Taiwan aboriginals strive to keep Pasta'ay ritual alive

The Grand Pasta’ay festival kicked off this year at two complementary and overlapping sites in Miaoli and Hsinchu counties.

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The Grand Pasta'ay festival kicked off this year at two complementary and overlapping sites in Miaoli and Hsinchu counties.

The Pasta'ay rite takes place during the full moon in the 10th lunar month every two years and the grand Pasta'ay is held every 10 years, which happened to be this year. The ritual ceremony consists of a three-day singing and dancing ceremony from sundown to sunrise, and is said to have been carried out for as long as 400 years.

(photo courtesy of Michael Geier)

(photo courtesy of Michael Geier)

A unique feature of Pasta'ay lies in it being a ceremony not for harvest but for reconciliation. According to legend, the Saisiyat long ago massacred a neighboring tribe of people called the Ta'ay, a mythical pygmy race known as the short black people. Those short people were both feared and admired by the Saisiyat, as they were thought to have magical powers and helped the Saisiyat tribe in developing their agricultural skills, but they also had bad tempers, and often flirted with Saisiyat women, angering the men.

(photo courtesy of Michael Geier)

The Saisiyat had a secret meeting and decided to exact revenge by making a trap and chopping the bridge that the little people used to cross over and put mud on it. Not knowing of the ruse, most of the the Ta'ay were walking on the bridge when it suddenly collapsed into the canyon, killing all but two of them. The spirits of the tiny people put a curse on the Saisiyat: if the Saisiyat did not remember them, then they too would face extinction.

To appease the spirits of the deceased, the tribe expiates its sins and pays tribute to the pygmies via Pasta'ay.

(photo courtesy of Tony Coolidge)

Unlike the regular biennial Pasta'ay, the Grand Pasta'ay is the only festival during which the Saisiyat bring out the "sinaton," a long pole with red and white flags which can only be seen every ten years. The procedure of making and destroying it is kept from most of the people which puts a mysterious veil on it and draws participants' eyes when it is carried into the dance circle.

Visitors are required to receive grass armbands before stepping in the Festival Ground, which serve the dual purpose of warding off evil spirits and welcoming them as friends.

The singing and dancing started at 6 p.m. sharp with married women of the tribe holding fire torch marching into the field, flowed by men and women wearing the kilakil and tapangasan, a clan symbol and traditional heap bell, respectively.

The marathon communion of nonstop dancing and singing lasts for 12 hours and only ends at the break of dawn. After hundreds of years, the Saisiyat still carry out traditions in the way their ancestors had wanted. The unity of the Saisiyat community can be sensed in the air as the dawn breaks and the dancers wind down.

Video of the Saisiyat people clanging bells and beads attached to their backs to commune with the spirits of the Ta'ay.

Later in the evening, tourists joined the Saisiyat dancers in running around in constantly morphing circles.