I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Some festivals in the world have cultural and/or religious significance that require celebrants to put themselves in harm's way and even risk to their lives.
1. Hindu Festival of Thaipusam
For Hindu devotees of the god Murugan, an important festival takes place during a full moon in January or February. It is a celebration of Lord Murugan's triumph of good over evil.
Yellow and orange fruits, along with floral tributes, are offered to the god in the hope of good fortune in the year to come. There is a parade to Murugan's temple in which people carry kavadi; these are elaborate bamboo structures decorated with brightly coloured flowers and peacock feathers. It's all quite benign and joyful.
However, some celebrants go to extreme lengths to appease Murugan, who doesn't seem a vengeful type except when it comes to bad guys. These believers pierce their skin, tongues, and cheeks with metal and bamboo spikes and hooks. Some pull wagons with hooks attached to their bodies.
Learn Religions tells us that “Most devotees enter into a trance during such piercing, due to the incessant drumming and chanting . . .” We'll take their word for it that they feel little pain.
(This mortification of the flesh crops up in several religions, including Christianity. In the Philippines, the crucifixion of Jesus is re-enacted on Good Friday complete with the use of nails driven through hands and feet.)
2. Beehive Rocket Festival, Taiwan
Yanshui, Taiwan, is the site of a pyrotechnical display that leaves behind many injured spectators. This festival started in the 1880s and was a call on the gods to spare the community from a cholera epidemic that was on the rampage.
A traditional Chinese way to win the favour of the deities is to let off firecrackers and fireworks; the more whiz-bangs, the better the chances of success. It's said that soon after the fiery exorcism, the plague left Yanshui.
So today, towers are placed around town, and then they are stuffed with fireworks, making them look like beehives. However, instead of launching their incendiary brilliance into the sky, they are fired off horizontally into the faces and bodies of admiring revelers. As they are bombarded with rockets, members of the audience do a strange little two-step jig as though they are in need of getting to a toilet—fast.
Prudent attendees kit themselves out with helmets, visors, thick clothing, and gloves to avoid getting a Roman candle star up a nostril. Despite the precautions, there are casualties involving burns, lacerations, and bits of embedded shrapnel every year. There's sometimes an idiot, or two prepared to tough it out without the protective gear. Predictably, bloodshed ensues.
The ordinance buzzes into the crowds giving it a secondary reason for its name.
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3. The Onbashira Festival, Japan
For 1,200 years, the people of the Nagano district have celebrated this Shinto festival. The onbashira are large wooden pillars that stand at the four corners of the Suwa Grand Shrine complex. By tradition, they are replaced every six years.
The celebration, which takes place over several months, starts with the felling of 16 fir trees, each between 17 to 19 metres long (55 feet to 62 feet). GoNagano tells us that “Over the span of the festival, upwards of 3,000 people will participate in pulling each tree from the mountain to its destination. They must cross rivers, navigate narrow Japanese streets, and even ride these massive trees downhill.” That downhill bit involves bravery and/or idiocy; take your pick.
Young men climb onto these huge tree trunks, weighing up to 10 tons, that are sent sliding down the hill at a speed that can only be described as hurtling. It's extraordinarily dangerous, with fatalities and serious injuries frequently occurring, conferring honour on those who die.
4. Takanakuy Christmas Fighting Festival, Peru
High in the Andes Mountains, in the Cusco region, people mark Christmas with the usual jollifications of music, dancing, eating, drinking, and fist fighting. Yes, fist fighting.
Takanakuy is a Quechua word meaning “when the blood is boiling,” and the festival is an opportunity to settle scores. Anybody—men, women, and children—can enter the arena and slug it out before a crowd that hoots and hollers with delight. There are rules and referees, and the fights are not long-drawn-out brawls. However, blows are landed, although each bout ends with a handshake or hug.
If fans of the sitcom Seinfeld think this has a familiar ring to it, remember Festivus, a fictional holiday to replace Christmas. It encouraged “the airing of grievances” followed by “the feats of strength” in which opponents struggle physically with one another.
5. Il Palio di Siena, Italy
Twice a year, in the summer, ten jockeys ride bareback and race around the central square of the Tuscan city of Siena; they've been doing this since the Middle Ages.
The jockeys and horses each represent one of the city's wards, and the race involves three circuits of the Piazza del Campo. There are few rules, and jockeys can use their whips on the horses of rivals as well as their riders. The race lasts about 75 seconds and involves intrigues and alliances among the competing wards; quite possibly, money changes hands.
The winner is the first horse across the finish line, not the jockey, and sometimes the trophy goes to a riderless horse. The loser is the horse that comes in second, not the one that finishes last.
It's not unusual for jockeys to fall off their mounts and suffer cuts, bruises, and fractures; it's worse for the horses that sometimes have to be put down because of injuries.
The riders, of course, choose to take part in this hazardous exploit, just as participants in other dangerous festivals do. For the dedicated couch potato, this sort of bravado is beyond explanation.
- Deliberately, no mention has been made here about the running of the bulls. It has been covered widely, and there seems nothing new to say about it except to mention that a 55-year-old man was gored to death in November 2021. This happened in the town of Onda in eastern Spain, highlighting the fact that Pamplona is not the only place where people can gamble with their lives on the horns of a bull.
- The Dangerous Sports Club came into being at Oxford University, England, in 1979. Its members pulled all manner of perilous stunts in which silliness was a prime requirement. This led to such activities as sliding down the ski slopes of St. Moritz, Switzerland, aboard a grand piano. However, in 2002, a student was killed when the group fired him from a trebuchet medieval siege engine. You can read more about the Dangerous Sports Club here.
- “The Hindu Thaipusam Festival.” Subhamoy Das, learnreligions.com, February 4, 2019.
- “An Explosive Experience at the Yanshui Fireworks Festival.” Joshua Samuel Brown, Lonely Planet, April 11, 2012.
- “The Onbashira Festival 2016.” Go Nagano, November 17, 2021.
- “Peru’s Christmas Fighting Festival.” Suemedha Sood, BBC Travel, December 23, 2012.
- “Siena Palio: Scrap Cruel Street Races, Activists Say.” Tom Kington, The Observer, April 17, 2011.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Rupert Taylor