Regardless of where they take place in the world, festivals provide one of the most enjoyable and fascinatingly unique insights into authentic local cultures and customs. Some are intensely spiritual and holy, some stem from historical events unique to their regions and others are downright wacky, but one factor links every one of the world's festivals and events - the indomitable human spirit and the ability to come together to celebrate, honour and enjoy something which is an essential element of a town, city, country or region's identity. Billions of people in communities all over the world come together as one to celebrate nature, culture and history and whether it honours a god, celebrates the coming of a new season or is just an excuse to throw a colossal party, the global festival calendar overflows with festivals and events for travellers to observe, marvel at and participate in. From the Florida Keys to Australia, checking out colossal food fights, the pouring of sacred dairy products over venomous cobras and the simultaneous burn and sting of volcanically hot chilies and fresh ice in a unique eating contest along the way, we explore some of the quirkiest, messiest and most mesmerising festivals, rituals and events around the world to make a note of on 2017's travel calendar.
Every year in July, on the Saturday following America's Independence Day, Looe Key Reef in the Florida Keys plays host to one of the funkiest and quirkiest music festivals on the planet. Held within Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary and among hordes of brightly coloured tropical fish and other marine life, the Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival sees up to six hundred divers and snorkelers converge on the only natural living coral reef in the whole of the continental United States every year. The festival dates back twenty five years, when it was founded by Florida radio broadcaster and producer Bill Becker in 1982, and the main focus of the event, as well as creating a unique sub-aquatic musical experience, is to raise awareness and promote the conservation of the coral reef's rich and incredibly fragile ecosystem while also educating participants on safe reef diving practices.
Sometimes affectionately referred to as 'Aquapalooza', the underwater festival sees the sonic waves of a predetermined playlist of ocean-themed music streamed directly from WWUS 104.1 FM, a Florida Keys radio station, and blasted into the tropical waters of the Florida Keys through underwater speakers suspended below boats directly above the reef. The playlist includes music inspired by the ocean and festival staples vary with anything from whale song to classics such as the Beetles' 'Octopus Garden' and 'Yellow Submarine'. With tropical marine life including the immensely colourful Yellowtail Snapper, and sometimes even reef sharks, participants also mime along to the marine-inspired melodies emanating from the underwater speakers above them by pretending to play specially-crafted and playfully-named musical instruments - such as the 'Trom-Bonefish' and 'Fluke-lele' - which are designed every year for the festival by Florida Keys artist August Powers.
During the last week of August every year the usually quiet and tranquil Spanish town of Buñol, just under forty kilometres west of Valencia, becomes the stage for one of the most famous, and arguably the largest, food fights in the world. Over 160 tonnes of tomatoes are especially shipped to Buñol's Plaza del Pueblo by truck from Spain, mostly from Extremadura 550 kilometres to the west, for the fiesta and tens of thousands of people flock to the town from all over the world for two hours of pelting each other with a seemingly endless supple of over-ripe and crushed tomatoes, turning anybody and anything standing in their way red in the process. Dating back to 1945, the true origins of the fiesta are shrouded in mystery but the most popular story goes that La Tomatina was born during the Spanish Civil War, when two young boys from poverty-stricken Buñol families pelted groups of affluent tourists from Madrid with rotten tomatoes which had fallen off the back of an overturned truck.
The rules of La Tomatina are simple, the tomatoes must have been crushed by hand before the battle begins, in order to avoid injury, no more than two tomatoes are to be hurled at the same person within two minutes of each other and the fight can only begin after a participant manages to climb to the top of a greased pole in the centre of Plaza del Pueblo, and retrieve a joint of ham which has been placed at the top. After the ham has been claimed, the flood gates open and the fiesta descends into tomato-flavoured chaos as a stampede of up to thirty thousand people relentlessly shower each other with crushed Spanish tomatoes. The no-holds-barred food fight usually lasts for an no more than hours by which time the streets of Buñol have been temporarily turned red in an ocean of tomato juice, tomato pulp and tomato paste and industrial strength fire hoses are brought into to blast away the tomato stains from walls and buildings after the carnage has abated. So popular and famous is the original Spanish La Tomatina festival, that the fiesta has inspired similar mass tomato brawls as far and wide as Texas, Costa Rica, China and India.
