Where Sun, Moon Are Home
Taiwan is a hidden gem in the heart of Asia, discovers Smita Tripathi
Why Taiwan?” asked friends when I informed them of my pending trip. “Why not?” I countered. “You are hardly into tech and unlikely to buy electronics, so what else?” they asked. They were clearly imagining a country full of factories and malls. Not surprising, considering Taiwan’s hi-tech export-led economy has rendered ‘Made in Taiwan’ a globally recognisable label.
Few knew that Taiwan was referred to as Ilha Formosa, meaning beautiful isle by passing Portuguese mariners in the 15th century, so mesmerised were they with the lakes, forests and mountains that make the natural landscape of the island. Or that today the country’s official name is the Republic of China (RoC).
Their vision was far removed from my surroundings at the Sun Moon Lake, so named because an aerial view of the lake appears to be the Chinese letters for sun and moon. The view of the shimmering waters of the lake in southern Taiwan surrounded by mountains is almost meditative.
As my boat gently cruised on the water, Charles, my guide for the trip pointed to a beautiful pagoda built high up on a hill. The Tsen Pagoda built by Chiang-Kai Shek — a political and nationalist leader who ruled Taiwan till his death in 1975 — in memory of his mother, rises up to a 1000 sq ft above sea level and provides great views of the lake and the surrounding mountains provided you are willing to climb several stories.
Shek and Taiwan have a fascinating history, said Charles. The island, floating on the outer edge of Asia surrounded by the East China Sea, the Philippines Sea and the South China Sea, was inhabited by Taiwanese aborigines before it was colonised by the Dutch and then the Spanish in the 17th century. It came under Japanese rule after the Qing Dynasty lost the Sino-Japanese War in 1895. It continued under Japanese rule till the mid-1940s and post-World War II Shek set up a government in Taiwan. Taiwan’s cultural heritage is therefore a blend of Taiwanese, traditional Chinese and Japanese.
We got a taste of it as we walked down streets lined with cherry blossom trees, celebrating Sakura season, a clear nod to several decades of Japanese influence over Taiwan.
To get a better understanding of Taiwan’s culture and heritage we made our way to the Southern Branch of the National Palace Museum in Chiayi County. While the National Palace Museum with over 600,000 exhibits sits in Taipei and is one of the top ten museums in the world, its southern branch was set up in 2015 with the aim to achieve cultural equity between the northern and southern regions of Taiwan. The museum focusses on the interconnectedness of Asian cultures depicted through various things such as tea, textiles, ceramics and Buddhism. So you have a Japanese tea room, porcelain tea pots from China and beautiful crockery all depicting the journey of tea from China to across the world. The textile exhibits have batik from Indonesia, embroidery from Kashmir, weaves from Banares along with sarongs from Java and coats from Mangolia.
But undoubtedly the most fascinating exhibits are in the hall devoted to Buddhism. From having parts of a gate at the Sanchi stupa to several busts of Buddha to wall art and Tankha paintings, the hall depicts not only how Buddhism spread over centuries but also how Buddhist art varied from region to region. I was amazed to see a statue of a Maitreya Buddha from Pakistan from the 3rd century where Buddha looked more like a prince or a noble man complete with jewellery, royal robes, a moustache and wavy hair. Placed as it was adjacent to a bronze Buddha head from 17th-century Burma, the contrast was even more stark.
Know Your Fortune
Taiwan is a spiritual sanctuary and is highly diversified in terms of religious belief with practices of Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. However, majority of the population is Buddhist (nearly 35 per cent) or practices Taoism (around 33 per cent). The country is dotted with beautiful temples and shrines. What’s unique is that most temples practice all three traditions — Buddhism, Taoism and folk religions.
We walked into one and were mesmerised with the decorations. The roof was laden with mosaic dragons, tigers, flowers, and even some human figures. The pillars were extensively carved and the doors were painted. Inside, we were greeted with the sweet smell of incense.
Charles asked us if we wanted to seek divine intervention through Chinese fortune sticks. It’s way more exciting than popping open a cookie and reading your fortune. You start by telling God your name, address (yes he needs to know to ensure there’s no ambiguity) and your wish. You then roll a pair of divination blocks that have a flat surface on one side and are rounded on the other. If one block has the flat side up and the other the rounded side up then God says yes and you pull out a fortune stick. If both the flat sides are up, then God simply smiles at you and if both the rounded sides are up then God says no. But it’s not that simple. You have to keep rolling till God says yes, three times in a row. Only after that can you read your fortune!
The centre of Buddhism in southern Taiwan is Fo Guang Shan, a 45 minute drive from the port city of Kaohsiung. Founded in 1967 by Master Hsing Yun, a proponent of Humanistic Buddhism, the immense complex has massive pagodas, a giant golden Buddha statue and a small but interesting museum of Buddha artefacts. Monks and nuns show you around and help your understanding of Buddhism.
The restaurant attached to the complex serves pure vegetarian cuisine referred to as monk food — a saving grace for vegetarian travellers. Though the Taiwanese love their food and the night markets with several foodstalls selling everything from stewed pork rice to beef noodle soup is where all the action is, vegetarian food is difficult to come across. So if you are a vegetarian, do look for monk food.
As I was about to board my flight back to India, a tourism board poster caught my eye — Taiwan: The Heart of Asia. I couldn’t agree more.