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SUBCONTINENT CELEBRATIONS | PART II

Welcome back! In Part I of our Subcontinent Celebrations blog we highlighted a few of our favorite festivals in India and Nepal, two countries world renowned for their vibrant parties and multifaceted traditions.

Here we share with you some of the most memorable moments for their global neighbors in Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Tibet. Don’t worry! We are not ignoring Bhutan’s famous festival culture—quite the opposite. This week we go live on social media directly from Bhutan and we hope you will stay tuned for upcoming Facebook, Twitter and Instagram posts that will give you a closer look at life, luxury and elaborate celebratory styles from Paro to Bumthang and our many stops along the way. 


Sri Lanka

A country with Dutch, British and Portuguese influence, Sri Lanka is as diverse in culture as it in landscape. You can go from verdant hills to  sandy  beaches, the cosmopolitan capital of Colombo to sacred sites, and atmospheric luxury villas to earthy tea plantations– all within this tiny teardrop-shaped island!

In Sri Lanka, not a month goes by without an involved celebration, most of which are known for participants’ intricate traditional garb as well as dancing with fire and whips. As in India and Nepal, Sri Lankans celebrate Diwali and Vesak, but here one unique to the nation formerly known as Ceylon.

Esala Perahera

Date  July or August as appointed by an astrologer who determines the most auspicious start day
Length  10 days
Location  The Temple of the Tooth, in central Sri Lanka, the country’s most important Buddhist Shrine
Type  Buddhist; rituals are conducted by Monks of the Malwatte and Asgiriya Chapters
Celebrating Dalada Maligawa, the Buddha’s Tooth Relic, which has been located in Kandy since the 16th Century. In addition, this ‘Grand Festival of Esala’ also honors the gods Natha, Vishnu, Kataragama and the goddess Pattini.

A photograph of the Esala Perehera festival in Kandy, taken around 1885. Photo credit: ESPN Cricinfo travel_Kandy
A photograph of the Esala Perehera festival in Kandy, taken around 1885. Photo credit: ESPN Cricinfo travel_Kandy

Celebrated by parading the Tooth Relic through the streets in a casket on the back of an ornately decorated elephant. Traditional Sri Lankan fire and whip dances are also preformed for the thousands who come to join the festivities. Don’t forget about acrobats and jugglers who make for more great entertainment!
Interesting tidbit According to Sri Lankan legend, when the Buddha died in 543 BCE, his body was cremated but his left canine tooth was retrieved from the funeral pyre by his disciple. However, there are other temples around the world that claim to have tooth relics from the Buddha, including one in Rosemead, Southern California.

Maldives

The Maldives is comprised of a double chain of 26 atolls. Though one of the world’s most geographically dispersed nation, it is South Asia’s smallest in terms of actual land mass and population. Given its layout, you can imagine it is not exactly easy to congregate for celebrations. However the Maldives are connected by ferry and for tourists, float plane taxi, which can give you lift from your resort to check out the main celebrations in the capitol, Malé. Another note of interest as of 2006, the local literacy rate is 99% — and that is something to celebrate! Taj Exotica Resort Seaplane

Maldives Independence Day
Date  July 26
Length  1 day
Location  Republic Square, Malé
Type  National
Celebrating  the independence from the British in 1965
Celebrated by  marching floats and processions by the National Security Service and the National Cadet Corps, followed by drills and traditional dances performed by hundreds of school children.
Interesting tidbit  Prior to British rule, the Maldives was previously a Portuguese and Dutch colony. In 1965 they gained independence becoming a monarchy, then a few years later on November 11, 1968  the Maldives switched to a republic. In addition to Independence day they also celebrate Republic Day annually.

Fisherman’s Day
Date  December 10
Length  1 day
Location  Malé Fish Market
Type  National
Celebrating  the importance of fishermen to the Maldivian economy
Celebrated by  competitions for swimming, boat rowing, fish filleting and, not surprisingly, fishing. Festivities are also accompanied by a local fishing industry trade fair.
Interesting tidbit  With over 1,000 coral islands, you can imagine shells and fish are bountiful! Historically, Maldives was a source for the once most used currency, the  cowry shell. Now that the world has shifted to what we would like to think of as less volatile currency, the Maldives largest percent of GDP comes from tourism, followed by fishing. Exporting fish is it’s largest foreign trade, though scrap metal is not far behind!