West Africa is globally renowned for its rainbow-esque array mesmerising and often frenzied array of festivals and rituals which can honour anything from the earth, the sky, the ocean and the harvest to voodoo, ancient ancestors and ghostly spirits and northwestern Nigeria's Argungu Fishing Festival is no exception to the rule. Held just outside the city of Argungu, usually at the end of February or in March depending on when the season's crop has been planted, the first ever edition of the famous fishing festival was held in 1934 and over the years the event has seen some of the largest and most impressive freshwater fish specimens ever to have been hauled out of West Africa's rivers. What began a celebration of marking the end of a three hundred year old period of hostility, mutual conquest and warfare between two nation states, the Sokoto Caliphate and the Kingdom of Kebbi, has evolved into arguably the world's most famous fishing festival and the event is the culmination of a wider four day harvest festival.
Thousands of fishermen from Argungu and Sokoto and other nearby towns as well as participants from Togo, the Ivory Coast and Ghana converge on northwestern Nigeria's Matan Fada River for the fishing extravaganza every year and the rules state that all anglers must adhere to traditional West African fishing methods of only using their bare hands, a net and a calabash, a kind of melon-cum squash like fruit, as a flotation device. With the sounds of voodoo drums pounding on the riverbank, the festival gets underway Olympic-style with the firing of a starting gun into the air as up to ten thousand anglers race towards the river before hurling themselves into the water and the result is part fishing contest, part mass brawl. The victor is the man who catches the largest fish within a one hour time limit of the starting gun and the lucky winner receives a highly lucrative cash prize of one million Nigeria Naira - roughly seven thousand US dollars - as well as a brand new bus and the prestigious title of 'Fisherman of the Year' until the festival rolls around again the following spring. 2005 saw a new record set at the Argungu Fishing Festival as a gargantuan catfish, which weight in at 75 pounds and took four fishermen to haul to the scale, was caught and the event is so prestigious that the current Sultan of Sokoto is regularly among the guests.
As the moon beams down all over India and Nepal on the fifth day of the lunar month of Shravan, usually in July or August of every year, one of the most common sights across both countries are Hindu devotees lavishing offerings upon sacred statues and reliefs of snakes carved from either gold, silver or stone. Snakes are most importantly associated with Shiva and Vishnu, two of the three supreme Hindu deities, and as one of the most highly revered entities in Hinduism, legend has it that a group of mythical beings known as the Nāga played a key part in the creation of the galaxy and the Hindu cosmos, with the Nāga specifically taking the form of the King Cobra. Dozens of other stories highlight the importance of snakes to Hindus, including how one of the daughters-in-law of another of the main gods, Brahma, was a Nāga and how the earth is balanced on the head of a Nāga king named Ananta, and both India and Nepal's snake-worshipping rituals, or 'Nāga Puja', on the fifth day of the Shravan lunar month are part of the wider Nāga Panchamī festival. Specifically, Nāga Panchamī honours Hinduisms five Nāga snake kings, Ananta, Vasuki, Takshak, Karkotaka and Pingala, and one of the most famous elements of the festival occurs when believers pour milk over the heads of live cobras to symbolise the story of Samudra Manthan, one of the most famous episodes of Hindu mythology in which Vasuki, a Nāga snake king, allowed himself to be used a rope as the lesser Deva gods churned Kshirasāgara, the mythical 'Ocean of Milk', in search of the nectar of immortality for Vishnu.
In addition to milk, other offerings presented to the sacred cobras during Nāga Panchamī include crystallised sugar, a type of sweetened Indian rice pudding known as Kheer and even money and these are placed inside a bowl which contains the cobra itself as well as a single lotus flower. Observances and offerings are most commonly made to the live snakes snakes in and around Hindu temples dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu and as believers honour the cobras, a priest or guru can often being chanting a mantra declaring: 'Naga preeta bhavanti shantimapnoti via viboh', which roughly translates to 'Let all be blessed by the snake goddess, let everyone obtain peace.' Many of the priests and gurus also observe a day's fasting on Nāga Panchamī, which they believe provides them with holy protection from Shiva to ward off a venomous bite from a cobra during the auspicious day, and during the festival any kind of digging is considered strictly taboo, as this may harm some of the Indian and Nepalese snake species which live underground.
