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Why do we still go to movie theaters when we can watch the same film at home? Why do we go to the Cheese Roll when YouTube captures the highlights for us without requiring us to make the trek? Sitting in front of our screens is just no substitute for experiencing something in the moment, making new friends, and the serendipity inherent in attending a festival. I stayed out of the way of a motley crew of daredevils who competed for an 8-pound circle of UK cheese. One explained that the cheese roll is like snowplowing down a black diamond mountain having just strapped on skis for the first time. I had never heard of Kenny Rackers, the American Cheese Racer, before I made it to Cooper’s Hill. This 27-year old former Army soldier saw this annual British event as a way to inspire people. He believed that winning the Cheese Roll could propel a million others to pursue their own dreams. Kenny won the first race of the day looking like a superhero flying down the hill. Of course, it’s a thrill seeing people run down the hill, but it’s even more exciting that this event is small enough that you can meet a few of the winners. The winner of the second men’s race said, "You can't control yourself whatsoever so it's a case of rolling down and seeing where you end up.” Maybe that’s part of the age-old appeal of this raucous, bizarre event. It’s all about resilience and an ability to somersault through life no matter which mogul catches you unexpectedly.
Do the Spanish have the weirdest festivals in the world? I asked myself this as I made the 43-kilometer trek by taxi from the charming city of Burgos in northern Spain (no public transportation to this remote village). Since 1621, the superstitious townspeople of Castrillo have celebrated a baby jumping ritual that has turned into a 4-day festival. The belief is that the “devil’s leap” will cleanse the babies of original sin. As I arrived in this nearly deserted town – I kept thinking that some masked man might pop out and attack me at any moment. I’d seen pictures of the yellow-garbed devil incarnate before, but it wasn’t until a couple hours later that I first got my visual of the jumping, whip-cracking Colacho. The idea is that the jumpers, in their devil costumes, with whips and truncheons, are personifications of diabolical evil. When they leap, evil follows them and the babies’ souls are cleansed. It’s a communal baptism for those who haven’t traveled around the sun once yet. The first 4-5 hours of the day until 6pm is a series of four ambles around the village with El Colacho whipping people, his drummer providing the soundtrack, the clergy and church leadership dressed like undertakers, and the townspeople egging El Colacho on and scrambling for cover. There may have been 500 people at the peak time in the exquisite chapel just before the baby jumping, but during a good portion of the day, there was rarely more than a few hundred. Great local immersion!
Like Hemingway…I like to drink, I like to write, and, on occasion, I like to be a contrarian. I also like to understand the culture of the “other,” especially when it has such a deep history. So, that’s why I came to Pamplona. Still, my conscience felt a little sick to its stomach while my natural curiosity ached to partake in this 9 day celebration that has religious roots, but hedonistic ends. Why do 2 million people make this annual pilgrimage of beer, bulls, and blood? Do these revelers recognize that the bulls they'll be running with in the morning will be slaughtered by nightfall (literally a life and death finish line)? How is Spain reconciling that Barcelona has forbidden bullfights and, in reaction, Madrid has enacted laws to make it a sacred art form as protected as the city’s historic architecture? Historic or hysteric, I decided to take the plunge and spend 3 nights at the Fiesta de San Fermin that lasts from July 6-14 every year. Some see a bullfight as a heroic ballet of man versus beast; others see it as a barbaric act. A couple of days before the first bull run, you’ll encounter the Running of the Nudes, a PETA-sponsored event dedicated to “exposing the truth” about bullfighting. Hemingway wrote, “Aficion means passion. An aficionado is one who is passionate about the bullfights.” Pamplona is full of aficionados. So, I settled in with an open mind, strapped on my smile, and stepped into my reveler spirit...moving from my conscience to my curiosity.
