Sigang Festival: Friday May 8th, 2009

A vendor of ghost money and incense near Cing-an Temple.

The offering table at Cing-an Temple is loaded with ghost money and other gifts.

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On Friday, Shu-min drove our family with her motor scooter to visit the Cing-an Temple in the center of Sigang. The first thing I noticed as I stepped out into a courtyard in front of the temple, was that it was being swept by two ladies. It seemed unusual, since people cleaning public spaces was not the norm. I noticed more people with old-fashioned straw brooms walking around seven very tall bamboo posts. The walked single file between the posts, touching each one as they walked past. As soon as they completed a path around each one and back again, they went on their way towards the temple. Having swept away the problems of the past, they could pray for a better year.

Two women sweeping a parking lot in front of the temple.

Two women sweeping a parking lot in front of the temple.

Worshippers walked in single file around 7 bamboo poles in front of the temple.

Worshippers walked in single file around 7 bamboo poles in front of the temple.

Each bamboo pole is touched as they are passed.

Each bamboo pole is touched as they are passed.

I followed the crowds to the Cing-an Temple and examined their gathering spots. As I approached, the air became pungent with the smell of incense. Most people gathered at the main prayer area, which was located to the left of the main entrance. In this area was an offering table in front of an alcove housing a Taoist deity. The tables were stuffed full of offerings of visiting worshippers, including ghost money, straw brooms, food, flowers and incense. It was a buffet of color and texture. Many people lit their incense sticks, got on their knees and prayed, bowing several times at the end. Afterwards, they placed the incense into a large brass urn and visited the next station. I happened upon a Taoist monk next to the main prayer area holding a donation box, knowing that with the thousands of visitors coming to the temple, this was the best time to fill the coffers.

The main prayer area in front of the Royal Ship near the main entrance.

The main prayer area in front of the deity near the main entrance.

A worshipper praying with a stick of incense.

A worshipper praying with a stick of incense.

A Taoist monk soliciting donations from visitors.

A Taoist monk soliciting donations from visitors.

I explored the temple further for details I had not experienced on my previous visits. The most obvious new feature was the brightly painted Royal Ship housed in a shelter to the left of the temple. This ship took weeks to build and decorate before the festival, and after the festival, it would take mere moments for it to be consumed by flames. People lined up to walk around the ship on a path known as the dragon-tiger path. One enters the dragon’s mouth and leaves from the tiger’s mouth. Once they make the journey around the ship, they light incense and pray to the ship, which will carry their wishes to the heavens at the end of the festival. The main entrance in front of the temple was guarded by ceremonial soldiers. As each procession visiting from another temple arrived, they would announce the arrival of their visiting deity with a performance and fireworks. Each temple had its own special performance, and people lined up in this area to watch the show. After their short performance ended, they were allowed into the temple to pay respects to the deity inside.

The Royal Ship was built and housed in a shelter next to the temple.

The Royal Ship was built and housed in a shelter next to the temple.

Main entrance to the temple.

Main entrance to the temple.

A procession visiting from another township.

A procession visiting from another township.

One of many processions visiting the temple.

One of many processions visiting the temple.

A vendor of ghost money and other religious items.

A vendor of ghost money and other religious items.

A visiting procession at the temple gate.

A visiting procession at the temple gate.

Volunteers line up inside the Cing-an Temple.

Volunteers line up inside the Cing-an Temple.

An incense urn in the front of the temple.

An incense urn in the front of the temple.

Close-up of an incense urn.

Close-up of an incense urn.

The inside the Cing-an Temple was dark, stoic, and relatively quiet, a stark contrast to the bustle of activity outside. I explored for some interesting shots, and also to find a little peace. I admired the intricate artwork throughout the temple, depicting the Taoist principles. The most interesting pieces to me were found near the back of the temple, in the area reserved for the deities of hell. There were many relief sculptures on the wall reminding worshippers what would happened if they sinned and were not faithful to a moral life. All manners of torture to one’s soul were carved in such detail, as to make sure impress upon people to take the warnings seriously. It was definitely a message I would not soon forget.

A Taoist relief sculpture

A Taoist relief sculpture

A Taoist relief sculpture depicting hell.

A Taoist relief sculpture depicting hell.

A Taoist relief sculpture depicting hell's gatekeeper.

A Taoist relief sculpture depicting hell's gatekeeper.

Back outside, I couldn’t help but notice the piles of bright yellow stacks of paper wrapped in string. I soon learned of the importance of “ghost money” to this culture. You could frequently see people burning “ghost money” in small fires in front of their homes and offices. At this festival, “ghost money” was for sale and offered by the truckloads. In stalls all along the side of Cing-an Temple, piles of ghost money and other red and gold trinkets were for sale. With the mass of people visiting, they were selling fast. In a small alley beside the Cing-an Temple, I spotted a bulldozer shoveling a warehouse full of ghost money into trucks. At the back of the temple, people lined up to toss their stacks of ghost money into the offering furnace. Money was burned symbolically to give to their ancestors as a way of paying respects and to thank them in their afterlife.

One of the two incinerators at the back of Cing-an Temple.

One of the two incinerators at the back of Cing-an Temple.

Burning ghost money

Burning ghost money

Ceremonial brooms offered.

Ceremonial brooms offered.

A bin stuffed with ghost money.

A bin stuffed with ghost money.

Ghost money on the offering table.

Ghost money on the offering table.

Bulldozer shovels ghost money into trucks.

Bulldozer shovels ghost money into trucks.

Friday night, the activity in Sigang really picked up. People streamed into town to experience the sights and the sounds. The street vendors were hawking all manner of food, drink and even toys for kids. The aroma of local Taiwanese dishes filled the air, mingling with the sulfurous fumes of fireworks. Crowds of Taiwanese tourists were shoulder-to-shoulder along the sides of the roads, jostling to catch a good view of the religious processions filing past. I even spotted Japanese tourists and an occasional Westerner, which you just don’t see in this small town. The fireworks were quite spectacular for a township of this size. I imagined Sigang must have received government funding for that expense.

Crowds and food vendors in Sigang.

Crowds and food vendors in Sigang.

Shu-min talks to an event volunteer.

Shu-min talks to an event volunteer.

Friday night street scene.

Friday night street scene.

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