From warding off evil spirits to giving thanks, festivals are a way to unite villages and communities throughout the world, whatever their purpose. For the traveller willing to go further off the beaten track than most, festivals can present a paradox: that they both highlight what unites us, a universal human need to come together in celebration, whilst simultaneously showcasing just how different our cultures are in the way we choose to express that celebration.
However you choose to view them festivals are the cultural highlight of the social calendar, and, as such, it’s not surprising they’re so popular with Native Eye travellers.
If you haven’t been lucky enough to accompany us on a festival trip to date, we’ve highlighted a few destinations which do it in style, each for a different reason completely. Here, are what we think are some of the best cultural festivals in the world.
Forget what you’ve seen on the television about Voodoo being a black art. For the people of Benin, it has the legitimacy of any other belief system hence its status as their official religion. In essence, voodoo is the belief that everything is spirit, including humans.
The annual voodoo festival held in Ouidah, a small town and former slave port, must be amongst the most dramatic and fascinating celebrations on the planet, an easy shoo-in to qualify for a ‘best cultural festival in the world’. Each year, it attracts over 10,000 people including priests, dignitaries, rich and poor, locals and visitors not just from Benin but from as far afield as the Caribbean and France, western tourists notwithstanding.
A national holiday, the gathering includes traditional dance and animal sacrifices as shrines with some devotees, usually covered in white powder and palm oil, entering trance states. In the last two days of the festival, devotees offer dances to the spirits, sometimes organised dances, at other times, it seems as though they are running amok through the audience. Ritual sacrifice is part of the ceremony but not all of it, and amongst the dancing and celebration it’s hard not to be caught up in the energy, theatre and devotion.
Find out more about the Ouidah Voodoo Festival.
If we had to choose a favourite when it comes to ‘best cultural festivals in the world’ we think this would take top billing. As a regular recipient of our newsletter and/or Facebook page, we’re sure that you are well-acquainted with our annual departures to the Gerewol Festival, Chad.
A spectacle of colour and dance, this event is essentially a dating festival, where men compete for the attention of eligible females in the community.
Do have a look at photojournalist, Tariq Zaidi’s account in Adventure.com’s newsletter, There’s no Tinder in the desert article or Mark Stratton’s Awed of the Dance article in Wanderlust magazine, both of whom travelled with us to experience the festival for themselves.
Often performed at celebrations and funerals of the Guro communities, the Zaouli mask dance is a fascinating spectacle to behold and, whilst the exact origins of the dance are varied, is widely regarded as a homage to feminine beauty, a daughter of Djela.
On donning the mask, the wearer (always the men of the village) is transformed, his spirit possessed by spirits and whilst his upper body barely moves, below the waist is a different story, stamping his feet into the ground at an almost alarming rate, spurred on by the drum and flute. What he wears also accentuates the movement, with his upper body concealed, cloaked in checked or striped fabric whilst seed pods are attached to the ankles to further heighten the rhythm.
Whilst these performances occur only during celebrations and funerals, such events are commonplace as you travel through the Ivory Coast on our Ancient Gods of West Africa trip.
A flamboyant and elaborate celebration of life rather than a ‘best cultural festivals in the world’ contender, you’re highly likely to come across an Ashanti funeral when travelling through Ghana, given that half of the country’s population belong to the tribe . Such events, whilst inevitably tinged with sadness bring out the entire community (it’s not uncommon for hundreds of people to attend) as they gather to bid farewell to a loved one.
Once the burial has been completed, the celebrations begin in earnest. You may be surprised that given the circumstances, outsiders are welcome to respectably witness proceedings, where red and black clad mourners perform dances to the beat of the drum, feast, all observed by Ashanti chiefs who look on under huge, decorated umbrellas.
After the child naming ceremony, puberty rites are the next set of rituals of social status transformation which children undergo in Ghanaian culture. Undertaken by the Krobo ethnic group and the Bragoro of the Ashanti, the Dipo Initiation ceremony, performed every April, marks the transition from childhood to womanhood, where, after a girl has begun menstruation and following a period of two and three weeks of seclusion under the supervision of the queen of the town or village, the women emerge, newly knowledgeable about what being a woman and good wife entails.
A durbar is held, attended by the chief and almost everyone in the community, where the newly initiated women, heads shaven and scantily clad in beautiful African beads and little else perform, dancing to the drumbeat in front of young men of marriageable age, a ritual carried out with the spirits and departed ancestors invoked to bless the participants, ensuring their protection, blessing and fertility during future motherhood. As fascinating as the Dipo initiation ceremony is for spectators and participants alike, they serve an essential function – no woman is allowed to marry without first having gone through them.
See this celebration for yourself on our Festivals of Ghana trip.
Tucked away amongst the lush green valleys of the Hindu Kush, just over thirty miles from Chitral, the Kalash valleys aren’t just home to one of the most fascinating tribes in Asia – a people rumoured to have descended from Alexander the Great’s soldiers and the only non-muslims, ‘kafirs’ for hundreds of miles – but some of the most stunning scenery in the world.
It’s here, in the bucolic valleys of Birir, Rumbur and Bumburet, that locals – and a few lucky tourists – gather to celebrate three main festivals throughout the year. Whilst arguably the most important festival is the December-held ‘Choimus’, it’s not attended by tourists due to weather and access at this time of year.
The late summer festival of Uchal though, held each August, is a celebration for all, which is why we had to include it as one of our ‘best cultural festivals in the world’. Starting the festivities, one where Mahadeo, the virile warrior God who protects home, family, fruit, crops and animals is invoked, wheat and maize collected from each house to make a special bread and a few boys selected to bring cheese from the animal house. Once the bread and cheese have been distributed, there’s much singing, dancing, all helped along by imbibing of the locally produced wine. Ten men are selected to guard against the early plucking of fruit such as grapes, apples, nuts, mulberries which are bountiful in the valley. Anyone attempting to pluck early, even from their own tree, is liable to a penalty.
Take a look at our Pakistan tours for more information.
Depending on where in Bulgaria, Kukeri is held either between Christmas and Epiphany, or the Sunday before Lent. Surva Festival, the largest and best-known, takes place at the end of January or the beginning of February.
The Kukeri in Bulgaria is a centuries old tradition where men and boys dress up in elaborate furs and animal skins, adorn their faces with scary wooden masks covered with threads, ribbons, animal teeth, beads, horns and yarns, tie huge bells (up to 100 lbs) around their waists and generally kick up a rumpus, ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ – esque. At one time, the Kukeri visited individual houses to scare the inhabitants silly but in more recent times, it’s become more of an organised mass-event, performing a play or procession instead.
In common with similar folk festivals all over Europe, from Lithuania, Romania, Hungary, Sardinia and Ireland, the intended aim of the Kukeri is to scare away evil spirits. Today, because of the huge drama, the elaborate costumes and the traditions’ increasing popularity, tens of thousands of people flock to the biggest Kukeri festival of the year, the Surva Festival which takes place in Pernik, 30 miles from Sofia.
Whichever Kukeri you may catch (there’s different festivals and processions taking place throughout Bulgaria), the spectacle of an ancient tradition still gaining popularity shows just how important the role of ritual remains in modern society. That, and the fact it’s great fun.
Do you have a favourite best cultural festival in the world? Do get in touch, we always enjoy hearing from our travellers. Call us on 01473 328 546 or e-mail us using our contact page.
Other blog posts you might be interested in include: