Come take a look at the 16 best festivals in Indonesia for a true taste of its culture:
1. Rambu Solo - Sending the Dead to the After-lifeWhen: Between July and September
More of a tradition than a 'festival' per se, Rambu Solo is followed by the Toraja people from south Sulawesi in Indonesia's highlands. It is a funeral ceremony intended to send off the spirits of the dead to the after-world. It involves a lot of fascinating funeral rites performed by the family to reduce their own misfortunes after the death. There are a number of processions performed, like the mo Paulo (transporting the dead body to the burial site). Tourists are welcome to visit and observe the activities. Traditionally, a buffalo is sacrificed as well as it is believed that the buffalo will guide the spirit into the afterlife. Rambu Solo generally takes place between July and September every year.
2. Nyepi - The Day of Silence in BaliWhen: March
This festival commemorates the Balinese New Year. Although the date changes each year, it is generally observed in the month of March. 'Nyepi' translates to 'day of silence' and it involves fasting, meditation and prayers. It is customary that lights be switched off (or kept dim), travel reduced to a minimum, and no work be performed on this day. In fact, it is one day in the year that the Bali airport is practically closed. Some villages in Bali make ogoh-ogoh (demonic statues made from bamboo and cloth) to symbolize negativity, which are paraded around the ceremony before being burnt in the local cemetery. In India, nyepi is celebrated as the festival of Ugadi.
3. Bau Nyale Fishing Festival - Fishing out the Legendary NyaleWhen: February or March
Every year during the months of February or March, hundreds of people rush to Lombok to catch the Bau Nyale festival. It derives its name from Bau meaning 'to catch' and nyale, a type of sea-worm. The legend of this festival in Indonesia involves a mythical Princess Mandalika, who drowned in the waters of Lombok while trying to escape an arranged marriage, reincarnating in the form of a nyale (worm-like fish) to return every year. These fascinating fish appear in Indonesia only in these months and they are caught by the locals with much enthusiasm. It is believed that eating the worms (typically roasted with banana leaves) will make men energetic and women as beautiful as the princess.
4. Baliem Valley Festival - Mock-War Amongst the Papua TribesWhen: August
This Indonesian festival is unique to the people of Papua, a set of islands in Indonesia's eastern province. It involves the staging of a mock-war as it is believed that war is a symbol of prosperity and fertility. Over 20 tribes of Indonesia come together for this festival that spans two days. Aside from the mock-war, traditional dances are performed to the traditional Papua music called piton. Pig-racing is also fairly common during this time. The Baliem Vallety festival takes place in the month of August.
5. Dieng Culture Festival - the Dreadlock Shaving CeremonyWhen: August
In central Java, the children in the Dieng plateau have a fascinating genetic make-up. Upon reaching puberty, their naturally straight hair starts to form dreadlocks. When this happens, they wait till August every year for their hair to be shaved off in an elaborate ceremony that is the heart of the Dieng Culture Festival in Indonesia. This ritual of cutting off the dreadlocks is traditionally known as ruwatan anak gombel. Along with the ceremony, traditional paper lanterns are released into the sky and puppet shows are held. Java comes alive during this time, and tourists have a lovely time taking in the exciting atmosphere of the island.
6. Waisak (Vesak) - Observation of the Life of Buddha
An important Buddhist festival not just in Indonesia but for every country with Buddhist communities, Vesak commemorates the birth, enlightenment and death of Gautama Buddha. It is called Buddha Purnima in India. It takes place on a full-moon day in early May, though it has been celebrated in June occasionally. In Indonesia, monks, pilgrims and devotees travel from Mendut Temple to Borobudur in central Java, carrying with them holy fire from Grobogan village and holy water from Jumprit springs. On reaching the Borobudur temple, they circle the temple three times in the clockwise direction before receiving blessings from the temple gurus. Then, they release paper lanterns into the sky to symbolize enlightenment of the universe.
7. Pasola - Jousting Festival of the Sumba PeopleWhen: February or March
Taking place every year in western Sumba, the Indonesian festival of Pasola occurs in February or March every year. It is a jousting festival in which participants ride horseback without saddles and attack each other with wooden-spears called hola. In fact, the word 'pasola' is derived from the word 'hola'. According to legend, the festival is celebrated in an effort to help the local leader of Waiwuang village forget the sadness of his wife leaving him for a new lover. It began as a jousting festival that drew blood, but today, it is more of a mock-battle. Pasola is celebrated by the Sumba people to ensure a prosperous harvest.
8. Galungan - Indonesian Festival Celebrating Good Over Evil
Galungan is a Hindu festival in Indonesia is closely related to Diwali in India. Although the dates differ between both festivals, they are both celebrated to express gratitude to God, ward off evil spirits, and invite ancestral spirits back to Earth to the family home. Galungan commemorates the victory of good over evil. Across Indonesia, the streets are adorned with bamboo poles called penjor with offerings (typically rice, bananas and coconuts) hanging off them. In the days leading to Galungan, pigs or chicken are sacrificed for a feast and family members are visited. The end of Gulangan is called Kuningan, significantly celebrated at Sakenan Temple followed by rituals and dance performances.
