A large group of people in Pakistan’s northern Gilgit-Baltistan region gathered in a valley this week to partake in a centuries-old festival that marks an end to the longest night of the year and brings the spring season a step closer in a territory notorious for its harsh winters.
“May Fung” is said to be a centuries-old festival annually celebrated on December 21. It has its roots in Tibetan Buddhist culture and involves fireworks, music and dance.
“People gather in large numbers to celebrate the ancient festival of May Fung,” Hajji Abdul Hameed, Gilgit-Baltistan’s local government minister, told Arab News, amid festivities in Ghanche district’s Bara valley.
“This is a historic festival of the area which should be celebrated by everyone since it reminds us of our connection with our ancestors who started celebrating it centuries ago.”
Hameed said December 21 was a happy day for the residents of the region since “it marks the beginning of the end of the winter season.” From next year, he said, they would make it a calendar event.
The origins of the festival are obscure, but it is seen as a new year carnival by many people, according to local historian Muhammad Hassan Hasrat.
Hasrat said it was also believed the festival began under the Maqpon dynasty that emerged in the region in the 12th century and lasted for about 700 years. A few people attributed it to the mythical man-eating 17th-century Maqpon ruler, Raja Abdal Khan, who was known for his cruelty, he added.
“The festival is also celebrated in Chitral and Gilgit along with certain regions of China,” Hasrat said, adding though the celebrations had been on a decline for the last 40 to 50 years, they were once again getting popular with people.
“When the sun sets on December 21, people, especially children and teenagers, carry burning sticks in their hands and give them a circular motion in the air,” he said. “The event ends with a traditional musical show.”
Ghulam Abbas Balghari, a percussion artist, told Arab News he liked performing at the festival.
“I have been playing music on my locally manufactured drums that are made of goat skin since 1987,” he said.
“Prior to 2005, the festival was celebrated in different Baltistan valleys, including Shigar, Rondu, Skardu, Kharmang and Khaplu. After a gap of many years, I have participated in a big colorful May Fung festival in the Bara valley today.”
Balghari agreed with others that the night was celebrated to welcome springtime.
Zahid Stoghi Yatow, a folk singer, said he had arrived in the valley only to participate in the celebrations since they were a part of the Balti culture.
“I have never seen such enthusiasm among people,” he said. “You can see hundreds of people here who are cherishing this moment even in such a frosty weather. It is, after all, our responsibility to keep our cultural festivals alive.”