Very little in the world is not improved by a splendid view, whether it is a cup of tea or a lavish hotel room. The same holds true for literature festivals. There’s something sublime about listening to a discussion on mythology in modern fiction, while you look out of the window at Himalayan peaks flirting with the clouds. You could be rolling your eyes at a remark made by a panellist, only to be captivated by the beautiful frescoes that adorn the ceiling. The number of literature festivals in Asia has been growing rapidly, providing unique opportunities to discover new writing. Here’s a selection of five festivals on the Asian continent that are worth a trip for their settings, as much as for their line-up of writers.
No list of contemporary literary festivals is complete without a mention of the Jaipur Literature Festival. Described as the world’s largest free literary festival, a trip to this event can feel a lot like attending a mela. Crowds mill around and it can be hard to find even standing room at many of the discussions. But Diggi Palace, the main venue of the event, is the kind of place where movies about royalty are shot. Its coloured-glass windows, ceilings with elaborate frescoes, and magnificent arches are eye-catching. Vibrant pandals festooned with strings of colourful flags and lamps brighten the manicured gardens. Both the setting and the line-up are opulent.
DO SNEAK OUT to partake of Jaipur’s luscious, spicy laal maas at Moti Mahal on M.I. Road, a 10-minute drive from Diggi Palace. Walk off the excess by exploring the stores that line the street (24-29 Jan, 2018, jaipurliteraturefestival.org).
What better place to host a literary event than a Buddhist stupa that houses the world’s largest book? The grounds of Kuthodaw Pagoda contain 729 bejewelled cave like structures, each containing a marble slab inscribed with scriptures of Theravada Buddhism. The text was once written in gold and was recently added to UNESCO’s Memory of the World list. The pagoda itself, gilded above its terraces, cuts a dramatic image. It’s quite astonishing to comprehend that the small whitewashed stupas that dot the large compound contain the world’s first book. Quite a far cry from today’s digital e-readers! With a venue like this it seems de rigueur to think lofty thoughts. Since it is a religious spot, visitors to the Irrawaddy Literary Festival are required to dress conservatively. Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi is the festival’s patron and a big draw herself.
DO SNEAK OUT to watch a marionette show at Mandalay Marionettes Theatre. The show keeps alive traditional puppetry and is very child-friendly. Shows at 8.30 p.m. daily; tickets $8/₹540 per head (3-5 Nov, 2017; irrawaddylitfest.com).
Shanghai International Literary Festival takes place against the backdrop of one of the world’s most photographed cityscapes. M on the Bund, the venue of the event since it began in 2003, was the first restaurant to open on Shanghai’s waterfront, marking its renaissance. The street of stately colonial buildings located on the western bank of the Huangpu River overlooks the decidedly modern Pudong on the other bank, with its many skyscrapers including Shanghai’s iconic Oriental Pearl TV Tower. In a mirroring of this coming together of opposites, the literature festival brings together writers from the East and West, enabling the discovery of new writers and genres. The sessions are held in a range of languages, from English to French, Italian, and Chinese.
DO SNEAK OUT for a dusk or night cruise on Huangpu River, floating down between the old and the new. (15-28 March, 2018, www.m-restaurantgroup.com/mbund/literary-festival.html).
Thimphu is a capital city unlike any other I have been to. Certainly unlike Delhi with its constant traffic jams and piles of rubbish by the roadside. There are few cars, so few that a rare traffic jam can become the subject of much excited discussion. The weather is delightful, the air fresh, and simply walking from one venue of the Mountain Echoes literature festival to another feels like a stroll while on vacation at a scenic hill station. Tall mountains draped with thick forest rise up all around, reaching into an azure sky. Discussing literature in this uplifting surrounding seems to lend more substance to each thought and idea. The festival is not too crowded, allowing attendees a chance to interact with their favourite writers. The writers too, seem relaxed in the beautiful environment and willing to engage in conversation.
DO SNEAK OUT for a half-day trip to hike up to the Taktsang or Tiger’s Nest Monastery in Paro, 40 km/2 hours west of Thimphu (24-27 Aug, 2017; mountainechoes.org).
The classic Bali image is of glistening blue sea and white sand beaches; Ubud brings an air of culture to that, as the Indonesian island’s centre of arts and crafts. A conglomeration of 14 villages, the town sprawls several kilometres in each direction, trailing off into vivid, green paddy fields. The central part of town is where most of the 200 venues that hosted events at last year’s Ubud Writers & Readers Festival are located. It can often get crowded with the influx of visitors the festival brings. But the venues are pleasing, with their fair share of big-leafed tropical plants and thatched roofs. On the sidelines are fun events like a bike and literary tour, cooking workshops, and children’s programme.
DO SNEAK OUT to explore Ubud’s food market. Australian food writer Janet DeNeefe, who is also the festival’s co-director, conducts a tour as part of a Balinese cooking class. Details at www.casalunabali.com/cooking-school (25-29 October 2017; www.ubudwritersfestival.com).
First appeared in the March 2014 issue as “Literary Panorama”. Updated in June 2017.
Neha Dara is a travel writer and editor. She is happiest trotting off the beaten path, trekking in the Himalayas, scuba diving in Andaman & Nicobar, or exploring local markets in small towns. She tweets as @nehadara.