“Enjoy watching groups of grown men dressed in leather and doused in olive oil grappling with each other?” asked my guidebook. As is true of many cultural traditions, it’s easy to mistake what this festival is all about. Kirkpinar is about honor. The 1,000 wrestlers who participate are considered “pehlivans” or honorable warriors who represent what’s best in a healthy society. Yes, they do wear water buffalo-hide long shorts (kisbet), but this is to emulate the costume of the elite band of Ottoman imperial bodyguards. They coat their body in olive oil (more than 500 liters will be used during the 3-day tournament), that makes it harder to get a grip on one’s opponent. They are competing for the title of “bas” or top wrestler. In the old days, there was no time limit and people, on rare occasion, matched to the death, today there’s 40 minutes to beat your opponent. A win comes in one of three forms: pinning your opponent’s shoulders to the ground simultaneously, carrying him above your shoulders three steps, or having your kisbet torn. After the competitors are announced, they strut with their hands going vertically up and down and slapping their leather shorts, finishing with a short prayer. Then they give each other bear hugs as a show of sportsmanship and to spread the oil. Next thing you know, there’s nearly 3 dozen wrestling matches on the grass. And an announcer who recites poems to motivate and encourage the wrestlers. They do love their poetry in Turkey.
Each spring as a child, I looked forward to the annual Derby Day party in our family backyard when my parents’ friends donned odd hats and downed mint julips. Somehow, I thought Il Palio was going to bring back childhood memories, but the Kentucky Derby is a back alley pony show compared to the tradition of Il Palio. The sheer volume of medieval pomp and circumstance is unparalleled. I was able to score a seat in the stands at a critical corner of the racecourse. It’s a big commitment. You sit for 3-4 hours in the sun watching the medieval festivities and melting in the process. The stands are ridiculously crowded. And, you pay 180 Euros for this privilege. It was worth it for the vantage point I got but next time, I’ll just hang out with the masses in the center of the racecourse, which is free (but requires you line up 6-8 hours early) and the ingenious slanted design of the plaza gives everyone great sight lines. There are an estimated 70,000 people watching this spectacle and they’re wedged into every single extra crevice facing the piazza. As it gets closer to the starting time, a complete hush overcomes the crowd. It is completely silent as the announcer belts out the poll positions for each horse. Finally, the race begins. After days of parties, parades, and pandemonium, the whole affair will be done in 90 seconds with a wild gallop around the course three times. Afterward, I stayed in the piazza lingering and just soaking in the collective effervescence.
When I told people I was traveling to Fes for north Africa’s most celebrated music festival, I heard, “Will you feel safe there?” or “You’re traveling halfway around the world to listen to church music?” Ironically, at the primary concerts, attendees were required to walk through a metal detector machine. Just one more reminder that being sacred also requires being secure. My Relais & Chateaux hotel, Riad Fes, was a brisk, 10-minute walk to Bab Al Makina, the main venue, and I arrived just as Morocco’s Presidential motorcade was about to pull up - I was a little underdressed. As the King of Morocco said in dedicating the festival, “The Kingdom of Morocco boasts a richly diverse, multi-faceted history, successfully forged together by its people, who have managed over the centuries, to build a deeply-rooted nation based on a commitment to lofty values and a long-standing tradition of respect for the Other….” What’s sacred about this festival isn’t the music, it’s the collaboration. It’s the fusion of Himalayan musicians with those from the Mauritanian desert, Bengali ragas joining in Gospel singing with those from South Africa, and an Eastern Orthodox Aramaen choir synthesizing with those from the Alfama distract of Lisbon. My only regret was not staying long enough to see Patti Smith later in the week. The title for the Opening Night celebration was “Love is my Religion.” I can’t think of a more exquisite way to describe the purpose of the World Sacred Music festival.
My ideal habitat is a warm day on a tropical beach. I'm also a sucker for beauty in all its most unusual forms (part of the reason I'm on the Board of Burning Man). So, when I heard about the Harbin International Ice & Snow Festival in northeast China (Manchuria meets Siberia: that just sounds frozen!), my initial reaction was, "How far would I travel and how cold would I get all in the name of experiencing an aesthetic phenomenon?" So, after 90 degree humidity in Malaysia, two planes delivered me to this cursed, desolate part of China (20 degrees below zero). Amidst the Siberian wind gusts and short days of daylight, Harbin is a revelation, a place where the light of collective aesthetic joy is experienced by 800,000 visitors annually for the Ice & Snow Festival (90% from China as this is one of the country's top winter destinations). Oddly, I kept having Burning Man flashbacks...night being preferred over day due to the psychedelic visuals enhanced by the dark, the fact that thousands of artists (15k in Harbin) labor 15 days around the clock to create something out of nothing only to know that these beautiful structures will either melt (Harbin) or burn (Burning Man), and, finally, the sense that no picture or video can capture the sensory overload of being surrounded by spectacle. Think: "You had to be there." Remember the spectacle of the 2008 Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony? I heartily recommend this trek that takes place late December through February.
