Events Planner: Religious festivals

Where to worship gods, from Bhutan to Zanzibar



14-22 October, Vegetarian Festival, Phuket

This slightly unnerving festival dates back to the late 19th century when a Chinese opera company hired to entertain a community of ex-pat workers in Phuket fell ill and consequently missed their daily worship of the nine emperor gods. Fearing that sickness would strike again the following year, the community abstained from all impurities, including eating meat, drinking alcohol, engaging in sexual activity and killing. They also practised self-mutilation to cleanse themselves, piercing parts of their anatomy with sharpened implements. Today the festival involves lively invocation of the gods with drums and offerings, processions with images of the gods, fire walking, bathing in hot oil, walking on blades and letting off fireworks. Further information from Tourism Authority of Thailand on 020-7925 2511;


19-25 September, Thimphu Tsechu Festival, Thimphu

Every September the Bhutanese capital of Thimphu resounds with celebrations for this major tsechu, or tantric Buddhist festival. It honours the guru Padmasambhava, born from a lotus flower. Communities gather in the dzong (a walled fortress inside which the monasteries stand) to watch medieval dances and religious rituals that include a masked sword dance. Thousands of devotees dressed in colourfully embroidered silk are kept in order by clowns brandishing wooden phalluses. The climax is the unveiling of a tapestry of the guru, an act that, for those who witness it, is said to lead to enlightenment. Details from Bhutan Ministry of Tourism (00 975 2 323252;


18 October, Cirio de Nazare, Belem

At the mouth of the Amazon lies Belem, where, each October, the virgin of Nazare is honoured. Originally, she is said to have rescued a dignitary who had fallen from his horse in Portugal, and later the story was transported to Brazil, where she is reputed to have saved an Amazonian hunter. At the Belem festival, a procession follows an effigy of the virgin - placed on a litter that is adorned with hundreds of flowers and other decorations - around the city, ending up at the Basilica of Nazare. Behind the litter are floats carrying priests and children dressed as angels, with devotees circling the litter with a rope, to represent the unbreakable bond between themselves

and the virgin. After the effigy has been transported to the basilica, the festivities continue in true Latin-American style, with plenty of music, dancing, eating and drinking, and fireworks. For more information, contact the Embassy of Brazil (020-7399 9000;


31 October- 2 November, Day of the Dead, Patzcuaro (Michoacan)

Far from being a morbid graveside ceremony, the Day of the Dead is a joyous celebration of the continuity of life, with candlelit vigils, vibrant decorations, flowers and humorous skeleton models. The tradition dates back to the Zapotec Indians, who believed that the spirits of the dead visited their loved ones once a year, and that families must prepare a celebration for them to enjoy on this day. So, on 1 November, cemeteries are illuminated with hundreds of candles and decorations. One of the best places to witness the event is in Patzcuaro, a small colonial town in Michoacan, inhabited mostly by Purepecha Indians. Expect spooky decorations, costumes, music, food and dancing. Further information from the Mexico Tourist Board (020-7488 9392).


13-18 November, Eid Ul-Fitr

After a month of strict fasting during Ramadan, the Muslim community of Zanzibar celebrates with four days of lively festivities. One of the traditional rites of Eid Ul-Fitr is that men pretend to chase each other with branches from banana trees, while women follow behind singing and dancing. Feasts are held across the island, and passages are read from the Koran. Taarab musicians also take to the streets to play their distinct style of music, which combines Indian and Arabic influences and is traditionally sung in Swahili. The best place to observe the festivities is in the grounds of Mnazi Moja. Visitors to Zanzibar during Ramadan should note that restaurants will close during the day, and strict dress codes should be adhered to. Further information from the Tanzania Tourist Board (00 255 22 213 6177;


18 September, Ganesh Chaturthi Festival, Mumbai

Held across the India, the Ganesh Chaturthi festival celebrates Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu god of knowledge and wisdom who rides on a mouse. The pre-festival rituals involve purifying the home by cleaning or whitewashing, then displaying images of the deity. Large clay idols, some measuring more than eight metres high, are created and placed in pavilions and temples. In the days leading up to the festival, priests invoke life into the idols by chanting mantras and making offerings. On the day of the festival the idols are taken in mass processions to the sea or to rivers, accompanied by singing and dancing, where they are immersed in the water. One of the best places to see the festival is Mumbai, where the celebrations are particularly grand and lively.

Further information from India Tourism on 020-7437 3677;

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