9. Independence Day - Indonesia's Independence from the Dutch
When: 17th August
Formerly a Dutch colony, Indonesia became an independent nation on 17th August, 1945. Every year, this day is celebrated with great aplomb throughout the country. There are parades held in the capital city of Jakarta in front of the President at the Presidential Palace. People often hoist flags in their homes. Towns and villages conduct friendly competitions and races like sack races, rope pulls, and traditional pole climbing called pinjat pinang. Another memorable competition involves eating kerupak, a crunchy Indonesian snack, which is hung from high ropes. Participants race to finish eating the dangling treats, with the added twist of their hands tied behind their backs!
10. Bidar Boat Race - Boat Race to Celebrate IndependenceWhen: August
This festival in Indonesia is celebrated in tandem with its Independence Day. It takes place in Palembang in south Sumatra. Large boats made from hardwood trees are crafted throughout the year to be raced on this special day. They can be anywhere between 20-30 metres long, decorated with bright paints and patterns. The boats are propelled by almost 70 racers, including a commander and a gong striker. Watching these beautifully crafted boats race across the waters of Sungai Musi is quite a spectacular sight!
11. Eid-Ul-Fitr - Islam's Prime FestivalWhen: June
As a country with a significant Muslim population, Eid (also called lebaran) is an important festival in Indonesia. It is a national holiday. All employees receive mandated salary bonuses and shops have special discounts and decorations during this time. Traditionally, workers (especially labourers) travel back to their homes and this homecoming is called mudik or pulang kampang. It is significantly observed in Jakarta and Bandung. It is customary for children to be gifted small amounts of money in colourful envelopes. Families spend the day making a feast together, consisting of dishes like lemang, dodol, sambal goring and cookies.
12. Cap Goh Meh - Chinese New Year in IndonesiaWhen: March
There is a significant Chinese population in Indonesia too, and so, the Chinese New Year is widely celebrated. The Cap Go Meh festival in Indonesia usually takes place in March, 15 days after Imlek, a full moon day. There is fanfare and celebrations in major cities of Indonesia, with lantern parades, food festivals, and even the traditional lion dance called barongsai performed. It is believed that the Gods themselves come down to Earth for Cap Goh Meh. Streets are full of dragon dancers, mediums and palm-readers, and extreme performers who are known for self-mutilation. Some of the best locations to catch this festival are Semarang and Bogor in Java, Singkawang in west Kalimantan and Kermaro Island in south Sumatra.
13. Lampung Krakatau Festival - Celebrating Mount Krakatau's EruptionWhen: Between June and October
This Indonesian festival is held in Lampung Province. It is meant to commemorate the eruption of Mount Krakatau in 1883 that had a disastrous impact on the island where over 70% of the island was destroyed and a layer of volcanic ash hung in the sky for almost a year after. It blasted volcanic ash that went as far as 4,500km away to New York and Norway. This festival began in 1991 as a way to celebrate the island and Lampung Province comes to live during this life. It is held between June and October every year, consisting of exhibitions, cultural performances and even tours of the volcano.
14. Yadnya Kasada - Offerings Made to Mount BromoWhen: Between May and September
Known as Kasada, this is celebrated by the Tenggerese community in East Java. Based on the Hindu lunar calendar, this Indonesian festival is held on the 14th day of the Kasada month each year. According to local legends, a childless couple were blessed with 24 children by the gods upon praying at Mount Bromo, on the condition that they sacrifice their 25th child to the volcano. Some variations of the legend suggest that the couple refused, and the volcano erupted, taking the child with it. Every year, locals and tourists take the journey up to Mount Bromo and offer sacrifice like goats, flowers, vegetables, and even money. Other brave individuals climb into the crater to receive these goods, considering the offerings a sign of good luck.
15. Jember Fashion Carnaval - Fashion, Extravagance and Exuberance Colour the Streets of JemberWhen: August
Officially spelt 'carnaval' (like the popular Brazilian festival), the Jember Fashion Carnaval takes place in East Java. It was inspired by the fashion week held by designer Dynand Fariz in 2002. In 2003, the first carnaval consisted of a procession of dancers in extravagant costumes. It requires months of preparation, with hundreds of volunteers and thousands of participants ranging from kindergarten kids to the general public. The procession is usually a 4-kilometre runway and has a fashion exhibit too. You can catch the Jember Fashion Carnival in the city of Jember in August every year.
16. Sekaten - Celebrating the Birth of Prophet Muhammad in JavaWhen: November
Derived from the Arabic word 'syahadatain', Sekaten is an Indonesian festival celebrated in Java to commemorate the birthday of Prophet Muhammad. It began with Sultan Hamengkubuwana I who was keen to promote Islam in the region, and the festival began as an invite-only festival in order to learn more about the religion. It has become a week-long festival consisting of traditional ceremonies, cultural performances, and a popular night market. Special dishes are made for Sekaten such as sego gurih (plain rice cooked with coconut milk, peanut, shrimp and chilli) and gugungan (sticky rice with peanuts, vegetables, pepper and egg). These dishes symbolize success and abundance of the Java kingdom, and people spread these dishes in their fields in hopes of a good harvest. Others take the food home to their families.
Of course, these are but some of the many beautiful festivals of Indonesia. For your next trip, get ready to immerse yourself in the local traditions of this gorgeous island getaway.