One of the best places in Montreal to be at dusk this month is the Botanical Gardens. Every evening as it gets dark, the gardens light up with hundreds of lanterns and colours, marking another year of the Gardens of Light Lantern Festival.
Upon first step in the Gardens, apart from a few posters, there is little to indicate that there is a special exhibit. However, when walking along the footpaths deeper into the Botanical Gardens, the viewer begins to catch glimpses of light through the trees, until rounding a corner and appearing suddenly in the middle of the spectacular structures glowing from the inside out. The lanterns are unexpectedly beautiful and intricate.
These lanterns are in the Chinese Garden, one of the two exhibits of the festival. Originally used to celebrate the Chinese New Year, the Botanical Gardens in Montreal uses the lanterns to celebrate the harvest period, or Moon Festival. This year’s theme depicts the life of the ‘Son of Heaven,’ the title given to each Chinese Emperor during the Han dynasty. The lights portray images from the life of an Emperor—such as his wedding or enthronement—although one doesn’t need to be familiar with this history to appreciate the magic of the multicoloured lanterns. Among the luminous lanterns are life-sized cranes, Chinese dragons, and human figures playing instruments and riding bikes. The biggest feature of the exhibit was the illuminated Forbidden City, floating on the lake in the middle of the Gardens. It looked surreal; the intricate details and sheer size of the lanterns were almost psychadelic, making passersby feel shrunken in comparison.
Throughout the Chinese Garden are panels of information on the different lanterns, what they represent, and the process that goes into assembling them annually. The production process of the festival requires an exorbitant amount of effort and detail. The Gardens of Light takes a year to organize, and the lanterns are all handmade in Shanghai and shipped to Montreal in July. After this, the set-up in the Botanical Gardens takes almost a month to execute.
Around the bend of the lake, the Chinese Garden ends, making way for the next exhibit: The Japanese Garden. Here, the atmosphere grew calmer as the lanterns grew fewer, and nature became more predominant thematically. Instead of lanterns passively illuminating their surroundings, the trees were lit up from below in subtle shades of green, pink, and blue, bringing out every detail in the branches and leaves. A series of bamboo poles emit circles of pale yellow light from within. Another feature was the Zen garden, a flat surface of gravel with flowing, continuous lines drawn across it, representing water ripples. True to its name, the minimalist patterns and simplicity of the Zen garden has a calming effect. Throughout the Japanese Garden, hidden speakers played ambient sounds, inducing the viewers to slow down to appreciate the mood.
The Gardens were incredibly well presented. No light bulbs or cables were visible, which made it look like the light was produced on its own. Though there were lots of people at the exhibit, it never felt crowded. When taken slowly, the gardens only took an hour and a half to walk through in its entirety. The beauty of the whole exhibit exceeds expectations, and the experience is magical from beginning to end.
The Gardens of Light are open until Oct. 31st from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and the student entrance fee is $15 with a McGill ID card. To learn more, visit their website here.