The Lotus Lantern Festival (Photo courtesy of Festival organizers)
Can you tell it’s festival season in Korea?
Well, if this is news to you, starting on April 24, Korea’s Buddhist community will celebrate the birth of the Buddha with an extravagant, 11-day festival of light called the Lotus Lantern Festival (연등축제). Buddha’s birthday is celebrated on the eighth day of the fourth lunar month, which, this year falls on May 2nd.
100,000 colorful lanterns in many shapes and sizes will parade through downtown Seoul (Photo courtesy of Festival organizers).
If you’ve been in Seoul lately, no doubt you’ve noticed the strings of colorful paper lanterns that line the city’s major streets, not to mention the enormous lanterns that re decorating the Cheonggyecheon (청계천), the stream that runs through central Seoul.But those are just a precursor to an expected 100,000 handmade lanterns that will decorate the city this weekend. Lanterns have a long history in Korea, with records going back as far as the Silla Kingdom. Buddhism reached its zenith as the state religion of the Goryeo Dynasty before it was supplanted by the Joseon Dynasty’s embrace of Confucianism.
Jogye Temple in downtown Seoul will feature a ceiling of paper lanterns.
Today, about one-quarter of Koreans are Buddhist, and the Jogye Order is Korea’s largest Buddhist sect. As festival hosts, they will kick off the annual celebration this Friday, when Bongeunsa Temple (봉은사) near the COEX Center will open a special exhibit of lanterns made from Korea’s exquisite traditional paper called hanji (한지). Events continue on Saturday evening, when the popular central Seoul neighborhood of Insa-dong (인사동) will host Yeondeungnori (연등놀이), an “eve celebration” featuring Korean folk music and dance.
The Lotus Lantern Festival features traditional dance and music (Photo courtesy of Festival organizers).
But the big show starts on Sunday at noon, when the streets in front of Jogyesa Temple (조계사) in downtown Seoul are filled with thousands of people enjoying food and activities. Some 100 booths will offer the chance to make a Buddhist rosary, try a rubbing of a Buddhist sutra, or even make your own lantern – which is said to help one attain enlightenment in the next life. Another area will offer a glimpse into the rich Buddhist culture of Korea’s Asian neighbors, like Japan, Sri Lanka and Indonesia.
“Temple Food” has become popular for its healthy content and simple preparation (Photo courtesy of Festival organizers).
Of course, no festival is complete without food, and the Lotus Lantern Festival will include booths specializing in “Temple Food,” a culinary art practiced since Korea’s Three Kingdoms period. The monks’ cuisine is healthy and simply prepared. Typical ingredients include home-grown vegetables, but do not include meat or five pungent ingredients said to bring on lust and bad luck, which are: garlic, leeks, green onion, wild rocambole and squill (I don’t know what that is).
The parade starts at Dongguk University Station and ends outside Jogye Temple, near Jonggak Station (Photo courtesy of Festival organizers).
At dusk the street festival makes way for the lantern parade, which is said to be Seoul’s largest street procession. From Dongguk University Station to Dongdaemun and Jogyesa Temple, Seoul’s night sky will be lit by thousands of lanterns in the shapes of dragons, pagodas, phoenixes, and, of course, lotuses. At about 9:30 pm, everything culminates with the Daedong Celebration (대동한마당). Meaning “being together,” the final event of singing and dancing at the Jonggak intersection reaches a finale at 11 pm when revelers are showered by pink lotus petals.
One particularly large lantern I captured at last year’s festival.
Although not formally part of the festivities, on May 2, a special service will be held at 10 am at local temples followed by a final lantern service at 6 pm. Bongeunsa Temple’s traditional lantern exhibit will close on May 4.