You’d think that an industrial Chinese city near the Siberian Russian border named after the Manchu phrase for “a place for drying fishing nets” would feel a little Podunk. It couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, there are hundreds of 50-story apartment buildings in the suburbs. But, the center of the city is a surprise: in the 1920s one-third of the population was Russian, thus monumental boulevards and well-executed European style architecture that has earned Harbin the name “Paris of the Orient,” and many more people and cars than you ever imagined. There are more than 5 million people in this city and there are hundreds of building cranes constructing new skyscrapers, as Harbin is one of the primary metro areas where the Chinese government is repopulating peasants from the country. There’s a saying here, “If you haven’t been to Central Avenue, you haven’t been to Harbin.” There are 77 ornately-designed, pedestrian-friendly buildings along this one-mile corridor with half of them being historic landmarks. Harbin’s Siberian Tiger Park is worth a visit, as it’s credited with saving the majestic Liger (Lion + Tiger) from extinction. And you must head to the Songhua River to watch the 9 am or 1:30 pm daily show of a dozen or so crazy older folks going for a swim in the frozen river. 10 below zero the day I witnessed this crazy exercise. This is also where you start the Trans-Siberian Railway to Moscow. And note: only 10% of folks understand a word of English.
At Harbin, you'll get into a habit of dropping your jaw...until your teeth start chattering. The sheer volume of human-inspired arctic beauty is staggering and comes in small and large packages. Between the four primary parks or amusement zones with ice sculptures there's a few thousand works of temporary art, but when you include all the ice architecture created throughout the city for the city - everywhere you look - it's staggering how much artistic talent went into creating this winter wonderland. Over the course of the hurried half-month of carving - some by hand, some with lasers - more than 4 million cubic feet of ice is sculpted, almost all pulled from the Songhua River. By early December the massive river is frozen thick, three feet in depth. The Ice Lantern Festival was the precursor to the current festival (started in 1963 - on hiatus during the Cultural Revolution). A few hundred years ago, local fishermen would hollow out pails of ice, inserting candles for nighttime lighting. Over time, the lanterns went from functional to art fixture in what came to be known as "Ice City." Today, it's a combination of art and science: deionised water is used on some art pieces, which produces ice blocks as transparent as glass. And, multicolored lights give an ice sculpture a multi-dimensional depth and beauty. I asked a man about worry that global warming may affect the festivals long-term prospects. He chuckled, "Warm is not in our vocabulary in Harbin."
Most of you won't decide last minute, "Let's go to Harbin." This is a serious undertaking, so let me give you a few tips... #1: Dress for excess. But that doesn't mean your suitcase has to be dominated with parkas (you can buy a cheap, heavy coat when you get here if necessary). Don't forget your gloves and something to keep your ears warm. At Ice & Snow World, I saw live minks being rented to attendees for shoulder and neck warmth. #2: Work with a local travel agent who knows Harbin. I used Cathy Zhang at Ice Festival Harbin. She booked me a local guide/driver, got me tickets to all the right events/shows, and booked me at the New Kailai Garden Hotel that's right on the river at the end of majestic Central Avenue. #3: My top 3 amusements: Ice & Snow World (must see, only open at night), Zhaolin Park (also at night), and Snow Sculpture Art Expo on Sun Island (daytime so not as photogenic or colorful). And, a huge fireworks display at the January 5 opening + in February, when things are closing down, attendees can start smashing sculptures with ice picks. There are also three ice and snow sculpture competitions in the first week of January. #4: Food. The Spring Pancake restaurant in the basement of Central Avenue and Dingxin hot pot restaurant where you cook your own at your table. #5: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and many other sites are banned in China. Why ponder about the challenges of the rest of the world when you've got your own chilly piece of paradise right here?
