Ritual lies at the heart of human social existence. It is an infinitely intriguing and perplexing aspect of human life, and one that has long informed and inspired anthropological thought.
In the modern era, the notion of ritual it is often imbued with a sense of spiritual mysticism or primitive barbarism. But far from this romanticised and exotic perspective, both secular and sacred rituals are actually incredibly common today, and just as integral to contemporary life as they ever were. From the simple act of greeting a friend or stranger in the street to more flamboyant and culturally rich rituals like Mardi Gras, rituals are embedded in our daily routines and serve to enrich our social lives.
Immersing yourself in another culture’s ritual is perhaps the most enlightening, heart warming and inspiring way to understand the intricacies of a foreign destination. Festivals present the perfect opportunity to experience this absolute cultural immersion.
1. Sagasi Eagle Festival, Western Mongolia
Just west of Ölgii is a small community called Sagasai. Each year Kazakh eagle-hunters descend upon this small town on horseback for the eagle festival.For two days the region becomes overrun with festive activities and contests such as ‘bouzkhasi’ (much like polo but played with a dead goat carcass), horse races and events involving the Kazakh’s beloved trained eagles. Perhaps the most obscure of these is a competition that sees eagles hunting for objects being dragged by horses. The participants are dressed in an array of colourful local costumes that only adds to the experience. This festival is an incredible insight into a rarely accessed culture, and takes place in one of the most untouched regions of the world.
2. Mt Hagen Festival, Papua New Guinea
In August each year, tribes from across the northern highlands region of Papua New Guinea gather to commemorate their heritage through song and dance. Kundu drums and wind instruments echo across the rugged landscape, while locals adorned in incredibly colourful, elaborate clothing march, sing and dance. It is a mesmerising experience; the abounding colour set against the mountainous backdrop is a visual feast.
3. The Thaipuism Festival, Malaysia
A seemingly masochistic and painful festival that sees its participants literally pierced from head to toe, Thaipuism is a spectacular Hindu ceremony that takes place in Malaysia. Despite the gory nature of such a visceral ritual, it is surprisingly striking, the piercings are decorated with peacock feathers, flowers and images of deities, and many of the faithful carry traditional pots of milk on hooks as offerings. The festival marks the day when Lord Shiva’s son, Murugan, vanquished three demons with a lance he was gifted. A trance-like state ensures the participants involved don’t feel pain and the wounds are treated with holy ash and lemon juice after the ceremony to avoid scarring. This obviously isn’t a ceremony that outsiders can readily participate in, but is certainly a colourful and culturally significant, if a touch gruesome, festival to observe.
4. Night of the Radishes, Mexico
One of the more unique of the many grandiose festivals in Mexico, the Night of the Radishes is celebrated on 23 December and unusually combines the worlds of art and agriculture. Ornate folk art radish sculptures are crafted in an array of shapes spanning from human and animal figures to whole nativity scenes. The festival has become a significant part of Mexico’s Christmas celebrations. Its origins are unclear, but farmers were said to have started carving radishes as a way to increase sales hundreds of years ago. Delightfully obscure and yet undeniably beautiful the Night of the Radishes is a truly unique Mexican experience.
5. Dragon Boat Festival: Húnán province, China
You'll know it by the procession of drums, as locals gather to commemorate the life and death of the famous Chinese scholar Qu Yuan (Chu Yuan). Dragon Boat Races take place, with the winning team having to hang from the Dragon Head on their boat to grab the victory flag. Food is an important part of the celebrations, with zongzi dumplings and local wine (hsiung huang) on offer. Celebrations go late into the night with fireworks and traditional Chinese dancing. Date: Fifth day of the fifth lunar month
6. El Colacho (Baby-jumping Festival): Castrillo de Murcia, Burgos, Spain
In a nutshell - grown men dress up in red and yellow costumes and leap over babies. The little-known ritual has taken place in the province of Castilla y León in northwest Spain since 1620. The idea behind El Colacho is that the jumpers, with their devil costumes, whips and truncheons, are meant to signify evil. When they leap, evil follows them and the babies’ souls are cleansed.
7. Festas dos Santos Populares (Feast Days of the Popular Saints): Lisbon, Portugal
June marks the start of the summer festivals in Lisbon, and the nights are filled with lively festivities, parades and music. There is a party spirit in the air as tables are laid in the streets, cafes overflow, the smell of grilled sardines fills the air and music surrounds the city. The party goes on all night, spilling from bars into the streets and peoples backyards.
8. Regatta of St Ranieri: Palazzo Medici, Pisa, Italy
Venice may be famous for its gondolas, but across the country, Pisa stages this 1500m dash up the River Arno, a tradition dating to the 1290s. The four narrow rowboats, differently coloured to represent the city’s four districts, each contain a steersman, a climber, and eight oarsmen struggling against the current.
9. Inti Raymi (Festival of the Sun): Sacsayhuamán, Cusco, Peru
Each winter solstice, the residents of Cusco, Peru, celebrate Inti Raymi, an ancient Incan festival honouring the rebirth of the sun. Participants in ceremonial dress parade through the city playing traditional Incan instruments, and lead a procession up to the huge fortress of Sacsayhuaman for more ritual dancing and music.
10. Battala dos Vinos (Battle of the Wines): Biliblio, Haro, La Rioja, Spain
Wine flows in the streets during this century-old “battle”. It has its origins in a dispute between Haro and neighboring Miranda de Ebro over ownership of some hills. Nowadays, there are no sides or teams; people gather at the hilltop with full wineskins and water guns and joyously squirt anyone they can.
11. Lajkonik Festival: Rynek Glówny, Krakow, Poland
According to Polish legend, when the head of Krakow’s defensive raftsmen defeated a Tatar marauder in the 13th century, he slipped into the Mongolian’s robes and triumphantly rode into the city.