From concealing the wearer’s identity to representing different characters, masks have been around for centuries. They have been used as religious or secular props for a variety of reasons, from festivities to rituals to folk performances. Many Indian states have their own, unique mask traditions. Masked dance festivals in destinations like Ladakh, Sikkim, and Kerala have become popular tourist attractions. In Europe, carnivals usually mark the end of winter or a season of revelry before the start of the austerities of Lent. Masks are a key part of the special costumes worn during many of these carnivals. A closer look at masks often reveals the history and culture of a region. And, of course, they are on the checklist of souvenir hunters. Many mask festivals around the world have been inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Here's our pick of eight riveting festivals that should be on your itinerary when life returns to normal, and that mask you wear now can be discarded.
The Venice Carnival, Italy
The masked parade of Carnevale di Venezia or the Carnival of Venice, held in February, is a big hit with tourists. The procession begins from the hallowed St Mark’s Square. Participants wear imaginatively designed masks and colourful costumes. An old custom, the mask provided anonymity to participants cutting across class, and also during unbridled revelry. A host of events are held during the carnival, including boat parades, galas, and a contest to decide the most beautiful mask.
Carnival of Binche, Belgium
Located south of Brussels, Binche holds a three-day carnival starting on Shrove Sunday, just before Lent. In 2008, UNESCO inscribed this carnival on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity and declared it as one of the oldest surviving street carnivals of Europe. One of the most spectacular sights during the carnival are the gilles (funny characters) who don elaborate costumes and wax masks, parading through the town in a long procession, which also sees people participating dressed as pierrots, harlequins and peasants, to the accompaniment of drums and other instruments. The gilles are particularly striking in their wax masks and outfits. They appear on Shrove Tuesday, waving sticks at evil spirits and throwing oranges into the crowd. Anyone who has read Tintin and the Picaros will recognise that the inspiration for the carnival troupe comes from the gilles in the Carnival of Binche.
Narrensprung, Rottweil, Germany
Part of Germany’s Fasching or pre-Lent celebrations, the Narrensprung Parade sees participation by several interesting masked characters. You may be a bystander but it does not mean you will not be approached by them for some fun, especially by ‘Jack with Feathers’ who is prone to carry out a trick or two on unsuspecting observers. One of the key events of the parade is the ‘fool jump’.
Folklore Carnival, Hlinsko, Czech Republic
Inscribed on UNESCO’s list in 2010, this parade is held prior to Lent, in Hlinsko and six villages near it. Male members of the villages don masks representing traditional characters and go from door to door accompanied by a brass band. At each home, they perform a ritual dance seeking a rich harvest and prosperity for the family. In return, the families offer treats and money to the masked dancers. The procession is led by a person dressed as a mare. At the end of the house visits, the mare is symbolically executed and then revived with alcohol, which signals the commencement of more dancing and revelry.
Busójárás, Mohács, Hungary
The Buso Walking Festival, which earned its place on the UNESCO list in 2009, is a six-day carnival that takes place in Mohács town in southern Hungary. Usually held in February, it marks the end of winter. Among the various events held during this time, the most spectacular is probably when the ‘busos’, dressed in their weird wooden masks and cloaks, arrive in row boats on the shores of the Danube for a march through the city.
La Diablada, Bolivia and Peru
Although the jury is still out on where this ‘dance of the devil’ originated, it is held in both countries with much fanfare. People dressed in colourful costumes don the devilish-looking masks and perform energetic dances. According to a BBC report, historians believe that La Diablada dates back to colonial times when Peru and Bolivia did not exist as independent nations.
Inscribed in UNESCO’s list in 2018, this festival marks the ritual visits of deities and ushers in the New Year or new season. Celebrated in various parts of Japan, such as Tohoku, Kyushu, Okinawa and others, the rituals may vary but wearing terrifying masks and costumes to represent deities is the unifying feature.
Mukha Mela, West Bengal, India
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Although not a traditional festival, this has become an annual event to preserve the art of Gomira mask making and introduce the local artists to the world at large. It is usually held post monsoon in a village called Kushmandi (in South Dinajpur district of West Bengal), which is home to over 200 families of traditional mask makers. Gomira masked dances, held to drive away all evil and usher in good fortune, used to be held across villages in this region. Lately, the number has tapered off. At Mukha Mela, you get to see the mask makers at work as well as learn from them. Masked Gomira dances by traditional artists are also held. The artists make scaled-down versions of the masks for wall decoration as well as fashion utility products and ornaments using the designs.