A Nighttime Pilgrimage 天神取火神秘遊

Text and Image by Na’U 圖/文



In darkness we followed the village elders, led by an impromptu chieftain. Each with a bundle of bamboo cuttings, we gingerly made our way along a narrow mountain path toward a “water-and-fire spring” to fetch fire. This sacred fount is on the Tun’abana Trail about 3 kilometers from the Cha-Shan tribal village. There a fire burns continuously [fueled by a natural gas seep into the freshwater spring]. According to the village’s elderly mayor, Li Yu-yen (李玉燕), the fire has gone out only once since she was a young child, during Typhoon Morakot in 2009 when waters swelled and the flames were swept under.

茶山村位於台灣嘉義縣阿里山鄉的「珈雅瑪」, CaYaMaVana 為鄒族原住民語古名,意指為「山腰上的平原」。隨處可見的涼亭,是茶山最大特色, 每戶門口搭建的木雕門板各異其趣,從圖騰刻劃是獵人揹山豬、或是戴斗笠耕作,就能研判家屋是屬於哪個族群。從小就生長在茶山的老村長說明,鄒族以前習俗室內葬,屋內不得喧譁干擾祖靈,因此各種喜慶及狩獵分享都在屋外涼亭舉行。鄒族以「分享」精神維繫部落,過去一旦有人捕獲獵物帶回部落,不是只供自己家人吃,而是邀請全部落一起分享 。每年年底,茶山部落舉辦「涼亭節」,傳承鄒族的分享文化,並將這份獨特的分享文化發揚給更多人感受了解。

In the Alishan mountain range of Taiwan’s Jia-Yi County, the village of Cha-Shan is nestled in a CaYaMaVana, a Tsou tribal dialect term referring to a mountain dell. Scattered about the village are its distinctive open-air pavilions. Each village dwelling displays rich and varied carvings on its wooden doors. The totem-like carvings reveal the family’s ancestry, such as a hunter carrying a wild boar on his back, or a toiling farmer wearing a sun hat. The mayor, who grew up in the village, explained that in the old days Tsou people kept the remains of their dead within the family abode. To avoid disturbing the ancestors in their eternal slumber, outdoor pavilions were built specifically to host communal feasts in celebration of holidays or successful hunts. The spirit of sharing is fundamental to Tsou tribal alliance and connections. In the past, bounty from hunting expeditions was brought home not only to feed one’s own, but also to share with the entire village. Nowadays, at the end of each year the Cha-Shan tribe holds a “Pavilion Festival” to express a sharing spirit at once unique and important to the tribal culture, and in so doing promotes wider understanding of its cultural heritage.


Cha-Shan’s 2016 Pavilion Festival featured a CaYaMaVana treasure hunt! A treasure map marked the route. Following clues to advance through various challenges, the visiting participants reached “stops” where they experienced what the region has to offer. There were eight stops altogether: fig jelly, tea, brown sugar, millet gruel, rice pudding, camellia oil, bamboo tenders and coffee, all locally grown and produced. At each stop, a host prepared free treats to entertain the participants. The usually quiet mountain footpaths saw group after group of animated visitors streaming through. The adventure yielded surprises, good cheer and contented smiles, and concluded with many a full stomach and sacks of local specialties. The tribe’s sharing culture was alive and well, one could testify, remembering the taste and enjoyment at all the stops along the way! Having partaken of its generosity, we were ever more intrigued come nightfall by Cha-Shan’s mysterious ceremony—a quest for fire.


The fire ceremony originated from tribal legends about the Great Flood. As legends tell it, the earth fell into utter darkness after the Flood extinguished every fire. All the animals were summoned together to select a brave adventurer who could journey to the Creator on a mission to retrieve fire. The first volunteer was a black bulbul songbird. He did not succeed, alas, and his formerly resplendent plumage did not survive the journey either. His feathers were singed and scorched and his beak and feet were burnt to a ruby red, and that’s the reason black bulbuls now look the way they do. In the end it was a lowly house sparrow who accomplished the mission, thanks to her stunning speed. The sparrow’s truncated beak was a casualty from carrying the fiery cargo. As an agreed-upon reward, generation after generation of sparrows have been welcome to feed on humans’ millet crops and to this day they can be seen darting and swooping over the cultivated fields.


Still in pitch blackness we continued along the path listening to the unfolding stories of a mythical past. Finally reaching the “water-and-fire spring,” the group stood in a semicircle. The chieftain was the first to light his kindling, and with it he went around and lit the bundles of bamboo cuttings we each held. One, then two, then three… a heart-warming glow swelled as more flames were ignited and gradually dispelled the feeling of loneliness and dread that hovered around the edges of dark night. With burning torches along the entire column, we retraced our steps while pondering our common roots in renewed camaraderie. On the way back, each of us fussed over the precious flame to make sure it did not go out! One participant wondered aloud that modern electricity had made it all too easy. This evening was a welcome experience. It helped appreciate bygone hardships and the amount of communal effort it took to procure fire, to stay alive. At the same time we gained a deeper understanding of the native Taiwanese people and their reverence for Nature.


Finally, light returned to the Flood-darkened earth! Under our watchful eyes, the precious fire was brought back to the village where everyone welcomed us with open arms. In high spirits they then formed a circle to dance in a ritual of gratitude.


Translated by Wen Si-ding 溫思定 譯