One of the great pleasures of travel is observing - and learning from - the locals. Here's a selection of awe-inspiring rituals from around the world, that feature dancing, theatrics and a little sacrificial slaughter.
Cavorting with the kukeri, Bulgaria
When it comes to the rich folk heritage of Eastern Europe, few events carry the visceral punch of Bulgaria’s annual kukeri processions. In archaic rites dating back to pre-Christian times, men gather to scare off the evil spirits of winter by donning shaggy animal disguises and dancing themselves into a state of exhaustion. The rites are still enacted in the villages south of the Bulgarian capital Sofia, and are easy to catch if you know when and where to go. January 14 is the big date in the Pernik region, where each village has a troupe of kukeri or “mummers”, charged with cleansing the community of evil and ensuring fertility in the coming year.
The celebrations take place every January 14 in the villages of Yardzhilovtsi, Kosharevo and Banishte. The Sofia-based travel agent Lyuba Tours (lyuba.tours) can organize day-trips to see them.
Watching the Reed Dance of Ludzidzini, Swaziland
Seen from the rugged heights of Hangman’s Rock, the scale of the pageantry is breathtaking. Column upon column advances across the cattle-cropped sward onto the parade grounds of Ludzidzini, the Queen Mother’s royal village, before dissolving into the pulsating mass of bodies already assembled there. Panning out towards the horizon you see still more arriving, snaking like huge, multi-coloured millipedes over the contours of the Ezulwini Valley.
Soon you are down among the spectators on the valley floor, where at close quarters it all becomes rather more real. Ranks of dancers bear down from all sides. Bare-breasted girls stamp and sway in step, anklets rattling, as the confusion of colour and flesh blurs into a chanting kaleidoscope. Ahead of each column strides its warrior escort, adorned with cow tails and clutching knob-stick and shield. His glance is contemptuous of cameras, although the girls behind him seem to be taking things less seriously: there is giggling in the ranks, flashed smiles and shared jokes. It’s Swaziland’s biggest holiday, and after seven days of tramping the hillsides, cutting reeds and camping out, they’re determined to enjoy the party.
The Umhlanga is held in late August or early September, the precise date varying from year to year. There is plentiful accommodation in the nearby Ezulwini area and admission to the festivities is free – though you will need a permit for photography. Find out more at www.welcometoswaziland.com.
Attending a ceremonial dance at Taos Pueblo, New Mexico
From the direction of Taos Mountain, which stands beyond the soft edges of the ancient pueblo, you hear a distant drone. The murmuring crowd goes quiet. The muffled drumbeats grow clearer, now accompanied by the rhythmic shimmer of bells. The waiting throng forms a border around the pueblo’s sacred dance space, instinctively giving prime spots to residents of this thousand-year-old settlement.
The crowd parts easily as a procession of men arrives – they are no longer men but deer, their antlers swinging, their dainty hooves picking at the earth. The drums boom, the chanting swells and the transformation is complete – the circle is a forest glade, and hunters trace the edges, taking aim with their symbolic arrows.
Hours pass, or perhaps only minutes, and then the drums stop. The illusion lifts: these are mere men, some boys, labouring under slippery elk hides, many of which look as though they were butchered only this morning. Shirtless, the men are breathing hard from the rigour of the hunt, giddy and sombre at the same time. The women now take their place in the circle, making delicate hand motions with switches of piñon tree, and you surrender once more to the heart-pounding drums.
Ceremonial dances are performed at Taos Pueblo (www.taospueblo.com) about ten times a year.
Watching the dancing goddess of Kerala, India
A sudden intensification of the drumming and cymbal rhythms heralds the appearance of the Teyyam. The crowd of villagers falls silent. It’s hard to convey the electric mix of terror and adoration the Teyyam’s costume inspires. A huge confection of gold-painted papier-mâché, metal jewellery, appliqué hangings, cowry-shell anklets and ornate necklaces, surmounted by a vast corona of silver foil and crimson fur, its focal point is an elaborately made-up face with curly chrome fangs protruding from its mouth.
This is as close to the goddess as some of these people will ever get. Age-old caste restrictions still bar them from access to Kerala’s most revered Tantric shrines, but at this moment Muchilôttu Bhagavati, a local form of the Hindu goddess of death and destruction, Kali, is herself manifest among them, her spirit glaring through the Teyyam’s bloodshot eyes, animating its every move and gesture.
Twisting and spinning through a succession of poses in the firelight, the apparition really does feel like a visitor from another realm. Temple drumming and chants accompany her graceful dance around the beaten-earth arena, which grows in intensity through the night, culminating in a frenzied possession. Only when the first daylight glows through the palm canopy does the deity retire, blessing her devotees as she does so.
Buses leave the Punjabi city of Amritsar for Wagha every 45min, although it’s worth booking a taxi for the round trip.
Getting swept away at Durga Puja, Bangladesh
Hindus constitute just nine percent of Bangladesh’s population, but the Durga Puja in Dhaka is at least as gripping as its Indian counterparts. But the enclaves are not ghettos, and the Puja is not exclusively for Hindus: instead it is at once a religious event and a vibrant carnival. The centrepieces of the individual pujas – religious rituals that show respect to Hindu gods and goddesses – are the beautiful, exquisitely painted clay effigies of Durga, best seen in Shankharia Bazaar, the largest Hindu quarter in Old Dhaka, where the drama of street life at Puja time is intense.
