Festivals of Light

Some of Asia's most traditional cultural festivals have evolved to become exhilarating modern-day celebrations of light. We take a look at a selection of shining examples from around the continent.

Some of Asia’s most traditional cultural festivals have evolved to become exhilarating modern-day celebrations of light. We take a look at a selection of shining examples from around the continent.

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Asia is home to some of the world’s most vibrant festivals and celebrations, many of which are steeped in hundreds of years of tradition. Elaborate ceremonies, mouth-watering feasts and spectacular decorations are all part of the deal – not to mention the buzzing atmosphere amongst local communities.

Light plays an important role in many of the continent’s most well-known festivals, from religious celebrations such as India’s Diwali to visual spectacles like China’s Snow & Ice Festival in Harbin. We talk you through five of the continent’s most glittering of illuminated events, and exactly what makes each one shine.

India’s Festival of Lights

Arguably one of the world’s most famous festivals of light, the Indian celebration of Diwali coincides with the Hindu New Year. It is celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains from across the world, and while the event bears many meanings, perhaps the most important theme is the triumph of good over evil. Celebrated over five days every autumn, the actual day of Diwali usually falls on the third day of the festival. Streets are lit up by firework displays and colourful rangoli decorations, and families feast on sumptuous foods and share gifts with one another.

The most famous story associated with the festival involves the return of Lord Rama and his wife Sita to their kingdom in northern India following their defeat of the demon King Ravanna. Colossal firework displays mark the event in modern-day India and houses are illuminated by the glow of earthen candles. Delhi is one of the best places in India to celebrate the festival, and you should look out for one of the many pop-up street performances depicting the story of Diwali.

Shining a Light on Thailand

Loy Krathong is Thailand’s very own night of lights. It is dedicated to honouring the Lord Buddha, as well as Phra Mae Khongkha, the nation’s water goddess. Traditionally, people will make small krathongs – miniature banana leaf bowls decorated with lotus flowers, candles and incense – and set them free on the water to symbolise letting their troubles go. Some people even choose to add strands of their own hair, nail clippings and shreds from their old clothes to the krathongs in the hope of eliminating bad luck that has weighed them down in the past.

With every body of water across Thailand coming to light with the soft glow of floating candles, it’s no surprise that Loy Krathong has gradually become associated with romance, and is now a popular festival amongst young couples. For those setting their krathong free onto the water and wishing for luck in the future of their relationship, there’s a lot of symbolism involved. For example, if the krathong capsizes or breaks, it’s a sign that a break up might be on the cards.

The Light of Lanterns

China’s lantern festival marks the fifth day of the annual Chinese New Year celebrations, generally falling in February or early March. The event dates right back to the days of the Western Han Dynasty, when children went out to temples at night carrying paper lanterns, which were inscribed with riddles for them to solve. The lanterns have evolved over thousands of years, and they still bear a lot of symbolism in modern day China. Often made in the shape of animals, when lanterns are released it symbolises letting go of your old self to make space for a new you. The lanterns are often red to symbolise prosperity and bring good luck.

Thanks to its rich history and wealth of ancient Chinese Bashu culture, Chengdu is one of the best places to celebrate the lantern festival – also known as the Spring Festival. You’re more likely to enjoy a relaxed, local vibe than in places like Beijing and Shanghai. It’s worth checking out the colourful array of fairs that take place at places like Wuhou Temple and Jinli Street, and there are all sorts of cultural activities to get involved in – including folk performances and food fairs.

A Chilled Festival

Thanks to the exquisite visual splendour of treasures on offer, the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival in China can hold its own as one of Asia’s leading festivals of light. At first, it may seem counter-intuitive to visit chilly Harbin during the coldest season of the year. However, travellers that brave the cold will be rewarded with a stupendous visual feast. The festival involves months of prep, and teams of expert ice sculptors create elaborate structures which – by day – ooze a mystical yet ominous feel. However, by night, each of the colossal sculptures is lit up to become its own elaborate masterpiece. Enchanted fairy tale castles, sky scrapers, bridges and other world famous landmarks all come to life on the banks of the frozen Songhua River. Despite the fact that the temperature dips to as low as -22 degrees Celsius, this event attracts families from all over China. Activities such as ice fishing, skating and gliding along in ice junks are all popular pastimes.

Illumination Sensation

When the warmer weather arrives, Nabana No Soto botanical theme park in Japan’s Kuwana City comes alive with the vivid colours of spring blooms and cherry blossom. However, visitors that head here a little earlier in the year will not be disappointed, as their visit may coincide with the city’s Winter Light Festival.

The Winter Festival runs from mid-November to mid-March, so there’s plenty of opportunity to go and enjoy the famous Tunnel of Lights. There’s also an array of impressive light shows to accompany the permanent fixtures, with previous shows including interpretations of the northern lights and Japan’s Mount Fuji at dawn. The festival is also impressively eco-conscious, and each of the seven million LED lights used for the permanent displays is charged using solar panels to reduce the environmental impact. There are also a number of pop-up restaurants for people to enjoy at the park, including the Nagashima Beer Garden. Our advice would be to wrap up warm, and enjoy.

Top tips

  • If good food is what you’re after over the Diwali festival, then head to Jaipur. The gastronomic treats here are second to none, and this is the perfect chance to sample traditional Diwali treats such as mawa kachori (sweet puff pastries) and besan barfi (sweet cakes made from flour and condensed milk).
  • For those seeking more of an authentic, local Diwali experience, Purushwadi should be a strong contender on your list of options. This sleepy town near Nashik lacks the chaotic vibe of the larger cities, and the simple beauty of the festival really shines through in the local celebrations.
  • If you’re keen to celebrate a traditional Loy Krathong festival in Thailand, make a beeline for the ancient city of Sukhothai. There’s a multitude of things going on in addition to the more traditional release of krathongs, including light and sound shows, beauty pageants, traditional markets and firework displays.
  • It goes without saying that you’ll want to pack your warm winter clothes for Harbin’s Snow & Ice festival. A traditional northeastern Chinese fur hat with flaps over the ears will help to keep you cosy.
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