Photo Opportunity: Thaipusam, a Hindu Celebration in Malaysia

Celebrant at Thaipusam with pierced cheeks

Althought the majority of Malaysia is Muslim, the country’s population includes more than two million ethnic Indians, most of whom are Tamil Hindus.

Every year, these Hindu communities celebrate Thaipusam. A public holiday, Thaipusam is a thanksgiving to Lord Subramaniam (also known as Lord Murugan) for answered prayers, and is also a day of penance. This important Hindu festival is held in the tenth month of the Hindu calendar (usually the end of January).

Sunrise In Batu Caves during Thaipusam festival

In celebration of Thaipusam, over a million Hindus converge on temples nationwide – the most famous being at the Batu Caves (an important religious site for Tamil Hindus on Kuala Lumpur’s outskirts), where hundreds-of-thousands gather.

Participants prepare themselves for the occasion by cleansing their bodies through fasting and abstinence, and usually observe a vegetarian diet for a certain period of time prior to the day of the festival.

Participants at the Thaipusam festival

But the feature of Thaipusam that makes it so fascinating for photographers is the way that the celebrants display their penance.

Skewered devotees at Thaipusam

Many devotees pierce their skin, tongues or cheeks with long skewers in a form of penance, or bear elaborately decorated frames called ‘kavadi’ – typically attached to their body using sharp metal spikes dug into the skin.

Tamil man paying penance at Thaipusam

If you plan on taking photos of Thaipusam, be prepared for a very crowded, hectic and sometimes even claustrophobic experience. However, the shots you get will make it well worth your while.

Hindu devotees at Thaipusam festival, Malaysia

Although Thaipusam is also celebrated in India and Singapore and other countries with large Hindu Tamil communities, in Malaysia it’s marked with a particular zest that makes it special.

Hindu man with skin pierced at Thaipusam

November Photo Opportunity: The Monkey Banquet of Lopburi

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Looking for an unusual festival to photograph? Head over to Thailand for the Lopburi Monkey Banquet Festival held at the Phra Prang Sam Yot shrine. Located in central Thailand’s provincial capital of Lopburi, this Khmer shrine is inhabited year-round by hundreds of long-tailed macaques.

Monkeys climbing pile of food at the Lopburi Monkey Banquet Festival, Thailand

Despite stealing food and generally being a nuisance, the monkeys are a part of the daily life of the local community, as the townspeople believe they bring good luck and fortune. Having free reign of the town, the monkeys enter public buildings and traverse roads like any other citizen.

Close-up of monkeys feasting at the Lopbuti Monkey Banquest Festival

On the last Sunday of November, the Lopburi monkeys are honored with a huge feast set out on long tables in the ruins of the shrine. The delicacies offered include an abundant spread including sticky rice, tropical fruit salad frozen in ice blocks and an egg-yolk pudding.

The Giant Lantern Festival, San Fernando, Pampanga, Philippines

People come from all over to attend the festival and watch the monkeys as they scamper on the tables and enjoy the feast.

Monkeys feasting at the Lopburi Monkey Banquet Festival, Thailand

Initially shy in front of the hundreds of spectators, the monkeys eventually get in the swing of things – gorging on the food, guzzling sodas, throwing pudding at each other, and generally causing a ruckus. This riotous monkey spectacle will delight any and all photographers.

Monkey walking of food banquet at the Lopburi Monkey Banquet Festival

Once the monkeys’ appetites are satiated, and the remainder of the food is on the ground, the monkeys return to the treetops to sleep off their indulgence. A fun, and unique, festival, you’ll leave the Lopburi Monkey Banquet Festival with a lot of great shots in your memory cards.

Crowds photographing the monkeys at the Lopburi Monkey Banquet Festival

October Photo Opportunity: India’s Festival of Lights

Lit candles at Hindu Festival

Celebrated by millions of Hindus, Sikhs and Jains across the world, Diwali is one of the most important festivals in India.

Candles lit on Ganges during Diwali

Celebrated between mid-October and mid-November each year, Diwali is an ancient Hindu festival known as the ‘Festival of Lights’ – due to the clay lamps that Indians traditionally lit outside their homes. The candles, lights and fireworks during Diwali give every photographer a lot to work with.

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Believed to have originated as a harvest festival, today Diwali is celebrated for various reasons by Hindus depending on the region of India in which they reside. Non-Hindu communities also celebrate this holiday, again, for their own reasons. The main theme common throughout all the celebrations is the triumph of light over darkness, and good over evil.

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During the five-day festival, homes, temples, and other buildings throughout the country are decorated with colorful lights, and large firework displays are held in many communities.

Snacks at Diwali

During the holiday, houses are cleaned, people dress in new clothes, sweets are exchanged, and prayers given – typically to Lakshmi, the goddess of fertility and prosperity.

India Festival

Diwali offers photographers a variety of subjects to shoot – from the light and fireworks, to the interactions of families and communities celebrating together.

People lighting candles at riverside during Diwali

Man shopping for Diwali electric lights

September Photo Opportunity: The Masked Dancers of Korea

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Korea’s annual Andong Mask Dance Festival is an series of events celebrating the traditions of Korean mask dancing. If you’re lucky enough to attend, bring your camera, and get ready to get some really fun photos.

Yecheon Cheongdan-noreum, Andong Mask Festival
Yecheon Cheongdan-noreum, at the Andong Mask Festival in Korea

Originally a two-day event, the festival has expanded into a 10-day festival starting at end of September and continuing into the beginning of October.