I guess my preconceived notion was that Taiwan was boring, industrious, and just a smaller version of China. Boy, was I wrong as the Portuguese rightfully named this “beautiful island” (Ihla Formosa). I didn’t realize that the Japanese had ruled the island for fifty years till the end of World War II (and, in fact, didn’t formally give up Taiwan until 1952 with the Treaty of San Francisco). While Tokyo is more than five times larger than Taipei, my visit here reminded me more of that Japanese city than Shanghai or Beijing. Whether it’s the architecture, the temples, the abundant hot springs, amazing public transportation, or the friendly people, Taipei felt like a manageable, less culturally-insular Tokyo. The Longshan Temple (there’s even an MRT subway stop at the temple) and the Huaxi Street Night Market on a full moon were a joy of devotion and commercialism. Longshan, along with the Bao-an Temple and Confucius Temple, is Buddhist, but also has Taoist tendencies, a bevy of deities, buzz of activity, and a blaze of incense. Pai-pai festivals, dedicated to “city gods,” happen here nearly every day as you’ll see lavish feasts left for the gods and people using joss-sticks to learn their fortune. Visit at nighttime as it’s beautifully-lit and allows you to enjoy the night market across the street. And, most Taiwanese towns have some kind of lantern festival to celebrate the 15th day of the new Lunar New Year. I chose Pingxi, which I talk about in my other posts here.
Lantern festivals represent the end of the Chinese New Year and have been part of the culture for more than 2,000 years. With a blaze of luminous glory that lasts from the 12th - 15th day of the New Year, colorful lanterns made of sheepskin, bamboo filaments, rice paper, and silk or satin brighten up Chinese towns across the land. The intent of the festival is to ask for blessings so that your future hopes and dreams come true. It's also known as Chinese Valentine’s Day since it's an auspicious time to meet a mate. I chose Pingxi, which is an hour’s drive from Taipei via narrow mountain roads. To get there you take shuttle buses that leave from in front of the Taipei Zoo. Upon arriving you can either walk up to the Old Street or to the main stage. Nearly 80,000 people arrive in a village built for a few thousand. Tip: take the $2 round trip bus early enough in the day, as it starts at 10 am, to get a vibe for this little town. Buy a lantern (they're not small) and write your aspirations on it before lighting the inner candle and letting it go in the air. Your lantern will fly as long as the flame is alight. All of this happens on the train tracks, which creates a certain amount of risk. And, just as you’ve given attention to someone launching a lantern right in front of you, there’s another one about to go airborne in 10 seconds just behind you. Visually, this has got to be one of the top festival events in the world. Such a joyous and captivating atmosphere.
If you’re logical, you might not make the trek to the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival. Depending upon where you live, this is a long way to go for just a few hours of visual splendor in the sky. The fact is that the highlight lasts no more than about 3 hours from dusk till mid-evening (6:30 - 9:30 PM). But, the experience is not about logic. It's an amateur photographer’s dream and a great example of the "collective effervescence" that drives my world travels. So, I recommend coming up on a cheap, one-hour shuttle from Taipei in the mid-afternoon to get a feel for the town and have the time to buy a Lantern so you can write your dreams and aspirations without being pushed around by the crowds. Expect a slow pace given the crowds - but this allows you to visit the various vendors...a fun food experience. If you want to try and get the best spot to observe the mass unleashing of sky lanterns all at the same time, then head over to the Main Stage early (before 6) and plan on standing there for the next couple of hours as the sky lights up above you. There you'll find big screens, television cameras, celebrities, musicians, and enormous crowd control. And, every 20 minutes, the massive launching of usually one big lantern and hundreds of smaller lanterns all at the same time...Wow! It takes your breath away when the dark sky all of a sudden becomes crimson filled with people’s wishes skyrocketing to the heavens. And the setting - mountains on all sides - is idyllic.
