Rural Punjab is ablaze with colour and dancing during the harvest festival of Baisakhi which falls in mid-April. Though harvest festivals are celebrated all over India at this time, and this is also the first day of the Hindu New Year (solar calendar), in Punjab Baisakhi is largely a Sikh festival of thanksgiving. Fairs (melas) are the big attraction in villages and include races, tug-of-war or wrestling tournaments, acrobatics, as well as lively bhangra and gidda performances backed by the resounding beats of the dholak. Folk artists can be seen entertaining revellers, and stalls selling toys, handicrafts, mehendi, and other glittering baubles do brisk business. Food is naturally at the centre of such celebrations and visitors and locals alike sit down to a langar or communal meal of traditional vegetarian staples like sarson da saag and makai ki roti (mustard greens and corn flour rotis), but also specialities like pindi chana, chole bhatura, wheat flour ladoos and dry fruit kheer.
A healthy harvest is always cause for celebration. Farming communities around the world have traditions of music, dance, theatre, parades, and generous feasts to thank the gods for a bountiful crop. Over the years even though farming patterns have changed dramatically, the rituals of harvest festivals remain and are still celebrated with much aplomb in many parts of the world. Here’s a pick of a few that are worth travelling for.
During Kerala’s ten-day harvest festival, the whole state is in happy party mode. Gold jewellery is purchased, and ghee-drenched sweets are lovingly prepared in homes decorated with fresh flowers. Thrissur’s streets are filled with children in their traditional best, women wear beautiful, cream-and-gold saris, and men sport spotless white mundus with swooshes of chandanam (sandalwood) on their foreheads. The best place to soak in Onam festivities is Swaraj Round in the heart of the city, where the annual puli-kali, or tiger dance parade takes place. In preparation for the event, a few hundred men spend hours painting intricate tiger markings on their bodies. Then, they take to the streets, giving the creature’s prowling movements rhythmic flair. Celebrations culminate in the onasadya, a traditional, vegetarian meal that includes numerous courses, served on a banana leaf. Don’t miss the avial (a bountiful dish of vegetables in a coarse coconut gravy), olan (stew of white pumpkin and red gram) and sharkara payasam, a lush dessert made with dried fruit, jaggery, coconut, and thickened milk.
Modern Hong Kong is swathed in traditional excess during the mid-autumn festival. The streets are lined with orange and red paper lanterns, bakeries abound with red bean mooncakes, and the sky comes alive with firecracker displays. Among the many highlights of the festival is the fire dragon performance at Tai Hang in Causeway Bay. Supported by 300 performers, the legendary dragon slithers down the streets, warding off evil, and entertaining the hordes that flock to its unveiling every year. It has been a part of Hong Kong’s harvest festival for over a century. At Victoria Park Soccer Pitches, the mid-autumn market draws locals and tourists alike. The lawns are filled with stalls selling handicrafts, festive foods, and traditional and modern mooncakes. The market also has mooncake-making classes for tourists. In addition to Hong Kong, the mid-autumn festival is also celebrated in China and Vietnam.
Sukkot is the week-long Jewish harvest festival. Near the city centre, thousands of Jerusalem residents take to the streets for the Jerusalem March. In the suburb of Acre, theatre groups perform for the Acco International Fringe Theatre Festival, and outside the city, in the village of Abu Gosh, choir groups from around the world give evocative performances as part of the Abu Gosh music festival. To relive Biblical times, in particular the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land, Jews around the world create a temporary hut or a sukkah, outside their homes, with a roof made of leaves and twigs. Sukkot is a time for rejoicing. Even the President of Israel holds an open house for one day, inviting members of the public (with a valid ID/passport) to visit his sukkah (festive hut) on the grounds of his residence in Jerusalem.
It’s not often that tourists encounter giant pansies and roses sashaying across the street. In the city of Funchal, Portugal this is an annual event, and one of the many ways that locals celebrate the Madeira flower festival, which signals the beginning of spring. The streets are a riot of colours, the air is filled with music and floral scents, and stalls around every corner sell carpets, each more extravagant than the next.
The highlight of Funchal’s flower harvest festival is the parade, featuring hundreds of dancers and people in fancy, bloom-inspired attire cruising down the street on massive floats, also draped in petals. Travellers can attend music concerts and folk dance performances. There’s enough going on to awaken the flower child in each of us.
Appeared in the September 2013 issue as “Rich Pickings.” This story was updated in March 2016.