Because all crowds are currently dangerous, all festivals are currently dangerous. But in a pre- (and presumably post-) Covid-19 world, these festivals can and will cause serious bodily injury.
Around the world, you’ll find many religious, cultural, and just plain crazy festivals that are fraught with risk and danger. They attract the brave and often the foolish, but can result in injury and even death for thrill-seeking participants, and sometimes even spectators.
Chasing bouncing cheeses in England, baby-jumping in Spain, and being bombarded by fireworks in Mexico are just some of the examples you’ll find in this guide to the world’s most dangerous festivals.
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This two-day Hindu thanksgiving festival celebrated by Tamil communities across Asia takes place on a full moon in January or February and has to be one of the most mentally and physically demanding festivals on the planet. Men, and some women, undergo sacrificial mortification, piercing their tongues, cheeks, and bodies with sharp skewers. If that isn’t enough to make your eyes water, some men carry heavy, elaborate structures—kavadis—adorned with peacock feathers and flowers on their shoulders, which are attached to their bodies with hundreds of rods or hooks. One of the biggest events takes place in Singapore, where a procession of devotees makes its way drumming and chanting along a 2.7-mile route from Little India to Tank Road. The extreme body piercing might look agonizingly painful, but the devotees who undergo special preparation and enter a trance-like state are said to not feel much, if any pain. However, each year some collapse along the route.
Cooper's Hill Cheese-Rolling
WHERE: Gloucestershire, U.K.
In the depths of the English countryside in Brockworth, Gloucestershire on the Spring Bank Holiday, contestants and spectators from far and wide gather for the annual cheese-rolling event. It’s a world-famous, somewhat crazy tradition that dates back to the early 1800s, fraught with danger. Participants chase a huge wheel of Double Gloucester cheese weighing almost 8 pounds as it rolls down the steep, grassy hill, reaching a top speed of 70 miles per hour. In hot pursuit are the chasers who tumble and fall wildly out of control. The number of injuries–including sprains, concussions, and fractured bones–is often high. Even bystanders have been known to be injured by out-of-control runners or bouncing cheeses. Whoever knew cheese could cause so much damage? Although the event was officially shutdown in 2010, loyal participants have kept it going.
Running of the Bulls
WHERE: Pamplona, Spain
The Running of the Bulls in the streets of Pamplona’s old quarter is an exceptionally dangerous, high-adrenalin event that takes place during the eight-day festival of San Fermin in early-July. This centuries-old tradition appears on many bucket lists and attracts over one million spectators. Around two thousand thrill-seekers, many dressed in the traditional white uniforms with a red scarf and belt, sprint for their lives along a quarter-mile course through the narrow, cobbled streets chased by six charging fighting bulls. It is fraught with danger and gorings do happen, especially if an angry bull gets separated from the pack. People can also get trampled or injured in pile-ups, and there have been 16 fatalities since 1910. A much safer option is to watch all the action from behind the fence.
Beehive Rocket Festival
WHERE: Yanshui, Taiwan
In the south of Taiwan during the Lantern Festival, which takes place on the 15th day of the first lunar month in the calendar, is the Yanshui Beehive Rocket Festival. This dangerous, 130-year-old tradition is one of the country’s most significant religious events and one of world’s largest folk festivals. It attracts people from across Taiwan looking to be bombarded with firecrackers said to rid them of bad luck. Huge rocket launch towers filled with thousands upon thousands of fireworks are set off, shooting in all directions and lighting up the night sky–the deafening display sounds like angry bees swarming out of their hives. Spectators wear protective helmets, thick jackets, scarfs, and gloves so they can stand as close as possible to the towers. As you would expect, multiple spectators suffer from severe burns as well as temporary deafness and flesh wounds caused by the barrage of rockets and flying shrapnel.
Onbashira (Honored Pillars Festival)
WHERE: Nagano Prefecture, Japan
Every six years in April and May people gather near Lake Suwa in Nagano prefecture for the 1,200-year-old Shinto festival for replacing the pillars at four shrines. This crazy, adrenaline-fueled event is considered the most dangerous event in Japan and attracts many tourists over a two-month period. Sixteen ancient fir trees are felled and cut into 17-meter logs that weigh over ten tons. Decorated in the traditional colors of red and white, the logs are hauled across the river and up a steep, rocky hill by hundreds of local men dressed in colorful costumes. They then ride them at high speed down the other side, trying not to fall off or get hurt. With men still clinging on, the logs are then erected into position at the shrines. Participation comes with great honor but also comes with great risk as injuries are nearly inevitable. Past festivals have seen drownings, participants being crushed, or falling while the logs are being raised.
Feria de la Pirotecnia (National Pyrotechnic Festival)
WHERE: Tultepec, Mexico
Fireworks are an integral part of Mexico’s culture and in March, Tultepec–the country’s self-proclaimed fireworks capital–hosts the annual National Pyrotechnic Festival, an exhilarating, week-long celebration in honor of San Juan de Dios, the patron saint of firework makers and firefighters. Fearless locals and tourists gather for eight days of jaw-dropping pyrotechnic displays, parades, and contests. The biggest draw is the Burning of the Bulls where brightly colored life-size bulls made out of papier-mâché and adorned with fireworks are paraded through the streets before being set alight. The dark skies are illuminated as the euphoric crowds are showered with burning sparks. It’s no surprise that there are a high number of firework-related injuries every year.
WHERE: Calgary, Alberta, Canada
The Calgary Stampede is a ten-day annual celebration of Western heritage, culture, and community that takes place each July in Calgary. The world’s largest rodeo is over one hundred years old and attracts over one million visitors to watch bull riding, barrel racing, and chuckwagon races, which have proved lethal. It is somewhat controversial because, although human fatalities are rare, over 100 horses have died or had to be put down since 1986, including six in 2019.
El Colacho (Baby-jumping Festival)
WHERE: Castrillo de Murcia, Spain
The mind boggles when it comes to this baby-jumping festival in Castrillo de Murcia in northern Spain. El Colacho is an important cultural festival that dates back to the 1600s and combines Catholic and pagan rituals. A man in a devil’s costume runs through the town, terrorizing locals before jumping over rows of babies, placed on mattresses, who have been born during the year to cleanse them of sin. Although it might look incredibly dangerous, surprisingly, no injuries have ever been reported.
Thimithi (Fire-walking Festival)
WHERE: Tamil Nadu, Southern India
The Thimithi fire-walking ceremony is a Hindu ritual that takes place in either October or November every year. It is celebrated in Southern India’s Tamil Nadu as well as in other countries with Tamil communities. Male and female devotees walk (or run) barefoot over a 9-foot firepit containing searing hot coals to receive a blessing from the goddess Draupadi. While most people make it across unscathed, a few, including some children, have ended up with burns, usually caused by tripping up or falling.