Once a year, in the heart of South Africa's Kingdom of the Zulu, thousands of people make the long journey to one of His Majesty’s, the King of the Zulu nation's royal residence at KwaNyokeni Palace. Here, in Nongoma, early every September month, young Zulu maidens will take part in a colourful cultural festival, the Royal Reed Dance festival - or Umkhosi woMhlanga in the Zulu language.
Steeped in the history of the rise of the Zulu kingdom under the great King Shaka, the Reed Dance festival has been tirelessly celebrated by countless generations, and attracts thousands of visitors from throughout the country and from across the world. A dignified traditional ceremony,
the Reed Dance festival is at same time a vibrant, festive occasion, which depicts the rich cultural heritage of the Kingdom of the Zulu and celebrates the proud origin of the Zulu people.
The Reed Dance is also a celebration of the Zulu nation and performs the essential role of unifying nation and the king, who presides over the ceremony.
The festival takes its name from the riverbed reeds, which are the central focus of this four-day event. The reed-sticks are carried in a procession by thousands of young maidens who are invited to the King's palace each year. More than 10 000 maidens, from various communities throughout the province of KwaZulu- Natal, take part in the Reed Dance ceremony, with the rest of the Zulu nation helping them to celebrate their preparation for womanhood.
It is a great honour for the young women to be invited to take part in the Reed Dance ceremony, and its also a source of great dignity and pride for their families and communities.
According to Zulu traditon, only virgins are permitted to take part in the festival to ensure that they are ritually 'pure'.
The Reed Dance festival is a solemn occasion for the young women, but also an opportunity to show off their singing, dancing and beadwork, the fruits of many months of excitement and preparation.
As the Reed Dance ceremony begins, the young women prepare to form a procession led by the chief princess. One of the daughters of the Zulu King is also the leader of the group of maidens as they go through this important rite of passage.
Each maiden carries a reed which has been cut by the riverbed and it symbolizes the power that is vested in nature. The reeds reflect a deep mythical connection with origin of the Zulu people, where, tradition tells us, the original ancestor emerged from a reed bed.
And still, today an expectant hush falls on the crowd as the chief princess is the first to choose a reed. Shouts of joy and celebration greet her as the reed remains intact, and, with bated breath, each of the young women takes it in turn to choose a reed.
Accompanied by jubilant singing and dancing, the stately procession winds its way up the hill to the palace entrance where the king awaits, flanked by his royal regiment.
As leader of the group of young women, the chief Princess kneels down before the king and presents him with a reed to mark the occasion, before joining the young women in a joyful dance of tribute to the king.