Sky lanterns in Taiwan’s Shifen village carry tourists’ wishes to the Gods (Travelogue)

Taipei, Oct 27 (IANS) The fusion of two activities — signalling against bandits and sending up wishes and prayers during the Chinese New Year — has resulted in tourists flying lanterns to the Gods in Shifen village in Taiwan.

Lined up along the narrow gauge railway track in the mountainous Shifen village in the Pingxi district near Taipei are shops selling huge single- or four-colour paper lanterns.

Hundreds of tourists buy these lanterns (shaped like a big inverted basket) and pen down their wishes/requests to the Gods. A few moments later, after the shopkeeper lights up the lantern’s fuel sheets (thick paper dipped in diesel), the tourists let go of the lanterns which slowly rise high up into the skies.

“At night the lit lanterns look like big fireflies, with the mountains in the background,” Francis Hu, a Taiwan Tourism Bureau authorised tourist guide, told IANS.

According to tourist literature, in the 19th century, when the settlements first came up, life was relatively peaceful and prosperous – only occasionally disturbed by bandits who raided the villages soon after harvest.

To avoid the bandits, the Shifen villagers retreated to the mountains with their farm produce. A few days later a scout would be sent to the village to survey the area for the presence of bandits. He would send up a lantern signalling that the area was safe and free of bandits for the villagers to return.

As for the history of the sky lanterns, it is said that they were closely associated with Chinese statesman Zhuge Liang who apparently used to send up sky lanterns as military signals and also to confuse the enemy’s readings of celestial bodies.

Tourist guide Hu said that during the Chinese New Year, people used to write their wishes/prayers on a lantern at their homes. But this lantern was not sent up into the skies. “Over a period of time, the practice of writing down wishes on lanterns and sending them up got fused, which is now a great tourist attraction,” Hu added.

“Please let me ace my exams,” a student sent her prayer to her God through a lantern.

Now, the lantern festival forms a part of the New Year celebrations when several thousand people gather at Shifen village to send up their lanterns.

“We sell around 20 lanterns per day. We make the lanterns ourselves while the paper is sourced from outside,” lantern-seller Liad Jiahuei told IANS.

She said tourists, irrespective of their nationality or religion, send up the paper lanterns, most of which burn for around 10 minutes. A four-colour lantern costs around Taiwan $200 (USD6.5) and a single-colour lantern is priced at Taiwan $150.

Whenever a narrow gauge train passes through the region, the lantern activity comes to a standstill. “Every hour there will be a train” and we stop sending up the lanterns so that they do not hinder the rail transport or vice versa, Hu said.

One other attraction of the Shifen village is the Shifen waterfall – Taiwan’s largest such that can be reached by a short walk from the parking lot. Shaped somewhat like a horse shoe, it resembles a miniaturised Niagara Falls.

The pool below the Shifen waterfall is called the Rainbow Pool as on clear days, the moisture above the pool is conducive for a rainbow’s formation.

(Venkatachari Jagannathan was in Taiwan at the invitation of Scoot Airlines and Taiwan Tourism Bureau. He can be reached at v.jagannathan@ians.in)

–IANS

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