Hindus currently make up just over twelve percent of Sri Lanka's total population and the roughly 276,000 Sri Lankan Hindus are mostly of south Indian Tamil descent. Around the end of July and the beginning of August every year, tens of thousands of Sri Lanka Hindus flock to the nation's de-facto and commercial capital of Colombo to celebrate Aadi Vel, the largest and most important Hindu festival held on the Indian Ocean's teardrop island. Sri Lanka's Aadi Vel celebrations date back to 1874, with Colombo hosting 142 editions of the event, and the festival traditionally began with believers from all over the country embarking on a fourteen day, on-foot pilgrimage known as 'Pada Yatra' to the town of Kataragama, in Sri Lanka's far southeast. The festival's name comes from the divine and cosmic spear used by the Hindu war god Karthikeya and today, Colombo hosts its own version of Aadi Vel as two elaborate processions head through the main streets of the city from Pettah in the east, famous for its traditional market, to ocean temples on the coast in Wellawatte and Bambalapitiya. Image Credit: Margerata
The twin processions which head through Colombo during Aadi Vel see floats carrying elaborately decorated effigies representing the earthly body and spirit of the Hindu war god Skanda, or Kataragama and his cosmic 'Vel' spear to celebrate his victory in a mythical battle against a demon by the name of Surapadman and his subsequent marriages to goddesses Valli Ammai and Theivayānai. Historically, the floats used to carry the god and his legendary spear were carved from pure silver and encrusted with diamonds and rubies but modern editions of Aadi Vel see the chariots made out of wood and decorated with banana leaves, lotus garlands, jasmine flowers, incense sticks and other tropical fruits. One of the most striking elements of the processions are the men suspended in mid air from the floats by metal hooks. For a month before Aadi Vel begins, the extremely devoted individuals live on a strictly vegetarian diet which is said to ease the blistering pain of the metal hooks piercing their flesh as they show their devotion to Skanda. Hindus also believe that coconuts represent the hardened shell of the ego and during Colombo's Aadi Vel festivities, thousands of coconuts are shattered on the ground by devotees in the streets and outside temples to symbolise the cracking of their pride and egos and their willingness to the devote themselves entirely to the Hindu gods.
In Laos, the sixth month of the lunar calendar is the time of year in which Phaya Thaen, the rain god, sends the first of the yearly monsoon rains as the nation's rice farmers begin begin to plant their seasonal crop. The sixth lunar month usually coincides with beginning of May in the West and for three days before the rains begin, communities all over Laos, such as the tiny village of Houa Xeing just east of Vientiane, come together for Boun Bang Fai, or the 'Rocket Festival'. The first two days of the festival are usually consumed by a humongous party in which Lao people dance, play native music and hold processions of floats as well as drinking heavily. The third day of Boun Bang Fai is devoted entirely to building and carving homemade rockets known as Bang Fai out of bamboo stems which are colourfully decorated with foil paper and wrapped in lotus garlands as well as banana and coconut leaves before being loaded with explosive black powder and blasted into the sky to let the rain god, Phaya Thaen, know that the rice planting season has quite literally begun with a bang. Image Credit: LaosTourism
The rockets are essentially makeshift rainmakers which are ritually fired into the air as an offering to the rain god to make the monsoon season start and the Boun Bang Fai traces its original roots back nearly two thousand years to the time of Buddha himself. Local legend has it that Phaya Thaen became jealous of Buddha's newly-found status as a religious and spiritual icon and in a fit of envy, he refused to send the yearly rains down to earth and the population began to starve from lack of rice. Buddha joined forces with the King of Bees, the King of Scorpions and the king of a group of legendary snakes known as the Naga and together they defeated Phaya Thaen, with Buddha making him promise to send the rains again and the idea of firing rockets into the air stems from Phaya Thaen needing to be sent a reminder to send the rains for the rice harvest every year. In modern times, the firing of the rockets skyward to the rain god is serious business during Laos' Boun Bang Fai festivals and the importance of ensuring that the projectiles make it into the sky is epitomised by the fact that makers of successfully-launched rockets are rewarded with a prize of copious amounts of the traditional Lao rice whiskey, Lao Khao, and anybody whose rocket fails to make it into the sky is summarily thrown into a muddy pond.
July of 2016 was one of the hottest ever recorded in Hangzhou, capital of eastern China's Zhejiang Province, and with temperatures exceeding forty degrees celsius the city's Songcheng scenic spot saw the birth of arguably the most hardcore eating contest on the planet. The event was given the name 'Feast of Fire and Ice' and involved a handful of brave Hangzhou locals taking leave of their taste buds - and seemingly their senses - as they climbed into buckets filled with ice and attempted to devour as many of the notoriously scorching Chocolate Bhut Jolokia chilli peppers as possible. Part eating contest, part logic-defying test of endurance, the Feast of Fire and Ice was designed to test the mettle of some of Hangzhou's most committed foodies and fresh buckets of ice were poured over contestants' heads to add to the challenge of the already mind-boggling and simultaneous extremes of the intense and volcanic heat of the chilli peppers combined with the freezing sting of the ice buckets.
