Celebrate The Ghost Festival In Taiwan

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Celebrate The Ghost Festival In Taiwan

Sunday, 16 June 2024 | Sharmila Chand

Celebrate The Ghost Festival In Taiwan

Sharmila Chand remembers her last supper with ghosts in Taiwan during The Ghost Festival !!

Tables are set up with plenty of colorfully packed gifts and eatables at every corner, especially in front of the temples. I observe the setting is uniform everywhere with two tables. However one table looks weaker in terms of goodies displayed. I ask and the reply leaves me quite aghast -

"One table with plenty of eatables and goodies is for spirits of our family, friends and ancestors and the other one is for our enemies' spirits."

Why I wonder ...

"We feed enemies spirits also so that they don't haunt or trouble us."

Even if I have my pulse racing the moment I hear the word 'ghost' , in Taiwan I had to show a brave front as I was there to attend 'The Ghost Festival.' And I landed on the first day of the Festival when the 'Ghost Gate' is opened.

During the Ghost month which falls on the seventh month of the Lunar calendar, they believe the spirits of the deceased return to meet and bless their loved ones. Hence the elaborate preparations to welcome their 'ying world' to the 'yang world' of the living.

But their feasting comes to an end on the 30th ie last day of the month and they must return to their ying world. Party is over, tables removed, 'Gate' closed until the following year!

In the middle of the celebrations, I kept wondering about the wandering spirits near me and the thought made me uneasy. But my local friends explained their philosophy and traditions very well. "According to our history, when people came to Taiwan, they faced several challenges in settling down. Some died homeless, with no one to take care of their last rites. It is believed their restless spirits started disturbing people hence the tradition of looking after their spirits, honouring 'brothers' as they were called and paying tributes to them started." That explaination helped my peace of mind. And I was back amidst the celebrations, lighting incense for the honourable spirits. Entertainment was full on with fancy dress parades, drumming troupes, folk operas, lion - parades, stilt walking and a lot more.

Temples are the hub of all activities. They are all decked up with colorful pretty lanterns, buntings, bamboo trees,  plants and goodies. The air is festive amidst chanting, people lighting incense sticks and burning paper money .

'Celebrate Zongyuan' is written on top of the poles so that spirits can locate their address easily and not get lost!

The Grand Finale & Balle Balle

During the day, we saw locals were all rushing towards the Taipei County port of Keelung, the centre of spectacular extravaganza. When we reached it seemed the entire city had landed there, waiting for lion-parade, singing and dancing troupes, fireworks and a lot more activities. Salute to the President official ceremony and then three hour long delightful show appeasing visiting ancestors and the ghosts's spirits! Guess what, there was an Indian troupe too, singing and dancing to balle balle and that gave so much joy.

Releasing Of Water Lanterns!

The celebrations do not get over yet. In the evening, the scene shifts to the Port of Keelung for another beautiful Ceremony called 'Releasing Of  Water Lanterns'. As the night progresses, the beach gets packed with people  carrying paper houses which are full of offerings like fake money, furniture, and other utility items, of course all made of paper. At midnight, they light these house models with a flaming torch, line up at the shores and gently release them in water. They look pretty floating on the waves before disappearing in oblivion. The philosophy behind this tradition is again very interesting - 'these homes are sent to the spirits with a message that they have homes in this world so they need not get restless and lost.'

Snatching Of Flag Competition

I thought the midnight ceremony would be the grand finale, sending off the well fed ghosts and spirits. But no, Gates are not closed yet! There is another ceremony called 'The Snatching Of The Flag Competition with the Ghosts' at Toucheng, Yilan County. In this 'Grappling With The Ghosts', as they call it, the groups, mainly enthusiastic youngsters climb up tall Flag towers and poles made of latticed bamboo to ward off the ghosts.

Bid Farewell!

Finally the time comes to give the spirits a 'farewell meal'. So more food and more goodies in the last supper, signalling Gate Closing ! This lavish farewell party is to indicate their moment has come to return to their world. A special deity is invited in the temples , Zhongkuei who is supposed to escort the spirits back to their zone and not disturb the living ones till they are welcome next year. And to ensure they do not return before their allotted month, lot of taboos are followed. All auspicious events like weddings, buying new cars, are a complete no . Even surgeries are not undertaken by many. More important, no swimming in the lake, river or sea as ghosts may  kidnap you. No whistling in the night as the spirits may follow your sound . And  leaving no clothes outside as ghosts may take them. Stay away from late night parties as you may bump into them....!!!!

And most importantly, For God's sake, don't call them Ghosts at this time of the year, remember they are good brothers. Or else, they will not leave you.

The whole experience touched a common chord somewhere.  Back home in my part of the country, we follow 'Shraadh', paying homage to our ancestors' spirits. Away from home, in this Asian country, I am thinking of the common faith and profound cultural values. Though not to the generous level of feeding dead enemies! Or abstaining from late parties!

I have been fortunate to witness the fascinating Festival twice in Taiwan. July - August is the Ghost Month, oh no no, 'Good Brothers' Month. Remember to meet them kindly if you visit around this time!

Sharmila Chand is an author and independent journalist

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