Tibet

Also known as Xizang Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China, or Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), Tibet might just be the exact opposite of the Maldives. While the island nation is world’s lowest country at an average of 1.5 meters (4.9 ft) above sea level, landlocked Tibet, sharing the Everest boarder with Nepal, is the highest plateau in the world, averaging 4,500 meters (14,800 ft). As you can imagine, Tibet does not have a booming fishing industry, but rather one that relies heavily on subsistence agriculture with a history of pastoralism. Farming is very limited in the Maldives due to lack of fertile land or contiguous space to roam upon, and most agriculture is imported– though hydroponic farming might have hope for the future. Maldivians are predominately Muslim, while Tibetans Buddhist. The Maldives tropical, Tibet has snow.  The list goes on…

What these two unlikely countries do have in common that the cowry shells procured in the Maldives was used as currency in Tibet, arriving by way of Begal. They also make an important appearance in the famed Tibetan dice game, Sho, which is placed during many festivities. They also both celebrate their most important animals to their diet and culture , fish and yaks respectively. Plus they can be visited with Ventours!

During Tibet’s tumultuous relationship with China, several celebrations have been banned, especially those relating to the Dalai Lama. However, some occasions are still celebrated despite a ban, and festivals still remain numerous in this Himalayan country. From festivals that use yoghurt to worship Buddha (Sho Dun Festival) to ones that wash away greed and jealousy (Golden Star) or those that scare away prowling ghosts (Incense Festival), you are sure to see something new if you are fortunate enough to partake in the merriment that might include sacred long life pills, picnics and vivid masks.

Tibetan Butter Lamp Festival
Date The 15th day of the first month of the Tibetan lunar calendar, which is about 4-6 weeks behind the solar calendar.
Length The Lamp Festival is technically one day, but it falls within the Monlam Prayer Festival, which falls during the holiday season starting with New Year Losar Festival. Needless to say, it’s a very exciting time in Tibet.
Location Lhasa, especially notable on Barkhor Street

Butter Lamps | Photo: Lindsay Cope
Butter Lamps | Photo: Lindsay Cope

Type Buddhist
Celebrating The Buddha’s wisdom and the Shakyamuni Buddha’s legendary during victory in the 1409 great debate in Sravasti, India. The Monlam Festival also celebrates Buddha’s miracles.
Celebrated by lighting lamps literally made of butter and displaying butter sculptures, or ‘Tormas’ of various colors, often in the shape of animals, flowers and Buddhas. There is also dancing and singing.
Interesting tidbit Salted or unsalted, you ask? These lamps are traditionally made of clarified yak butter with a wick, but vegetable oil is also used now. Tibetan Buddhists believe that many lights together aid meditation and focusing of the mind, rather important for monks and the Dalai Lamas who would go to the Jokhang Temple to administer a question and answer test for the highest-ranking monk. This event is still carried out today in Dharamsala where the Dalai Lama now lives.

Gyantse Horse Race Festival
Date The 18th day of the 4th lunar month of the Tibetan calendar
Length 4 days Location Gynatse, LhasaHorse race festival | photo: Prweb.com
Celebrating horses, athletics and Tibetan culture
Celebrate by toad racing. Just kidding! Horse racing of course, and also yak races and archery contests, a past time of Tibetans. In addition there is wrestling, weightlifting, other track and field events, and Tibetan Opera!
Interesting tidbit Gynatse is one of the highest towns in the highest region.. so it’s up there! At 4,000 meters (13,000 feet) these feats of athletics are impressive. Onlookers might be tuckered out by just walking around and watching, let alone performing the 100 meter dash, or possibly harder, gasping for air while belting out a tune.


We hope we’ve piqued your interest in the many festivities that help make Ventours destinations as unique as they are. Please don’t hesitate to reach out with questions about these festivals, or others in the region. Plus, we would love for you to follow our Subcontinent Celebrations Pinterest board to see photos of these exceptional celebrations.