Kumbh Mela is a perfect habitat for exploring "cultural curiosity." It forms a place for the salvation of mankind who wish to be free of the cycle of life and death. No small theme for the world’s biggest gathering. The crowd on the main days is large enough to be seen from space so imagine what it feels like on the ground. “Kumbh” means pitcher and “Mela” is the word for fair in Hindi. Kumbh Mela has its origin in a mythical battle between Hindu gods and demons over a Kumbh filled with the nectar of immortality. When the planets align in the same position as the original battle, pilgrims flock together at this largest Mela held every 12 years. In the camps one gets a respite from what has been estimated to be 50-110 million fervent devotees who make the pilgrimage. The 50 square kilometers of riverfront is separated into 14 sectors with impressive, temporary pontoon bridges. Many of the camps are extremely well-organized, clean, and comfortable. The Indians really know how to organize all the details. Beyond the infrastructure, there’s an enormous crew who exhibit that perfect Indian hospitality. As a hotelier, I was mighty impressed. If you want to learn more about Kumbh Mela, I would recommend two videos as opposed to reading books: "Shortcut to Nirvana" by my friends Maurizio Benazzo & Nick Day or "Kumbh Mela: The Greatest Show on Earth." Both give you a sense of the visual spectacle but, the truth is, nothing can prepare you for the enormity of being there.
While Kumbh Mela occurs every 3 years in 4 different Indian locations, the Maha Mela is every 12 years near Allahabad, just over 100 kilometers from Varanasi. We hired a driver with the intent of visiting two temples along the way and used the Ganges as our guide. First, we stopped in one of only four goddess temples in India, Viandhyanchal, in the village of Mirzapur. This “sleeping mountain” temple was intense. Wafting incense, bells ringing, drums pounding, people shouting and hitting stone walls amidst lots of pushing and shoving to see the female deity represented on the walls. Transcending the din, we planted ourselves on the ground amidst blackened marigolds, little kids poking our heads looking for money, and crowds knocking into us. Next, we went to the smaller Astabhugi Durga temple not far from Viandhyanchal. It’s worth a visit as well, but the actual space is only 4' tall so you won’t spend much time here. Fine with me, as I was ready to get to Kumbh Mela. We were fortunate enough to book rooms at the Maharishi Sadafaldeo Ashram, the closest accommodations to the Mela. The Ashram offers daily meditation and yoga classes, an evening spiritual session, and an Ayurvedic spa along with gracious grounds overlooking the Ganges. The Ashram erected some upscale tents just down the road, which was a very popular location within walking distance of the Mela. Not only were we closest to the Mela - but a short walk to the most auspicious bathing area, the Sangam.
You don’t need a guru to enjoy Kumbh Mela. I don’t have one, other than my occasional slavish devotion to my iPhone, and I was still intrigued by the devotional nature of this sacred festival. But, for those who are followers of a particular Hindu sage, this experience – especially getting considerable face-to-face time with their ultimate mentor – is as good as it gets on the earthly plane. Trying to sort out who’s climbed the Hindu stature high enough to be considered a baba is often just a matter of looking at the quantity and quality of their followers. I found the guru parades - with marigold-attired tractors pulling the gregarious gurus - akin to a parade and picnic in small town America. Most of the more well-regarded and higher-ranking gurus chose not to use these public displays of boosterism. For the higher babas, there’s a need for a security team as the devotees can get carried away with their demonstrative way of appreciating them. I spoke with one follower who told me that his devotional practice had helped him to get out of his “mind maze.” Can you be a skeptic and enjoy Kumbh Mela? Absolutely. The experience is profound on many levels: the cultural anthropology of understanding this age-old festival and why it’s the largest in the world, the physical beauty of the people and the location at two rivers joining, and the expression of love that is intensely palpable. While I don’t understand Hindi, I do understand Love (at least on a good day).
When it comes to festivals, I tend to use a pair of Burning Man glasses - or goggles - and I now understand Burning Man to be a “pagan Kumbh Mela.” The most obvious commonality is that these two festivals require a gargantuan effort to create a temporary tent village. The logistics and commitment of volunteers to create Burning Man for 60,000 people in the inhospitable high desert is mind-boggling. But, that’s child’s play compared to Kumbh Mela which, on the most auspicious bathing period, welcomes approximately 30 million people on one day alone. Both festivals are visually spectacular and both have afternoon dust storms. They’re places where nude isn’t considered lewd. Burning Man has ample porta-potties, ice & water & morning mochas. But, at Kumbh Mela, unless you’re connected to a camp, you may be doing your bathroom duties partially publicly in a trench next to the beach. Burning Man founder Larry Harvey didn’t have Kumbh Mela in mind when the he first burned an effigy on the beach in San Francisco. This blossomed into a festival dedicated to using art as a means of regenerating oneself, but the similarities are uncanny and say something about the commonality of enduring human ritual. Burning Man and Kumbh Mela are cultural icons within their very different worlds, but they’ve both stood the test of time and the risks of outside influences. Both are on my Top 5 list of festivals you must visit in your lifetime - well, Kumbh Mela in one of your lifetimes!