Sandae-nori at Songpa, Andong Mask Festival, Korea
Sandae-nori at Songpa, Andong Mask Festival, Korea

The history of Korea’s Mask Dances reach back centuries. They were once used in shamanistic rituals, as local custom believed that wearing a mask warded off evil spirits. The performances of the masked dancers during the festival allow for some really interesting photos.

Byeolsandae-nori at Yangju, Andong Msk Festival, Korea
Byeolsandae-nori at Yangju, Andong Msk Festival, Korea

Each mask dance has it’s own significance, from making an offering to a goddess for health and wealth, to dancing for an abundant harvest, and finally a dance to chase away demons.

Goseong Ogwangdae at Andong Mask Festival, Korea
Goseong Ogwangdae at Andong Mask Festival, Korea

Andong, and its surrounding area, are famous as a center of Korean culture and folk traditions. If you visit during the festival, make sure to take the time to make some side trips with your camera. (Don’t miss the nearby folk village of Hahoe).

Masked dancers at the Andong Mask Festival, Korea
Masked dancers at the Andong Mask Festival, Korea

August Photo Opportunity: Colorful Tribal Dancers of the Philippines

Kadayawan Festival performers
Participants of the “Indak Indak sa Kadalanan” perform before the crowd along Roxas Blvd. during the 23rd Kadayawan Festival in Davao City on August 23, 2008. The street dancing is one of the highlights of the week-long Kadayawan Festival. Keith Bacongco / AKP Images

A riot of color waits to be captured by photographers venturing to the Kadayawan Festival in the Philippines.

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Street dancers at the Kadayawan Festival, Davao, Philippines (photo: Bro. Jeffery Pioquinto, SJ)

Kadayawan is held annually during the 3rd Week of August in the city of Davao, the Philippines. Davao is found on Mindanao, the nation’s second-largest and southernmost island.

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Tribal dancer at Kadayawan festival in Davao, Philippines (photo: Bro. Jeffery Pioquinto, SJ)

The weeklong festival is a celebration and thanksgiving for nature’s bountiful harvest, and offers wonderful photographic opportunities.

Christmas decors for sale in the City of San Fernando, Pampanga, Philippines
Christmas decors for sale in the City of San Fernando, Pampanga, Philippines (photo: Keith Bacongo)

During the festival, the streets of Davao are adorned with local fruit & vegetables, providing a colorful background to the tribal dances and floats. Floats are covered with fresh flowers and fruits, and the energetic dancers from various indigenous tribes wear their finest costumes and jewelry.

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A GIANT ÒPARULÓ (Christmas lantern), a product of craftsmen from the City of San Fernando in Pampanga province, entertains spectators at the 2014 Ligligan Parul (Giant Lantern Festival). Photo: Keith Bacongo

To get the best photos, pick a spot early as the streets get crowded quickly as visitors flock to watch the dancers and parades.

July Photo Opportunity: Naadam, an Explosion of Mongolian Energy!

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Openning parade of the Naadam Festival in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Pack your camera gear and travel to Mongolia to experience the Naadam Festival. Naadam is a major holiday in Mongolia and the perfect time to experience the culture and people of this amazing country.

 

Mongolian wrestlers at Naadam Festival
Mongolian wrestlers at Naadam Festival in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia (Photo courtesy of LiveFromUB)

Naadam is held annually in July in Mongolia’s capital of Ulaanbaatar, and draws thousands of spectators..

Horseback riders at Naadam Festival
Horseback riders at Naadam Festival in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

A photographer’s dream, Naadam’s opening ceremony features marches and music from soldiers, monks and athletes before the commencement of the main sporting events.

Horseback riders at Naadam Festival
Horseback riders at Naadam Festival in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Naadam’s origins reach back to Mongolia’s traditional military activities, which is why Mongolian wresting, horse racing and archery are the highlights of the 2-day festivities.

Crowds at the Naadam Festival
Crowds at the Naadam Festival in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

While not one of the easiest festivals to reach, Naadam’s colourful athletes and spectators offer spectacular photo opportunities, and is definitely worth the extra effort to attend. With planning, and a bit of luck, you’ll be able to capture some memorable photos at this unique festival.

June Photo Opportunity: Korea’s Most Popular Festival

Lights at Gangneung Danoje Festival
Lights at Gangneung Danoje Festival during night

Korea’s annual Gangneung Danoje (The Gangneung Danoje Festival) is one of the most popular holidays in the nation, and a great time to capture photos of Korean culture.The festival takes place annually the fifth day of the fifth month in the town of Gangneung, Gangwon Province, Korea.

Masked Dancers at Gangneung Danoje Festival
Masked Dancers at Gangneung Danoje Festival

The Gangneung Danoje Festival features traditional games and activities that provides photographers with myriad opportunities for photos.

Women washing hair at Gangneung Danoje Festival
Women washing hair at Gangneung Danoje Festival

The festival include folk games such as the swing and ssireum (Korean wrestling), and other practices such as washing one’s hair in sweet Iris-infused water, eating surichwi tteok (rice cakes made with marsh plant), making Dano fans, and decorating masks.

Male dancer at Gangneung Danoje Festival
Male dancer at Gangneung Danoje Festival

Gangneung Danoje’s roots lie in the worship of the guardian spirit of the mountain that protects the town, and to pray for the peace and prosperity of all families living in the town.

Traditional dancers at the Gangneung Danoje Festival
Traditional dancers performing at the Gangneung Danoje Festival