Lastly- don’t forget! We are making our way through an exceptional itinerary in Bhutan and posting live on social media. Follow us to see many more photos of South Asia’s majestic marvels!

Subcontinent Celebrations | Part I

There is no better way to immerse yourself in culture when traveling than by joining the local festivities. Ventours’ destinations are known for magnificent celebrations that are rich in history, tell tales of local lore, highlight aspects of religion, and bring about the best traditional fare, music and dress. The thought of festivals on the Indian subcontinent conjures quintessential images of Holi with faces splashed in blue and pink hues, or the twinkle of thousands of lights illuminating Diwali nights. While these momentous occasions are without a doubt worth planning around, there are hundreds of additional celebrations in the region that truly add to the exceptional festival culture of South Asia.

Ventours destinations include India, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Tibet, Nepal and the Maldives, all of which are incredibly diverse and have numerous religions, historical events, cultures and sub-cultures, and livelihood practices. Their holidays and celebrations even revolve around multiple lunar and solar calendars including Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic, Tibetan, and Gregorian. Given the sheer number of festivals, there is a good chance you will come across one or two during your stay, but timing is everything and you certainly don’t want to miss a memorable opportunity to see an elephant bearing the Buddha’s tooth or a Dashain sky cloaked in kites while taking a whirl on a bamboo swing! The vibrancy of South Asia celebrations is unparalleled, and can only be realized through personal experience. This is the first of a two part blog on subcontinent celebrations where we will first highlight a few favorites in India and Nepal. And while in no way is this a comprehensive list (or you would be reading for days!), we urge you to scroll down and see which celebrations pique your interest. We are happy to answer additional questions about these and others in the region. We also hope you will stop by our Subcontinent Celebrations Pinterest page for a more visual glimpse of merriment to come!


India

India celebrates over 190 festivals per year, including festivals within festivals. India also ranks number one for the amount of public holidays at twenty-one, and sometimes more depending on the state. The U.S. pales in comparison with only ten! Needless to say, India takes its celebrations seriously, going all out on the color, culinary and clothing front while honoring Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Sikh, Jain, and Christian occasions.

Holi
Date  March 23, 2016
Length  2 Days
AKA  The Festival of Color / Festival of light

http://nyti.ms/1V6QAiA
Holi from a New York Times perspective

Type  Hindu | Gregorian calendar
Location  Nationwide, and also in Nepal as well as Indian diaspora countries including Fiji, Mauritius, Trinidad, Jamaica, and Guyana
Celebrating  the victory of good over evil
Celebrated by  throwing colored powder and water all over.  The wet and bright celebration also includes music and dance.
Interesting tidbits  Let’s get these tidbits started with a Bhang! A cannabis cocktail, Bhang Thandai, is a favorite drink during the Holi Festival. The cannabis paste is mixed with milk and spices. Serve cold. Cheers! Now you are probably asking, is this legal?

Diwali
Date  Nov 11, 2015 / Oct 30, 2016
Length  5 Days
AKA  The Festival of Lights / Deepavali
Location  Throughout India, Sri Lanka and Nepal
Type  Hindu, Sikhs, Jains (though celebrated for different reasons) | Hindu Lunisolar calendar
Celebrating  The start of the Hindu New Year and the victory of light over darkness
Celebrated by  Lighting diyas (lamps and candles) inside and outside their homes, creating Rangolis, or patterns out of colored rice, flower and sand to bring good luck, and partaking in family prayers, or puja. People exchange gifts and feast, followed by spectacular fireworks– an estimated US$800 million worth in 2013!
Interesting tidbits  The first day of Diwali celebrates the birth of Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth and Prosperity, and therefore is regarded as an auspicious time to invest money. Despite it being a national holiday, the stock market opens for Muhurat trading for one hour where investors place token orders and buy stocks for their children, a symbolic ritual that has taken place for years.