Sublime and surreal, Kumbh Mela is an absolute-must for anyone earning their graduate degree in Festivals. For a few dozen hours, this celebration represents both the most populous place on earth and the most devoted spot on the planet. It combines our modern ills with our historical myths, age-old magic with organizational precision. It is captivating and makes you feel like a captive. The fact it goes on for 55 days this year is mind-boggling to me. At its heart, it’s an earthly festival dedicated to transcending the earthly realm. And, it’s full of gurus, an oddity to me until I remembered that America is full of its own...devotion isn’t limited to the Indians. The modern world is full of vehicles for devotion - whether it be the treadmill or the TV. While I don’t understand Hindi, I was given remarkable access to a dozen gurus (or “Babas”). There’s substantial evidence showing that when someone devotes 10,000 hours of their life to a particular practice or skill, they have great potential to become a master. For some of these gurus, 10,000 hours represents just a year for of practice and many have been doing this for decades. But, while the practice of having a guru may be old-world, some of these gurus seemed very modern, even checking cell phones on occasion. Kumbh Mela is not an easy trek. If I could summarize my experience, it would be, “Full life, full breath.” As poet Mary Oliver suggested, “Are you breathing just a little and calling it a life?”
Landing in heat-soaked Kuala Lumpur after being on the road for 24 hours can be disorienting. Incessant chanting (“vei vel shakti vel”), monkeys screeching, wafting incense, a glorious moon, and a million people. Thaipusam falls on a full moon and is the celebration in remembrance of Lord Murugan (his statue pictured at the base of the steep 272 steps to the Waterfall Temple at Batu Caves - the top being the best view) who received the “vel” (sacred spear) from his mother, Shiva’s wife, to kill three demons. Killing internal demons seems to be the order of the day for devotees. The festivities begin with a chariot bearing the statue of Lord Murugan being drawn through the streets starting from Sri Maha Mariamman Temple and then on the second day (when I arrived), the fulfilling of the vows by devotees takes place at the Batu Caves after people walk barefoot approximately 15 kilometers starting in the middle of the night from Kuala Lumpur. The chariot returns to the Temple on the third day. The real highlight is watching devotees with huge decorated frames (“kavadi”= burden”) supported by spikes that pierce their chests and backs as penance for answered prayers. As one devotee said to me, “Life is an act of gratitude and this is the ultimate day of gratitude to our deities.” I felt a deep empathy for the intense devotion and commitment of the Tamil Hindus I witnessed. This is truly one of the world’s great festivals of purification and atonement.
Each of us carries a different burden on our backs. Religious scholar Huston Smith suggests we’re all on “a pilgrim’s journey to find the truth,” but many of us have less painful ways of getting there. And, the fabulous anthropological treatise “Pierced by Murugan’s Lance” by Elizabeth Fuller Collins gives a good historical sense of how this festival has grown over the years. The carriers of the kavadi (decorated wooden frames that pierce their bodies) have prepared themselves spiritually by eating a limited vegetarian diet for a month in advance and fasting in the last couple of days as well as being celibate the whole time. Between their diet, the heat, the 15-kilometer walk barefoot from Kuala Lumpur to the Batu Caves, and the religious decoration they’re carrying, these devotees are nearly in a trance when they arrive at the bottom of the hill to climb the 272 stairs. Why do they go to this extreme? I guess these devoted Hindus could ask the same question of some Americans who commute three hours each day in order to afford a gargantuan ranch home in a gated suburb - a different form of torture. These devotees only do this once a year and they do it primarily because it’s a means of showing their commitment to overcome an obstacle or honor a vow. After the event, the pierce wounds are treated with lemon juice and holy ash to prevent scarring. So, while it may be a little gory in the moment, the devotees believe the short-term pain is worth the long-term gain.
