"Taiwan's Ghost Festival and Other Religious Events"
This month we feature Taiwan's many different religious beliefs, the famous Ghost Festival, and other religious events. Like Halloween in the West, Taiwan's Ghost Festival is all about ghosts and spirits. However, in Taiwan a whole month is dedicated to the ghosts. According to local tradition, the seventh month of the lunar calendar is the Ghost Month. It is believed that at the beginning of this month the gates of the underworld are opened so that ghosts can return to this world. There are actually two major festivals in the Ghost Month - one Buddhist and the other Taoist. The Taoist one is called the Jhongyuan Festival while the Buddhist one is named the Ullambana Festival. Religious ceremonies are held around the island, involving offerings of food and drink, ritual dances and music, the chanting of Buddhist monks or Taoist priests, and the burning of spirit paper money.
These offerings are all believed to give a form of earthly enjoyment to the ghosts, as well as to help them ascend to heaven. These rituals are believed to please the dead, who will in turn bless the living with good fortune. During Ghost Month, most Taiwanese people avoid activities such as swimming, moving house, getting married and traveling in order to avoid the malign influence of those ghosts who may be hostile to the living. These attitudes towards the dead originate from ancestor worship, which is an important aspect of life for local people, even to this day.
Of the many festivals held around Taiwan during the month, Keelung's Ghost Festival is one of the most spectacular. This festival originated during the bloody feud between immigrants from Fujian's Zhangzhou and Quanzhou some 150 years ago. The leading families in the region rotated the privilege of holding the yearly festival dedicated to drifting and vagabond spirits in the hope of helping them to ascend from oblivion to heaven. It starts with a series of rituals where monks chant for days offering different kinds of sacrifices. On the first day of the seventh lunar month, the shrine doors at Keelung's Laodagong Temple are opened, inviting the ghosts from the underworld to enjoy the gifts offered by the living. Incense and candles are burnt non-stop for twelve days. On the thirteenth day a ceremonial procession is made, and on the fourteenth day water lanterns are released into the sea. A service is held on the fifteenth day of the month, at which the dance of Ghost God Jhongkuei is performed by the priests. The worship continues for another 15 days. On the first day of the eighth lunar month the shrine doors are closed, symbolizing the ghosts' return to the underworld, and the festival ends for another year.
The release of water lanterns is the climax of the Keelung Ghost Festival. Lanterns of various shapes such as ships, houses, and temples, are paraded around the city on glittering floats accompanied by folk performances. Each float is hung with a plaque showing the name of the family who has provided the lantern. The lantern is not only a symbol of the family's offering, but also provides a chance for families to compete, replacing the gory fights between clans in the early days. At the end of the parade the lanterns are released into the sea. The water lanterns are believed to be guiding lights for water ghosts, showing them the way to the offerings on land. It is also believed that the farther off a family's lantern floats, the luckier and more prosperous that family will be in the coming year.
Another not-to-be-missed festival is "Grappling with the Ghosts" in Yilan's Toucheng. The festival was suspended for seven years due to safety concerns and was only resumed in 2004. Uniquely among Taiwan's ghost festivals, Toucheng's festival is not only about making offerings to the dead, but also serves as an opportunity for worshippers to give alms to the poor. Another aspect of its uniqueness is the strength and agility required of participants in the ceremonies. Before the closing of the gates to the underworld at the end of the seventh lunar month, structures called Gupeng are built for the festival. The Gupeng consist of twelve thick wooden supporting pillars, each about 30 meters tall, on which is a platform surmounted by thirteen cone-shaped bamboo structures, each more than 30 meters tall, called Gujhan. Offerings in the form of pastries are hung on these Gujhan, and they are crowned with a flag and a gold medal called the Shunfong Flag. The finishing touch of the Gupeng is the greasing of the twelve supporting pillars, making them even more difficult to climb.
The "Grappling with the Ghosts ceremony" starts at midnight. Teams of young men compete with one another to climb up the Gupeng. Whoever climbs up onto the first platform needs to topple the pastries and offerings there before continuing to climb the Gujhan. In the old days the poor on the ground would compete to garner the fallen pastries and offerings, while nowadays people try to catch them for good luck. Finally, the first climber to climb the Gujhan and cut off the Shunfong Flag and retrieve the gold medal is the winner of the festival.
Taiwan is very tolerant of other religions. Different religious beliefs co-exist peacefully. While Taoism and Buddhism are the two major religions here, followers of Christianity (both Catholicism and Protestantism), Islam, and the various religious beliefs of Taiwan's aboriginal tribes can also be found.
Two of the biggest and most famous Buddhist centers in Taiwan are Foguangshan (Light of Buddha Mountain) and the Chungtai Chan Monastery in Puli, Nantou. Foguangshan is widely regarded as one of the world's most important Buddhist centers. Its central feature is a huge golden Buddha statue some 40 meters high. The Great Buddha is surrounded by 480 smaller replicas. The Buddhas' left hand is raised, symbolizing the guiding light of Buddha, while their lowered right hand is a gesture of acceptance and unconditional mercy towards all living beings. Devout Buddhists on their pilgrimage to the site can be seen kneeling to pray every few steps before resuming their journey up to the sacred site. Meditation, chanting and other Buddhist rituals are practiced daily here. Those who wish to find inner peace, to purge themselves of impure thoughts and to seek insight into their true self can sign up to join the monks as they go through their daily routines.
At the Chungtai Chan Monastery in Puli visitors can also join the monks and nuns to contemplate life, spending a few days of peace and quiet away from worldly needs and desires. However, for most visitors the most amazing feature of the monastery is the spectacular architecture of the temple, which is a perfect fusion of elements from East and West.
A major component of religious ceremonies at many temple festivals all over Taiwan is the Songjiang Battle Array. Over 200 years ago, in order to fight against raiding bandits, the locals in Kaohsiung's Neimen area developed the Songjiang Battle Array. Today it has evolved into a form of folk performance combining martial arts, religious dancing, folk music and local literature. Poems are read to the accompaniment of martial arts and music. More than just a religious event, the Songjiang Battle Array has become a major cultural experience in Taiwan.
Jhenlan Temple in Dajia, Taichung is one of Taiwan's major temples devoted to the worship of the goddess Mazu (also called the Goddess of Sea or the Heavenly Holy Mother). The annual procession of the goddess has become the highlight of Taiwan's religious calendar, attracting thousands of Mazu devotees and foreign visitors from around the world. Priests and devil boys carry a beautifully sculptured wooden sedan in which the goddess sits. The procession tours through numerous towns, villages and cities while faithful followers trail for miles behind. During the procession on both sides of the road offerings of food and drink are made by the families of the devotees. The priests and devil boys, all in colorful costumes, perform numerous rituals and ceremonies accompanied by musicians. People burn incense and spirit money and explode firecrackers along the way. It is a feast of the senses, exotic and exciting. A visit to the event guarantees an unforgettable experience.
There are many more interesting religious festivals and events around Taiwan at different times throughout the year. Behind each of them are many fascinating tales containing profound wisdom passed down for generations. These can all make great travel stories. So why not make Taiwan your next travel destination - visit us and bring home unforgettable experiences to share with your friends and family!