Kerala Temple Festivals & Elephant Pageants
Date  Various from January – May
Length  Pageants are 1 day, though temple celebrations might go on longer
Type  Hindu | Malayalam calendar
Celebrating ‘God’s Own Country’, Kerala’s other name, which is home to many Hindu Temples. Each temple has unique traditions and holds exotic festivals celebrating the specific God of worship.

Kerala Temple Festival, photo: wikimedia.org
Kerala Temple Festival, photo: wikimedia.org

Celebrated by  parading the idol of the given Temple’s god atop a caparisoned elephant. Neighbors present offerings to the God and enjoy parades with colorful floats, music and dance as they meander through the streets.
Interesting tidbits  These festivals are especially known for their elaborate elephant pageants, showing off Kerala’s state animal. Elephants typically have three mahouts who decorate, ride and direct the elephants during festivals, as well as care for them by bathing them and giving massages with small stones. During the off-season, the elephants take a trip to the spa to undergo Ayurvedic rejuvenation treatments called Sukha Chikitsa. Though this may seem like the plush life, these giant grey creatures do work very hard in the heat and it may be no surprise that animal rights groups are not big fans of these festivals. The opposing argument by supporters notes that money earned during pageants helps pay for their care which otherwise would be too expensive. In addition, the Forest Department has implemented rules to protect them during the events.

Pushkar Camel Fair
Date  November 19-25, 2015 / November 8-14, 2016
Length  5 Days
Location  Lake Pushkar, Rajasthan
Celebrating Well! Camels of course…
Celebrated by  transporting an estimated 50,000 camels to the tiny desert town of Pushkar, Rajasthan for trade and entertainment. Camels are dressed up, paraded, shaved, raced and entered into beauty contests. Can’t you just imagine ‘Miss Pushkar?’
Interesting tidbit  Experiencing the Pushkar Camel Festival takes you back to India’s traditional roots. Camel trade is important, and yes, the camels are the main attraction, however additional human competitions are held as well, including the  longest mustache, matka phod, and bridal competitions.

Pushkar Camel Fair photo from: pushkarcamelfair.in
Pushkar Camel Fair photo from: pushkarcamelfair.in

Nepal

Nepal definitely gives India a great run for its money when it comes to the number and intensity of festivals. The Nepalese celebrate many of the same religious festivals as its neighbor, but also commemorate its diverse landscape, flora and fauna, and with over sixty different ethnic groups you can imagine there are several unique traditions known only to this Himalayan country.

The Living Goddess of Kathmandu, photo: Lindsay Cope
The Living Goddess of Kathmandu, photo: Lindsay Cope

Kumari Jatra — Kumara (Part of theYenyā festival)
Date  Late spring
Length  11 Days
Location  Kathmandu Durbar Square
Type  Hindu | Lunar calendar
Celebrating  The Living Goddess
Celebrated by  A chariot procession of the goddess and by hosting the biggest street festivals in Nepal
Interesting tidbit  Yenyā means ‘Kathmandu Festival’ in the local language, and it is the biggest religious street festival in Nepal.  The Kumari Jatra began in 1756 AD and each year, the Nepalese King (or more recently the president) seeks the blessing of the Royal Kumari. This is one of the only occasions in which the Living Goddess leaves her palace (she is only six years old!).

Buddha Jayanti
Date  May 2016, the full moon of the month of Vesākha
Length  11 Days
AKA  Buddha’s birthday or Vesak, in Sri Lanka, Bhutan, and Tibet
Location  Nationwide, Patan and Bhaktapur for the best festivities
Type  Hindu | Lunisolar calendar
Celebrating  Buddha’s birth on earth

Boudhanath Stupa, Image: Lindsay Cope
Boudhanath Stupa, Image: Lindsay Cope

Celebrated by Throwing a massive birthday party! As the birthplace of Buddhism, Nepalese and Bhuddist pilgrims from all around the world visit the UNESCO world heritage site Lumbini, where the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, was born. Crowds also gather at Bodhnath and Swayambhunath Stupas in Kathmandu.
Interesting tidbits – Buddha’s birthday is the same day he reached enlightenment and nirvana.  For celebration, Buddhists wear white and also set caged birds free.