As a kid, the Lantern Festival was always a day that involved eating mooncakes and carrying my battery-operated music-enabled lanterns around a park. Hence, I was pleasantly surprised when I found out that this was not the case in South Korea. As I discovered on my holiday trip to the land of kimchi in May, the festival here is both a traditional event and a tourist-friendly cultural event celebrated with much fanfare.
The Lotus Lantern Festival, known as Yeondeunghui in Korean, is an annual festival held to celebrate the birth of Buddha. Originating from the Goryeo period in the 11th century, this traditional folk festival is still practised today. The festival was held in Seoul this year from 10th to 17th May featuring beautiful lantern displays, parades and performances that brought together locals and foreigners alike in an unforgettable cultural experience.
Display of lanterns at key sites
Since 22nd April, the streets of Seoul were decorated with colourful lanterns as a prequel to the main festivities. Lanterns are lit to symbolise the enlightenment of Buddha, and also to shed light upon oneself and the world. A paper lantern modelled after the Seokgatap of Bulguksa Temple, one of the national treasures of Korea, was lighted up at the busy road junction of Gwanghwamun Square. Lanterns in the shape of animals and pagodas made with traditional Korean paper called Hanji, also lit up the banks of the Cheongyecheon Stream. One of the must-dos when I travel is to take pictures, and the explosion of colours provided endless photo-taking opportunities for me.
Traditional dances, lantern parade among highlights
A mass prayer session and traditional dance performances were held at on 11th May at Dongguk University Stadium to kick off the main festival. Parade performers clad in traditional Korean costumes then set off for the parade at 7pm.
As night fell, a spectacular 2.5-hour lantern parade was held on the streets of Seoul. The procession of huge lantern floats made by the various Korean temples, and Hanbok-clad performers stretched for more than 4km from Dongguk University, past the popular shopping district of Dongdaemun and Insadong, before ending at Jogyesa Temple. Spectator stands were set up in front of Tapgol Park for locals and foreigners to watch the procession in comfort.
This was followed by a post-parade celebration where spectators get to enjoy more stage performances and join in the song and dance. In what is possibly the climax of the post-parade celebrations, a shower of flower petals rained down on the crowd like confetti as the event drew to a close.
On the afternoon of 12th May, booths offering various hands-on cultural activities lined the street outside Jogyesa Temple. Foreigners and locals could try out a myriad of activities such as tasting temple food, making paper lanterns and lotus flowers, and learn about the various types of Buddhism. There were also traditional Korean and Asian musical and dance performances for audiences to enjoy.
A rousing finale
After weaving my way through the thick crowd that had gathered along the street, I managed to find myself a good spot to view the final parade. At 7pm, the final celebration commenced with a procession of lantern floats and dance performances, albeit on a much smaller scale as compared to the previous night, but a sight to behold nonetheless.
As the festivities drew to a close and the crowd started to disperse, the drumbeats and the sounds of the Kkwaenggwari (a small gong used in folk performances) were still ringing in my ears. The festival opened my eyes to the rich culture of South Korea, and like the lingering sound of the instruments, the sights and experiences of the celebrations will be etched in my memory for much more than a season.