Taoist festivals don't get much bigger, brighter or more spectacular than Taiwan's Burning of the Wang Yeh Boats. Every three years in October or November, the southern port town of Donggang feasts and fetes a handful of Chinese gods for nine days before sending them off to heaven in a fiery blaze aboard a Chinese junk. (Robert Kelly)
Boat burning festivals, created as a ritual to ward off disease, began during China's Song Dynasty (960 to 1276). The festivals have long died out in China but remain vibrant in many southern Taiwanese communities including Donggang, where the Donglong Temple hosts Taiwan's largest and most famous boat burning festival.
Preparation for the 2012 festival (running 14 to 21 October) started a year in advance with the construction of a 15m-long handcrafted traditional wood junk.
The festival begins with a beachside ceremony to invite the plague-protecting gods (known as the Wang Yeh, or Royal Lords) back to Earth. Expect to see esoteric and detailed rituals, traditional dancing and mediums in the wild throes of spirit possession. Pictured here, Wang Yeh bearers walk over fire to purify themselves before entering the Donglong Temple.
During the festival, the boat is pulled around town to absorb the disease and misfortune of the local communities. The boat is then loaded with goods such as rice and money for its journey back to heaven and the temple guardians hold a sublime final feast for the Royal Lords. Believers in Wang Yeh write their hopes and fears on paper that will later be burned with the boat.
On the last day of the festival, the boat is hauled to the beach and set atop a mound of ghost paper (special paper burned as offerings to gods and ancestors). Sails and anchors are secured while Taoist priests perform rituals to invite the Royal Lords aboard the ship. The boat is then set ablaze at dawn. Wang Yeh worshippers often flee the scene lest their souls be taken up with the gods, but most of the tens of thousands of spectators will remain to watch the weird beauty of a ship consumed by flames.