In the former years of civilization, people observed multiple religious traditions and rituals with the sole motive of revering the Supreme Being. But as the time passed, not just beliefs, but also faiths and religions modified and grew. Interestingly, as the world turns into a global village, where all religious activities coexist, people – irrespective of their castes, creeds, religions – show no qualms in observing ceremonies together. And Taiwan Lantern Festival is one such occasion that is observed by people despite their different religions and rituals.
Much like Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, devotees in Taiwan illuminate and adorn their homes using lanterns, and colourful light bulbs to observe the Lantern Festival. Celebrated on the first full-moon night of the Lunar Year, the Lantern Festival is regarded as one of the key festivals in Taiwan.
As far as the origin of the Lantern Festival is concerned, it is believed to have started by an emperor of the Han dynasty (206 B.C. – 220 A.D.). The emperor, a sincere Buddhist, had asked his people to exhibit lights on the fifteenth night of the first month of the Lunar Year to pay obeisance to Lord Buddha. According to the same legend, lanterns are held in hands on the same night to spot deities as they descend from heaven to bless the earth. If another legend in the Tang dynasty is anything to go by, the emperors would observe the festival by asking gorgeous women to croon and dance with lanterns.
These festive activities got popular with the commoners and turned into the most famous festival in the year after Chinese New Year.
Since the festival was almost forgotten in the late ’80s, the Taiwan Tourism Bureau felt it was right to collect all the light displays in one spot to make people aware of the Lantern Festival. It started gaining huge popularity after it was first held in Taipei’s Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in 1990. After over a decade, in 2001, the festival was shifted from Taipei to Kaohsiung, with different cities in Taiwan being given turns to host every year.
Yunlin Hosts 2017 Taiwan Lantern Festival For First Time
“In Taiwan, the main lantern festival is held in different counties and this year, Yunlin County which is in the central part of Taiwan hosts the Lantern Festival,” says Shelley Shan, a local visitor.
While this is the first time in its 28-year-long history that Yunlin has been selected to host the festival, Shelley explains us the procedure that different counties need to follow to get selected. “The Lantern Festival is organized by the Tourism Bureau in Taiwan and each year the Lantern Festival takes place in a county. Different counties compete to host the festival. They have to propose – if they have specific plan for the festival and then the Toruism Bureau chooses which county they want for the concerned year,” she adds.
The Lantern Festival which was inaugurated on February 11 in Yunlin county in the southwestern part of Taiwan will continue until February 19. Since this year’s theme is ‘friendly earth, diverse cultures’, the focus of the festival include an eco-friendly approach and the varied traditions, cultures, and beliefs here. With residents and travelers attending the festivities from across the world, it has undoubtedly become popular with international tourists too. “I had only read about its celebrations – including lanterns, light displays in temples and firecrackers – on multiple websites. But to be in Taiwan and witness people as they end the Lunar New Year with a bang is an experience one would not want to miss out on,” says David, a traveler.
Noel Saxena, Country Head, Taiwan Tourism Bureau, Rep. Office managed by New Delhi-based Think Strawberries explains what helps the festival gain huge acceptance. “Several dance and music performances throughout the island depict their history and culture and keep the entire city into a festive mood. The lights and the decorations during this time are worth seeing. The colorful streets and the friendly people of Taiwan will make you feel at home,” he says.
For the uninitiated, the festival is celebrated not just by focusing on lantern making and the displays of pretty lanterns, but by playing lantern riddle games too. As Shelley tells us, the festival is also important for tourists and residents alike because of the traditional festival food that is whipped up. “At the Lantern Festival, apart from the exhibition, people also like to eat rice dumplings. It is a dumpling with filling inside – usually it is very cold and people eat it to celebrate the festival and keep themselves warm,” she explains.
So if you have spent enough time appreciating the beauty around, make sure you also dig into the glutinous rice dumplings which usually come with sweet or savory fillings.
While Yunlin featured 19 light-themed and decorated areas to celebrate the Lantern Festival, Yanshui grabbed everyone’s attention with its cacophony of fireworks. For those who came in late, fireworks are used to call on the gods, the tiny town in the north of Tainan County certainly makes headlines as several thrill-seeking festival goers and visitors show no inhibitions in being hit by a barred enclosure filled with bottle rockets.
The Lantern Festival in Yanshui is called the Beehive Fireworks Festival because this barred enclosure turns into a horrid ‘hive of bees’ which are set off at the people. Traditionally, the idea of being hit by fireworks is referred to as an act that brings one good luck for the new year. For those who follow religious rituals, it is an activity that helps them endure the pain to exhibit their spiritual determination.
To ensure people aren’t hurt by the fireworks, they wear non-flammable clothes and don’t let their skin remain exposed. The best way to protect one’s head and face is by wearing a helmet that comes with a full-face visor. Next, wear a towel to the helmet that can be wrapped entirely around your neck. Since the air gets smoky and usually debris is thrown at the visitors from the exploded fireworks, make sure you wear a face mask.
So if you happen to be in Taiwan at this time, make sure you don’t miss out on its Lantern Festival celebrations. Much like any other festival across the world, it is significant for the culture, and explains how festivity is an interesting passageway to the most insightful aspects of life.