Lotus Lantern Festival in Korea

On 16th December 2020, the Lotus Lantern Festival, also known as Yeon Deung Hoe, entered UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list. Elements on this list are recognised as being instrumental to cultural diversity and traditions.

The annual Yeon Deung Hoe festival boasts a massive display of colourful lanterns and unites the community through inclusive lantern parades and traditional cultural activities. 

Annual lantern festival to celebrate Buddha’s birthday

Lotus Lantern Festival Korea - Cheonggyecheon
Lantern display at Cheonggyecheon
Image credit: @mkim84

The Lotus Lantern Festival marks the birth of Buddha, which falls on 8th April according to the lunar calendar. The Korean name for the festival, 연등회 (yeon-deung-hwe), can be broken down as follows: “Yeon Deung” refers to “lighting a lantern”, and it metaphorically means “lighting up one’s heart and the world”. “Hwe” means “festival”.

Lotus Lantern Festival Korea - Jogyesa Temple
Lantern display at Jogyesa Temple
Image credit: @boktree_official

During the festival, people light lanterns to wish for happiness and peace and to gain forgiveness and wisdom – all of which are traits that Buddha bears.

Lotus Lantern Festival Korea - Cheonggyecheon
Lantern display at Cheonggyecheon
Image credit: @theronapei

From April till May, you’ll get to see traditional lanterns, made of hanji (Korean paper), illuminate the streets and temples in Seoul. These displays are mainly seen at Cheonggyecheon, where the entire river is lined with colourful lanterns.

Lotus Lantern Festival Korea - Cheonggyecheon
Lantern display at Cheonggyecheon
Image credit: @leejinse

Lotus Lantern Festival Korea - Lion and elephant lanterns
Lion and elephant lanterns
Image adapted from: @jjiwin

The lit lanterns often take the shape of historical figures and culturally-significant animals, such as dragons, peacocks, elephants, and lions. Some of these lanterns can even move and spew fire.

Lotus Lantern Festival Korea - Fire-breathing lanterns
Fire-breathing lanterns at Gwanghwamun Square
Image adapted from: @hello_akii and @jjiwin

Buddhist temples in Seoul, such as Jogyesa Temple and Bongeunsa Temple, are also beautifully decorated with rows of rainbow lanterns to celebrate the special occasion.

Lotus Lantern Festival Korea - Rainbow lanterns
Image credit: @win.dy

Jogyesa temple is also the location for the Yeondeungnori, which is the finale of the festival where dancers perform with handheld lanterns.

Lotus Lantern Festival Korea - Yeondeungnori
Image credit: @gwanghwamun_blues

Even temples outside of Seoul also partake in the festive occasion by decorating their premises with lanterns.

Lotus Lantern Festival Korea - Chuncheon Samwunsa Temple
Chuncheon Samwunsa Temple during the Lotus Lantern Festival
Image adapted from: @slrlover

Festival tradition dates back to 57 B.C.

Lotus Lantern Festival Korea - Buddha lantern
Image credit: @ha_zin52

The Lotus Lantern Festival first started all the way back in the Silla Dynasty (57 BC-935 AD). Records from the Silla Dynasty showed that this yearly event was held at Hwangnyongsa Temple in Gyeongju. It was an event of religious significance and mainly celebrated by Buddhists.

Lotus Lantern Festival Korea - Pal Gwan Hoe
Goryeo Dynasty’s Pal Gwan Hoe, the historical version of the Lotus Lantern Festival.
Image credit: Unicef

The tradition was passed down for generations, lasting around 1200 years through the Goryeo and Joseon era.

Lotus Lantern Festival Korea - Lantern parade
Image credit: @gwanghwamun_blues

In the past, the festival was known as 관등놀이 (gwan-deung-nori) and 팔관놀이 (pal-gwan-nori). People would marvel at lighted lanterns passing through the streets. The sights would have been similar to the Lantern Parade at Jongno Street, which is held during the Lotus Lantern Festival.

Lotus Lantern Festival Korea - Temple homestay
Image credit: Yeon Deung Hoe

Nowadays, the festival has become more participatory and people can experience a wide variety of cultural activities, such as traditional painting, making your own lanterns, and experiencing a temple stay.

Upcoming 2021 Lotus Lantern Festival

Lotus Lantern Festival Korea - 2021 Yeon Deung HoeImage credit: @sungjun.na

The 2021 edition of Yeon Deung Hoe will feature a special exhibition to commemorate the festival’s inclusion on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List. The main festival activities will be held from 14th May 2021 to 16th May 2021, while lantern displays will be up in April 2021.

Visit their official website for more details.

Check out other places in Korea: 

Cover image adapted from: @slrlover, @mkim84, and @win.dy

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