In the northwest corner of a small island in the south China Sea there is a small, charming temple. It’s rarely mentioned in travel guidebooks and has never made TripAdvisor’s “Top 10” list. This is a temple of the Hakka people, a group who migrated across the strait from southern China to the small island of Taiwan way back in the mid-1600’s…
The small temple sits on the edge of a village called Hsinpu. On this day, the temple is crowded with Hakka people taking part in a festival devoted to make the ghost spirits of their ancestors happy. This is the annual Water Lantern Festival, a very important celebration during Ghost Month.
Not on the Tour…
As I scan the faces in the crowd, I see there are no other western tourists here to witness this important celebration – just me and my photographer friend, who’s capturing every moment on video. Most foreign tourists are likely following TripAdvisor’s “Top 10” list and are fighting the crowds in Taroko Gorge or maybe eating their way through Tainan. Both are worthy places.
But, sadly, they’re missing one of the best things about travel in Taiwan – cultural immersion, especially during the always intriguing Ghost Month.
This temple is called Yimin Temple and is not a traditional Dao temple filled with various gods who have specific roles to play in the lives of the worshippers. Instead, this temple is dedicated to the Hakka ancestors who died as war heroes after fighting a bloody battle hundreds of years ago. Many of the Hakka people from the Hsinpu area were killed in the battle and are buried here. This temple honors their sacrifice and their memory.
As a burial place for ancestors, this temple attracts a large number of ghosts during Ghost Month.
Incredible Hakka Kindness…
We are the only foreigners in a sea of Asian faces and we stand out among the crowd, but the Hakka people are very warm and incredibly welcoming.
Inside the temple, a man who speaks a little English approaches us, “Here, come this way.” We follow him to a desk at the entrance and he grabs a guidebook. “This one is in English, just for you.“
Outside in the courtyard, an older Hakka woman gestures to us, “Special festival rice. Try some.” She fixes a heaping bowl of rice and covers it in a mixture of brown sugar water.
We lurk in a corner, observing the crowd while eating the rice mixture when another young Hakka man approaches us and offers a private tour. He explains some of the symbolism in the temple and history of the festival. “See those three large bamboo poles?” he asks, pointing to large poles with lanterns attached, right in front of the temple. “They guide the wandering ghosts to this temple.”
The ghosts, also called “Good Brothers”, sometimes wander aimlessly after being released from the gates of hell at the start of Ghost Month. He goes on to explain, “The higher the lantern poles reach, the more “Good Brothers” will be attracted to the temple. They’re invited to enjoy the offerings and are also given a resting place at this temple.”
Homeless wandering ghosts…
Today’s Water Lantern Festival, takes place on the 19th day of Ghost Month and provides those homeless and wandering ghosts, who may be living in the river, a chance to climb onto the small floating houses and escape from their river-dwelling misery.
The festival begins at Yimin Temple with a procession through the city streets and ends at the river where the official ceremony takes place. Drums bang, cymbals clang, fireworks explode, crowds surge. (And I sweat in the late August humidity!) I also notice a scantily clad pole-dancing girl doing karaoke while riding on a colorful float, and she’s not even sweating. (I guess these wonderful Hakka people will do almost anything to make the ghosts happy!)
At the altar near the river, three priests begin the ceremony with a scripture reading and solemn chanting, hoping to encourage the dead spirits to leave the river. A clarinet-like instrument accompanies the ringing bells and clanging cymbals. One priest presents a white duck as a live offering to the ghosts in the river.
And finally, after the houses are properly blessed and the ghosts are properly summoned…the lantern houses are slowly released into the river. As the lantern flows with the current, it is believed that ghost spirits will emerge from the river and crawl on board to make the small house a home. Temporarily, anyway, until they’re sent back to hell at the end of Ghost Month.
The final lantern, a larger “ghost hotel” filled with paper money, is set on fire and floats unsteadily in the current, meandering down the rocky river as it burns…
…In a shallow river, near a small temple in a tiny village, on a small island in the South China Sea. Just a tiny speck in the Universe but a vital part of the local ghost culture. And, sadly, not on a “Top 10” list anywhere.
Get a glimpse of the lantern festival through the eyes of my incredibly talented photographer friend…