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).
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.
But the feature of Thaipusam that makes it so fascinating for photographers is the way that the celebrants display their penance.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
People come from all over to attend the festival and watch the monkeys as they scamper on the tables and enjoy the feast.
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.
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.
Celebrated by millions of Hindus, Sikhs and Jains across the world, Diwali is one of the most important festivals in India.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Diwali offers photographers a variety of subjects to shoot – from the light and fireworks, to the interactions of families and communities celebrating together.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
A riot of color waits to be captured by photographers venturing to the Kadayawan Festival in the Philippines.
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.
The weeklong festival is a celebration and thanksgiving for nature’s bountiful harvest, and offers wonderful photographic opportunities.
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.
To get the best photos, pick a spot early as the streets get crowded quickly as visitors flock to watch the dancers and parades.
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.
Naadam is held annually in July in Mongolia’s capital of Ulaanbaatar, and draws thousands of spectators..
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Gangneung Danoje Festival features traditional games and activities that provides photographers with myriad opportunities for photos.
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.
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.
Odawara’s Hojo Godai Festival, held in early May, is an annual festival commemorating the five generations of the Hojo clan of Japan’s ‘Warring States’ period (Sengoku Jidai). This festival is a great place to capture photos of actors dressed as traditional Japanese warriors.
The main event of the Odawara Hojo Godai Matsuri (festival) is the samurai warriors’ procession (musha gyoretsu), which proceeds from Odawara castle through the main streets of the city. The parade of nearly 2,000 people dressed as warrior troops (Musha-tai), cavalry (Kiba-tai), and gun troop (Teppo-tai) offers photographers a chance to capture a flavor of Japanese martial history.
Lending a lighter touch, following the warrior procession are ceremonial floats (mikoshi), and civilians performing the Lantern Dance (Chochin Odori), baton twirlers, and brass bands from the city’s junior high schools.
Amongst India’s numerous vibrant festivals, one of the most spectacular is Kerala’s annual Thrissur Pooram festival. A photographer’s dream, the festival takes place on the Pooram day of the Malayalam month of Medom (this usually falls between April and May).
The main attraction of the festival is the colorfully costumed elephants parading through town on their way to the Vadakkunnathan temple.
The elephants are all beautifully decorated with golden headdresses, decorative bells and ornaments, palm leaves and peacock feathers. Each elephant is guided by his rider (mahout), whose costume is equally colorful.
The mahout of each elephant carries an ornate parasol during their parade through town. When the elephants and their riders reach the temple, the mahouts pass their parasols amongst themselves, some while standing on their elephant’s back.
The festival’s activities are rounded off with folk dancing, drumming, and a spectacularly huge fireworks display that begins at 3 o’clock in the morning.
Any photographer visiting India during Thrissur Pooram should definitely include Thrissur in their itinerary. While the crowds are huge and boisterous, you should be able to get some very memorable photos of the incredible elephants.
If you’re looking for a truly different photo opportunity, you might consider attending this unusual Japanese festival where revelers carry gigantic phalluses through the streets of a Japanese city.
Photo by Takanori / CC-BY
The Kanamara Matsuri (“Festival of the Steel Phallus”) – also called the ‘Penis Festival’, is a Shinto fertility festival held on the first Sunday of April in Kawasaki, Japan. The festivities start at Kawasaki’s Kanayama Shrine.
Photo by Guilhem Vellut / CC-BY
The highlight of the celebration is when the gigantic phalluses are carried out of the shrine on portable shrines (mikoshi) and paraded throughout the streets. Capturing a good photo isn’t easy as you’ll have to contend with crowds of onlookers.
Parade at Penis festival, at Kanayama Shrine in Kawasaki
Photo by Guilhem Vellut / CC-BY
During the event, penis-themed souvenirs ranging from penis-shaped lollipops and chocolates, to pens, key chains and more, are on sale.
Penis candles sold at a stand at the Kanamara Festival
Photo by Masayuki Kawagishi / CC-BY
What might seem as an outlandish display of sexuality is actually a very family-friendly affair. The crowd is full of people taking snapshots, so you don’t need to feel self-conscious taking photos.
Woman having photo taken on wooden phallus by friend