashing effigies and clanging the kulkul, a traditional bamboo bell. 

About 400km east of Bali, an entirely different sort of festival has long intrigued me. The Sumba Pasola gets underway before dawn on Wanokaka Beach each spring when a few hundred sarong-clad men scour the tide pools in search of the auspicious Nyale worms. A bounty of these, the Sumbanese believe, signals a plentiful rice harvest while few appearing on this sacred day warns of a serious shortfall. As the sun rises, ritual warfare begins with a pasola, or fight, on the beach, the contenders selected the previous evening by holy men reading the intestines of a chicken or pig livers. The origins of this tradition are murky but it will surprise no one to learn two men fought over the same woman. Traditionally, charging horsemen and spear-throwing was part of this festival, but this has been banned since the 1980s. Still, first time onlookers may be shocked by this bloody battle.

For those who prefer less aggressive gatherings, India’s Pushkar Festival attracts over 200,000 people with 50,000 cattle
to a lake in the Rajasthani desert where devotees believe the god Brahma dropped a lotus from heaven and water sprung. At the surrounding fair, camel traders come to show off their hump-backed charges, painted and gussied up with silver bells and bangles around their ankles that add jingling acoustics to the Technicolor procession.

Even more colourful is one festivity I try never to miss – the Philippines’ Giant Lantern Festival in San Fernando Pampanga. From the second Saturday of December, 6m-lanterns called parol illuminate this Catholic country’s Christmas capital. Looking like pinwheels made of hundreds of blinking bulbs, these massive lanterns represent the star of Bethlehem that guided the Three Wise Men to the newly born Jesus Christ. Celebrants parade these artful creations through the crowded streets of San Fernando accompanied by marching bands to welcome the festive season. With the holidays
fast approaching, look for me smiling like a child amid the parol.

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