Many of the brave contestants quit the competition after being swiftly humbled by the extremes of the heat and the cold and as the infamous eastern Chinese mid-summer humidity added to the discomfort, event organisers had no mercy as the only temporary relief for the participants was a mouthful of ice cream, itself studded with chilli seeds. The winner, or perhaps more appropriately the last man standing, as the competition came to a close managed to down a staggering 47 whole chilli peppers as he was awarded the title of champion and also received a trophy ironically carved from sold gold in the shape of a chilli pepper. The Feast of Fire and Ice was the second such eating contest to be held in China during July of 2016 and with the Chinese media devoting coverage to the event as TV cameras were on hand to document participants feeling both the heat and the frosty chill, the contest has already been pencilled in for its second edition to be held at Hangzhou's Songcheng scenic spot in the summer of 2017.
Japan is renowned for its colourful and often eccentric 'Matsuri' festivals and one of the most famous and well-known of these is held on the third Saturday in February of every year. The city of Okayama, capital of its namesake prefecture in the westernmost region of Chūgoku region on Japan's main island of Honshū, is home to a Buddhist temple known as Saidai-ji which holds its own famous and somewhat notorious version of Hadaka Matsuri, which literally means 'Naked Festival'. On what is often one of coldest nights of the year, a beer and sake-fuelled army of up to nine thousand men link arms and bulldoze their way through the streets outside the temple clad in nothing but traditional Japanese Fundoshi loincloths. Bellowing 'Wasshoi! Wasshoi!!', an old Samurai battle chant, the men cram into Saidai-ji's main building and on the stroke of midnight, the lights are turned out and a priest appears in a window four metres up from the ground. The priest then hurls a pair of twenty centimetre-long bamboo sticks, known as Shingi and classed as an Ofuda, or a token good luck and fortune, into the awaiting crowd. What ensues is a certified battle royale, with the entire affair descending into a mass brawl as the often tipsy and fervently competitive crowd of men push and shove each other trying to grab the lucky Shingi sticks, often resulting in broken bones and shattered ribs.
Amid the loin-clothed chaos, the rules of Saidai-ji's free-for-all are relatively simple as, having almost certainly snatched them from the hands of another participant, the winner is the man who successfully claims the lucky bamboo Shingi sticks and drives them into a wooden box filled with rice and known as a Masu. Having claimed victory in Saidai-ji's famous mass brawl, the winner is blessed with an entire year of good fortune and happiness and the runners up are rewarded with either cash prizes or shorter periods of good luck having managed to grab and keep hold of the smaller bamboo Shingi sticks which are also thrown into the crowd in bundles by the priest. Hakada Matsuri dates back over five hundred years to Japan's feudal Samurai era, when aspiring Shinto priests would also compete for official certificates, in the form of paper talismans known as Gō-o, which were tokens of completion of religious training created and signed by senior priests. While Hakada Matsuri stems from what was once a fiercely-guarded Japanese tradition, which saw the graduation of junior Shinto priests into fully-fledged temple and shrine members, even foreigners are allowed to compete for the lucky bamboo Shingi sticks during the event today. Image Credit: Jere Samuli Perttula (Flickr)
Just under 300 kilometres northwest of Brisbane, capital of the Australian state of Queensland, the relatively small and quiet town of Chinchilla enjoys a year-round subtropical climate which sees it produce roughly 25 percent of Australia's melons. Watermelon, Rockmelon and Honeydew are the main melon staples grown and harvested in Chinchilla and for three days in February of every second year, the town hosts the Chinchilla Melon Festival. Five tonnes of melon are delivered and duly shattered and consumed during the bi-annual melon extravaganza and the event is regularly attended by upwards of ten thousand people. With Chinchilla referred to as the 'Melon Capital of Australia' the event has become known as 'MelonFest' and having attracted around five thousand people during its inaugural edition over twenty years ago in 1994, regular attendances have swelled to over thirty thousand.
Chinchilla's Melon Festival is the brainchild of local fruit farmers and businessman as a means of reinvigorating the towns spirits and fortunes after an almost cataclysmic drought struck in this part of Queensland in the early 1990s and decimated its essential melon crop. The event lasts for four days and during sees the usual state fair or carnival-style festivities given an undeniably melon-themed twist and include jumping over hay bails during a hurdle race on an obstacle course littered with shattered watermelons and a tug of war during the 'Melon Ironman' contest. Other melon-centric events include 'Melon Skiing', a race known as the 'Melon Dash for Cash', 'Melon Bungee', the 'Melon Chariot Race' and 'Melon Surfing' as well as the 'Seed Spitting' contest in which the winner is whoever can spit a melon pip the furthest. The event also sees the 'Melon Head Smashing Contest, in which the object for participants is to withstand as many watermelons being cracked open on their heads as possible and in 2009, a festival-goer named John Allwood set a Guinness World Record when 47 melons were shattered on his skull in just one minute.