The Traditional Busó Festivities of Mohács, Hungary [Gallery]

By Zsolt Repasy

 IMAGE: Zsolt Repasy

IMAGE: Zsolt Repasy

The “Poklade” (busó festivities) is a tradition of the “Sokac” or “Sokci” ethnic group in Mohács, Hungary. It brings together the Croat minority in Mohács and their Hungarian, German, Serbian and Roma (gypsy) neighbors who have passed on the tradition for generations, creating a strong sense of local identity and multi-ethnic unity through music, dancing and celebration.

Today the character of the “Busó” is an important symbol of the city and a commemoration of the great (sometimes sad) events of its history. The character of the “Busó” itself is a scary one, looking a bit like a devil. Men who dress up as “busós”, wear sheepskin coats, hand-carved, scary wooden masks and use items (most of these are agricultural tools) to make as much noise as possible to raise attention and scare away evil spirits. Traditionally, only grown men and boys over 18 could dress up as busós.

Another unique character of the Poklade is the so-called „jankele”. Jankeles also look creepy and scary. They wear rags, mask their identity and carry a sack filled with rags, small pebbles, sawdust, or soot. They’re supposed to keep the bystanders and children away from the busós with sometimes playful, sometimes rough swings with their bags. Originally, children, who could not be a “busó” yet, dressed up as “jankeles”. These days, some adults also become “jankeles” as there is even more freedom and craziness included and some find it more intriguing.

The event lasts for six days in February, starting on a Thursday and lasting until Tuesday (Mardi Gras). During the festival, several locations feature events and programs all day, such as costume contests, footraces for „jankeles” and young busós, exhibitions of authentic handcrafts to buy, and tasting local delicacies.

Visitors can witness the march of the busós (originally only on Tuesday, these days due to the large number of visitors on Sunday as well). In the recent years there were more than 1,000 registered busós marching, so it is undoubtedly spectacular. Every “busó” group tries to add some unique feature to their appearance or “entrée” while still preserving the genuine “busó” characteristics. Some groups march on foot, others ride horse-drawn or motorized fantasy vehicles (some look traditional, others are almost Mad-Max-like). As a closing ceremony at the end of the festival, as a grand finale, the busós burn a coffin on a huge bonfire in Széchenyi square, central Mohacs. The coffin symbolizes winter and every year a short, sarcastic “message” is painted on the sides. One side normally has an older, folkloric message, the other side may have a reference to current political events, or an acknowledgement or criticism to the government. This adds to the rebellious characteristic of the carnival.

It is not just a cultural and social event, it also plays a very important role in the local community, as people have a chance to express their respect and homage to their roots, the city and the “Sokci” community. The “busó” groups are mostly self-organized groups of friends and colleagues. There are busó groups consisting of firemen and policemen. I also know a group where its members are rowers – which is a predominant sport of the region as the river Danube is very close.

There are different explanations of the origins of this beautiful event. One is telling the anecdote from the times of Turkish occupation in the 17th century. According to the legend, locals carved and put on scary wooden masks to scare away the occupying Turks. The less popular story doesn’t have any heroic, historical aspects, it simply talks about the Busó festivities as a “typical” carnival event when people celebrate the end of winter, the arrival of Spring, and good spirits.

Apart from the carnival, this tradition is also about fertility, like many other traditions related to the arrival of spring. Therefore many „busós” act mischievously with women, teasing them. Although the first version sounds more tempting and might boost local pride, most likely it doesn’t stand a chance to be the real origin. I’ve talked to ethnographers and they strongly doubt, even reject the historical anecdote. Others also claim that the tradition has ancient roots from pagan times. There are debates and there is no silver bullet here, but I think it is more important to preserve and nurture this magical cultural gem.

During the event, there is a dancehall every night where locals dance in traditional clothes to the authentic “kolo” (circle dance) and in the daytime they cook together. The most predominant local meal is a kind of bean stew prepared in large clay jugs. Every ingredient (beans, vegetables, bacon and meat) is placed in the jug along with water, herbs and spices, the jug is placed by the fire on the ground and in a few hours it’s ready. People drink mulled wine and palinka (Hungarian spirits made of fruit, at least 50 degrees strong). It is so much beloved by locals that once it is over, people start the countdown to next year’s “Busó” festivities.

This tradition and its event is inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity of the UNESCO in 2009.

Article and imagery by Zsolt Repasy, a National Geographic and Vice-published photographer traveling the world. Follow him on Instagram!

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