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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Maldives Independence Day
Date July 26
Length 1 day
Location Republic Square, Malé
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.
Date December 10
Length 1 day
Location Malé Fish Market
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!
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
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, Lhasa
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!