At the Thaipusam festival, beware that the person next to you may spontaneously erupt in flailing arms and erratic dance moves. This is particularly perilous when it happens midway up the 272 steps to the Batu Caves. It’s most often for the trance to come upon a devotee when the Swami chants, prays, and clasps the devotee’s head. There are hundreds of sages (or Swamis) with followers all over the Batu Caves grounds. I watched one Swami flick his thumb on a student’s forehead and immediately the student started shaking in a semi-conscious state and then dancing uncontrollably. This particular student also had a vel (a piercing spear) through his tongue so it was hard to understand what he was saying. Within five minutes, he’d settled down, his vow fulfilled, some new holy ash sprinkled on his forehead, and, with the storm passed, everyone else seemed satiated as well. Prior to arriving at Thaipusam, I thought that it was mostly men aged 15 to 45 who sacrificed by carrying the kavadi. My surprise was that there were ample numbers of women who were making the trek with milk balanced on their head and, often, a spear through their face. And, the number of older men (some obviously older than 70) was also intriguing as it’s impressive that they are able to sustain such a grueling burden. Thaipusam is a perfect precursor to my upcoming trip to the mother of all Hindu festivals, Kumbh Mela in Allahabad.
The sacred and the profane mix at Thaipusam. Tip #1: It’s okay to stare, but smile at the devotees as well as their families. Not once did I feel unwelcome, but smiling seemed to be the way I was able to show my respect especially for those who were struggling with their kavadi (wooden structures that represent their burden). Remember these are people in the midst of moral redemption - not the freak show of some carnival. Tip #2: Be aware of your surroundings especially if you’re taking pictures. Everything is constantly in motion and it’s hard to stand in one place and take photos since people are either walking to the Batu Caves or away from them. More than once, I was taking pictures of one family of devotees and ended up stumbling into another group. So, don’t put blinders on. Tip #3: Look away if it’s too much. If you get squeamish easily, just know that in the 1970s and before, Thaipusam devotees typically used long skewers that were embedded in the skin over the ribs of the devotee. This practice proved to be more dangerous such that today small silver hooks have become the norm. Don’t point, don’t freak, and don’t lose your lunch. Tip #4: Bare feet are required in certain places. The devotees who make the 15-kilometer trek to the Batu Caves do it barefoot but they’re in the minority. Yet, once you get into the Caves there are certain devotional spaces that you cannot enter with shoes (and many non-devotees leave their shoes at the bottom of the 272 steps).
Bettany Hughes wrote, “Socrates thought it futile to catalogue the world without first loving it.” Having witnessed the graphic videos and photos of this million-person festival before my journey here, I came ready to judge it less on the internal experience and more based upon the external visuals for spectators like me. But, I realize that rituals just allow people to make their values concrete and explicit. For the Tamil Hindus in Malaysia, a Muslim country, Thaipusam represents both devotion to deities and to family. This truly is a family affair. African author Malidoma Some has suggested, “Where ritual is absent the young ones are restless or violent, there are no real elders, and the grown-ups are bewildered.” We all have rituals. Rituals are what create generational wisdom and a sense of collective meaning. What I kept asking myself at this first of five Asian festivals I was experiencing over five weeks was, “What is the spirit behind the festival?” Thaipusam exists as a reminder that we can transcend our earthly obstacles through discipline and devotion, through belief in powers beyond ourselves, and through the universal love of family and friends. “Collective effervescence” is the common currency that’s experienced at the best of festivals where people positively lose themselves and find their connection to something bigger. Festivals remind us we're not alone in this world.
This holiday has long been called the “Festival of Lights.” But, Tel Aviv is a modern, secular city so it was hard to find much in the way of Hanukkah celebrations. Jerusalem was a different story with menorahs in so many windows and families migrating to the holy sites in the Jerusalem area that help define this tradition. Yet, even in the Old City – the place where I most expected to see more festive spectacle associated with this eight-day period – the crowds were more focused on shopping than they were on the lighting of the third candle at the Western Wall. This was to my benefit as I was able to stand in the front row as these two rabbis and a statesman lit the candle amidst proclamations of Israel being the land of miracles. As I’ve preached for years, “Disappointment is the natural result of badly managed expectations.” In the end, I can recommend Israel, and especially Jerusalem, as a place to experience one of the most reverential times of the year of the Jewish faith, especially if you have Israeli friends with whom you can share a Hanukkah dinner and candle-lighting. But, if you’re looking for a pilgrimage, party, or pageant full of revelry or beauty, find another festival.
