were, we had been informed, gathered around the island. A ceremony
would be held I which a bridge would be built to allow them to cross.
Among the, the Master had solemnly informed me, was a relative of mine
who had died in war. I didn't believe at all. It seemed a fairly
unlikely possibility that my Grandfather's brother – dead many years
before I was even born, dead before my father had even met, let alone
married, my mother – would be following me around waiting for my help
in crossing over.
Still the other people at the island, the devotees, all believed that
the spirits of their ancestors were hovering around unseen, waiting to
cross the bridge and I was interested enough in the ceremony and
culture to return to the island as an observer of the practice.
We arrived back at about seven O'clock. People there had finished
eating their evening meal and were gathered at the temple. Our hosts
welcomed us back and we were asked to buy five candles to light –
three at the temple and two at a tent that had been erected further
down the hill in front of the partially completed new temple.
We did so and were then given some large bundles of yellow paper that
were symbolic money that we would burn later to assist our ancestors
in their afterlives.
After a quick meal – which they insisted that we take, and insisted
that we eat completely – we returned to the ceremony. Master Jin and
the other monks were preparing themselves in the temple. Devotees were
approaching the steps with their offerings: bundles of the spirit
money; large paper packages containing prayers; gifts for the dead.
We asked what the procedure would be.
"We will go to the entrance to the island and burn the money." we were
told. "Then we will come back down for the ceremony when the souls and
the ghosts will cross the bridge."
While things were continuing I walked down the hill to the "bridge".
People were still in the process of constructing it – a structure
about twenty metres long consisting of wires and coloured paper.
Cloth, or perhaps heavy paper roles in white and yellow to symbolise
silver and gold, were being rolled out along it, hanging about three
feet above the ground.
Back at the temple things were happening.
Master Jin let the entire assembly up the path to the entrance to the
island. Here a large fire had been lit.
"Burn only half the money" advised Aaron. "The rest we will burn at
the crossing over ceremony."
When everyone had finished burning half their money and the parcels
that they had been carrying the procession returned to the temple
where prayers began again while the monks changed into different robes
of embroidered yellow silk.
Then we went down to the spirit bridge where everyone gathered in a
crowd outside the tent. Inside Master Jin was chanting. She had the
sword from the morning to drive away any evil spirits that would try
to disrupt the ceremony. When she had finished the devotees crowded
forward to collect the paper prayers that they had written earlier in
the day, which they would burn with the rest of the "money".
We asked what remained.
"We will walk around the bridge three times and then burn the money."
said Aaron. Then it will be time to go home.
Before that however there was a procession around the bridge by the
monks who circled the bridge and finally came to a halt halfway along
one side of it. Master Jin sat while there was more singing and
chanting. Then she rose and carrying a bowl in which there was a fire
– alcohol or spirit based – from the blue flame – circled the bridge.
Here motion was gliding and smooth and as she went she dipped her
fingers into the bowl, lifting the flame away with them and flicking
it into the air. She placed the bowl at the head of the bridge and
then repeated it with a fresh bowl to place at the foot of the bridge.
Then we started to circle the bridge together. At both ends fires were
burning in which more spirit money was being burned. We were told to
hold onto our money as there are several different kinds of spirit
money and ours would be burned later.
Asking again what remained we were told that there would be a brief
return to the temple and then we would come back to the bridge where
there would be food spread out for the ghosts on their journey. After
that we would burn the money.
I couldn't help noticing that every time we asked there was a new step
in the procedure and it was already getting quite late and with the
night the weather had turned rather colder.
We went back to the temple and came back to the bridge and, after more
chanting food was spread out from plates carried by monks. Everyone
gathered in small groups and started to burn their remaining paper
money. Little fires filled the whole area. While we had been back to
the temple the spirit bridge had been removed so that the whole field
was filled with small fires. We started our own and burned our money.
"Now," we were told, "They will launch the boat upon the river."
The boat had been previously unmentioned.
It was a wooden boat about a metre long with carved figures inside.
They carried it down from the houses to the fires. Before they could
launch it, it had to be decorated. This proceeded slowly with candles
in the shape of flowers and paper garlands being added to the
structure. When it was complete Todd was invited to join those
carrying it along the dark path to the river while I was given one of
the wooden tiles with a candle on it that would be floated away before
the boat was launched.
It was rapidly approaching midnight as we set off along the path. It
wasn't two dark to see as the night was clear and the half moon bright
with a hazy moon-dog ring around it. We negotiated the path with
little difficulty and I bent to launch my candle along with the
Moments later the boat was launched, though its size and lack of
buoyancy made it a trick task to get it out deep enough to be
And then it was, I thought, over. We went back up the path and
prepared to leave. There was however one more thing.
They wished to present us with gifts. In the temple we were given
chalice-like copper candle holders half filled with the butter that is
used as a fuel. We should burn them in the evening before retiring and
in the morning after rising we were told.
We crossed the pontoon bridge holding onto our gifts. In the dark and
tired to the bone it was a trickier task than it had been fresh and in
daylight but it was soon accomplished. They day was over.
It had been a long and tiring one but completely fascinating.