On the evening of the tenth day, the Puja erupts into an outpouring of frenzied activity. Galvanized by the eerie fanfare of conch-shell horns and the rolling thunder of ceremonial drums, columns of chanting devotees swarm towards Sadarghat, carrying aloft their effigies. Tens of thousands of people line the river bank and crowd around the ghat as a relentless succession of Durgas arrives at the water’s edge, where priests superintend their consecration and anoint their bearers with a smear of sandalwood ash. The goddesses are then loaded aboard diminutive boats that pitch and roll violently as the accompanying men dance and punch the air. In mid-stream the precious cargo is given to the water, and the sodden appearance of the returning men – delirious as they clamber up the steps of the ghat – hints at the mayhem beyond the reach of the light.
The Durga Puja falls in Sept or Oct, depending on the lunar cycle.
Watching Balinese theatrics, Indonesia
On the island of Bali, a Hindu enclave in the Muslim majority nation of Indonesia, the gods and spirits need regular appeasing and entertaining. Offerings of rice and flowers are laid out twice a day in tiny banana-leaf baskets and on special occasions there is ritual music and dancing.
Every performance begins with a priest sanctifying the space with a sprinkle of holy water. Then the gamelan orchestra strikes up. The light catches the bronze of their gongs, cymbals and metallophones, the lead drummer raises his hand, and they’re off, racing boisterously through the first piece, producing an extraordinary syncopated clashing of metal on metal.
Enter the dancers. Five sinuous barefooted young women open with a ritualistic welcome dance, scattering flower petals as an offering to the gods. Next, the poised refinement of the Legong, performed by three young girls wrapped in luminous pink, green and gold brocade. Finally it’s the masked Barong–Rangda drama, the all-important pitting of good against evil, with the loveable, lion-like Barong stalked and harassed by the powerful widow-witch Rangda, all fangs and fingernails. With typical Balinese pragmatism, neither good nor evil is victorious, but, crucially, spiritual harmony will have been restored on the Island of the Gods.
Dance performances are staged nightly at Ubud Palace, about 30km from Bali’s international airport.
Watching tribal funerals in Sumba, Indonesia
The island of Sumba is curiously overlooked by most travellers. But with cinnamon and sandalwood trees, colossal tombstones and an indigenous religion (Marapu) that involves bloody funeral sacrifices it’s an isolated but fascinating place.
Local tourism officials will keep you informed about upcoming events and advise you about the protocol. Foreigners are usually made very welcome but it’s essential to take a few gifts: sugar and tobacco are preferred. Attire is important. You’ll be supplied with a sarong (made from ikat fabric) and a turban-style headdress. It’s customary to chew sirih (betel nut), a mild stimulant, which is mixed with lime.
On the day of the event, hundreds, often thousands, of neighbouring villagers arrive to pay their respects. The main ceremony begins with the pounding of drums and sounding of gongs. Buffaloes are led into the village square and one-by-one put to the sword to satisfy the Marapu gods. It’s a grisly sight, as a turban-wearing executioner delivers a coup de grâce with a machete blow to the neck and blood waters the earth. All parts of the animals are shared and eaten (even buffalo skulls are retained as trophies). The grave is lined with precious ikat and a stone tombstone erected.
Contact the tourist office (0387 21240) in Waikabubak for information about upcoming funerals.
Giving thanks with the Tsou, Taiwan
Rarely visited by outsiders, the remote settlement of Dabang is hemmed in by jungle-smothered mountains that overflow with white plum blossoms in the spring. The village comes alive for the Mayasvi Festival, when red-robed members of the Tsou tribe gather outside the thatched village kuba, which looks a bit like a Polynesian longhouse, to slaughter a “mountain pig” – boar abound in these parts – and give thanks to the tribal gods.
More commonly known as aborigines or yuanzhumin (“original inhabitants”) in Chinese, Taiwan’s indigenous peoples represent just two percent of the island’s 23 million people. The Alishan National Scenic Area in the heart of Taiwan was once dominated by the Tsou tribe, and is today the best place to learn about them – it’s still a wild, rugged area yet with a bit of planning you can visit, staying at Tsou-run homestays, and eat sumptuous Tsou food.
Outsiders are welcome at the Mayasvi Festival, hosted annually in February. Traditionally a celebration of warriors returning from battle, this fascinating world ritual still brings together the male members of the tribe for two days of singing, rites of passage and the blessing of newborn boys. They form a circle, and singing the old songs they give thanks to the God of War and the God of Heaven; finally a mountain boar is sacrificed in front of a spirit tree, each man dipping his spear into the pig’s newly spilled blood. Later, the red cypress frame of the kuba and its hefty thatched roof are diligently repaired, and the feasting and drinking goes on long into the night.
To find out more about the Tsou check the Alishan website at www.ali-nsa.net.
What's the most captivating ritual or performance you've seen on your travels?