First, it’s important to define what we mean by “festivals”, as these can take many forms in Indonesia. Typically, holidays and festivals coincide with one another. There are national and even international holidays in which festivals take place, and then there are festivals of a more local flavour, which often vary from island to island. For the most part, when we talk about festivals in Indonesia, we’re talking about the latter.
As is the case with most island cultures, the rhythm of daily life in Indonesia is heavily influenced by the promise of leisure. Even when holidays and festivals aren’t taking place, there’s usually some preparation going on at some stage or another. If you want to see Indonesian culture in all its shining glory, festivals are the best time to do it. It is during festivals that you’re most likely to see local people dressed traditionally, and when finer aspects of their culture are on display.
There may be no better place to experience the raw cultural bliss of festivals in Indonesia than on the island of Bali. While most festivals that take place are island-wide, Ubud is usually considered to be the best place to go for anything related to local culture. The streets are lined with temples and, even on a normal day, most people dress traditionally. During festivals, the entire city comes alive. Women can be seen carrying impossibly tall stacks of fruit on their heads as offerings at temples, incense pours out onto the street, and traditional Balinese dancers can be seen preparing for performances. It’s a truly magical experience that squarely qualifies Ubud- particularly during festivals- one of Indonesia’s most can’t-miss destinations.
Yogyakarta is typically considered to be the Javanese equivalent to Ubud. Similarities lie in the abundance of traditional aspects of local culture that are typically on display even during normal days. Because Yogyakarta is significantly larger than Ubud, one could argue that it’s an even more spectacular place to catch local festivals. An additional merit of Yogyakarta as a fantastic place to experience Indonesian festivals is the famously jovial nature of its people.
On the island of Bali, Galungan Festival is often considered to be the largest and most significant holiday of the year. Locals believe that spirits of deceased relatives return to visit their former homes, and the current inhabitants have a responsibility to be hospitable through prayers and offerings throughout the holiday period. The most obvious sign of Galungan celebrations, leading up to it, are penjor, or bamboo poles with offerings suspended at the end, which line streets throughout the island. Each day during Galungan Festival has a specific name and is marked by the organization of activities related to that name.
The timing of the Galungan Festival is a bit tricky, as it relates to the Balinese calendar which fluctuates from year to year. It commences on the 11th week of the 210th day of the Pawukon calendar- meaning there are often two celebrations per solar year. In 2016, Galungan Festival takes place September 7 through September 17. In 2017, it takes place April 5 through April 15 and November 1 through November 11.
One of Indonesia’s most famous festivals takes place on the island of Sulawesi. In the village of Tana Toraja, you can observe the Toraja Funeral Ceremony in which elaborate and fascinating funeral rites are given to send spirits into the after-world. This is meant to prevent misfortune to the family of the deceased. The ceremonies typically take place between July and September.
As the most populous majority-Muslim country in the world, traditional Muslim holidays in Indonesia are massive. The most important and visually spectacular of these is Id-al-Fitr (July 6, 2016 and July 17, 2017) and Maulid Nabi (December 10, 2016 and November 29, 2017). The former celebrates the end of fasting during Ramadan and the latter commemorates the birth of Prophet Muhammad. In both cases, streets are usually clogged with parade floats, performances and merry-makers.
Festivities in Indonesia are often in line with spiritual occasions. As such, they’re typically considered a time for modesty. While there’s certainly a festive atmosphere, these occasions aren’t typically associated with the sort of celebrations seen elsewhere in the region. Consumption of alcohol, if it’s not completely forbidden, is usually looked down upon, and people are expected to dress a bit more conservatively.