One of my favorite experiences is to walk through one of the more orthodox neighborhoods in the evening and see the menorah with candles burning in each window and hear the singing from home to home. Some of my Israeli friends choose to celebrate an important life theme they want to illuminate with the burning of each new candle, whether that evening’s theme is love or wisdom. Each Hanukkah candle holds an intention – a light of awareness – around that theme and then, on the final night when all 8 candles are lit, they stand as one powerful flame that represents all that is good in life. Most popular foods of this holiday are cooked in oil, reflecting the miracle of one night’s oil lasting 8 nights. Latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (doughnuts w/ fattening fillings) are the delectable treats of the season. For those who want to work off some pounds, they can follow the Olympic-like torch run from the ancient village where the Maccabean revolt began, Modiin, to Jerusalem that finishes twenty miles away at the Western Wall. Some of the other worthy experiences include visiting the archeological site of Bet Guvrin, big production kids’ shows like Festigal and the Children’s Song Festival, or visiting Haifa, north of Tel Aviv, for Hag Ha Hagim, a series of cultural events and street fairs every Saturday in December. Finally, the EatWith celebration in which local chefs invite you into their homes to feast on a special dinner and experiencing Hanukkah the Israeli way.
After hunkering down in a “safe house” December 5, 2012 when Cairo became a war zone, I hightailed it to Israel just as Hanukkah was emerging. Hanukkah has multiple meanings and metaphors. My Jewish teenage neighbor calls it, “The Jew’s feeble attempt at a bargain basement Christmas.” But the timing is mere coincidence, as the historical reference for this holiday occurred 165 years before Christ. The great warrior Judah Maccabee led a small band of Jews to overthrow a powerful and oppressive Greek army to recapture the second Temple in Jerusalem. At the Temple’s re-dedication, they had just one day’s worth of consecrated oil to light the Temple. But, it miraculously lasted the 8 days it took to produce more. Hence, Hanukkah lasts eight days with a candle being lit each day. After the chaos in Cairo, I welcomed this “dedication” (Hebrew meaning of Hanukkah) and the convivial, family-orientation of this Festival of Lights…turning away from darkness toward an eternal flame. Ironic that the candle continues to burn and represent the Jewish state, as 100 years after the Maccabean revolution, the Romans took Jerusalem and it was another 2,000 year before the Jews had their independent state. This improbable Jewish nation, with failing or dissident neighbors on all sides, has prospered against all odds. This illuminated menorah on a hillside in Ariel Sharon Park near Tel Aviv – what used to be a waste disposal landfill – is one of the visual highlights of an Israeli Hanukkah.
The first time I visited Jerusalem was in 1991 during the time of the Arab uprising called Intifada. I arrived in this holy city and immediately sprinted to the Old City despite being warned it was one of the more unsafe areas. Despite Jerusalem being rather sedate compared to the party town of Tel Aviv, I felt at home in the Old City. Two decades later, and during Hanukkah, I figured a visit to Israel during the holidays wouldn’t be complete without a trip to this spiritual homeland for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. My friend Oren took me to Jaffa Street which used to be a boring commercial thoroughfare and is now a pedestrian mall with European-style cafes and a modern tram. Then, we went to a very stylish boutique hotel just a stone’s throw from the Old City, called the Malmilla Hotel. Looks a little like the Hotel Vitale I created in San Francisco. Next we walked through one of the most stylish outdoor malls I’ve ever seen, the Malmilla mall, where I enjoyed a sufganiyot at Rolidin, the best spot in all of Israel for these scrumptious Hanukkah treats. By the time, we got to the Jaffa Gate of the Old City, I’d almost forgotten about the mystical exoticism of this ancient piece of contested real estate. Given my Christian origins, I had to visit the Holy Sepulchre Church where Jesus was crucified and buried. Every quarter of this city is full of history, but no place is more coveted than the Western Wall where I’m pictured here next to an ascetic man in prayer.
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