19 Feb 2008

Pilgrimage: Ma-Tzu(媽祖)& FIve Heaven's Delegate(五府千歲)

On Sunday, Feb. 17th, I had my first religious pilgrimage. It was fun, and I was so amazed at what I saw. Being a Chinese living in Taiwan for all my life, I thought I know my own culture. But after joining this pilgrimage, I realize that what I thought I know is only a small part of this great culture. The pilgrimage is not just a journey we make to visit the temple. It is in fact an expression of our sincere devotion to the Gods and our ambition to maintain cultural traditions, which is truly a visual presentation of our spiritual beliefs. Isn't this spiritual belief an inevitable element that constructs our culture? In other words, my experience is indeed an experience of the Traditional Taiwanese culture, and it guides me to have a deeper understanding of our traditional culture.

This pilgrimage is held by a temple in Ku-Shan, Kaohsiung(鼓山清雲寺). They hold this pilgrimage every year during the Chinese Lunar New Year. The main destinations are Chao Tien Temple in Peikang(北港朝天宮) and Tai Tian Temple of Nan Kwun Shen in Beimen (北門南鯤鯓代天府). On the return leg they also visit a small temple close to Nan Kwun Shen named Bao Ang Temple(蚵寮保安宮).

The journey is to take the Gods back to the temple where they are from. It is also the chance for all supporters of the temple to visit other temples and to gain good luck and good fortune. Gaining good fortunes through worshiping and visiting temples is a historical cultural tradition which derives from agricultural society long ago. However, I found that we can interpret the meaning of this journey differently. It is a trip, a trip equipped with good reasons. It would be difficult for people to go traveling in the old days due to the lack of transportation means and the hardship of living. A pilgrimage hence becomes the chance for people to release themselves shortly from difficult realities. What is interesting here is this idea is not exclusive to the old days only. What I saw on the day of our pilgrimage still shows certain levels of this idea. After praying to the Gods, almost everyone rushed to the store to buy souvenirs. Instead of considering the pilgrimage as a sacred mission, the vibe of the participants is more relaxing and entertaining.

Chao Tien Temple is always busy like this during this period of time every year, and it will last until the end of March. This temple, built in the late 17th century, is dedicated to Ma-Tzu, the Goddess of the sea, the empress of the heaven. In Taiwan, many temples for Ma-Tzu originated from this one, so all these temples have to come back here every year. Visiting their source is the root of this kind of pilgrimage. And this activity brings tons of people into this small village.
The temple is currently under refurbishment. In oder to maintain the complete look of the temple, they put a huge photo in front of it. Since this is my first time there, I was quite sad that I could not see the building. But at least the picture gives me the idea what the temple looks like. I shall visit that place again when the construction work is complete.
People are all trying to get into the main shrine. The temple is quite small, and it is interesting to see all these people (including me) trying to get into there.
When a God arrives, they will first play the drum and then the bell to welcome the God. Then the God will be removed from his/her palanquin to the table in the main shrine. The Gods stayed there for 15 minutes. I am not sure if the timing is sufficient for these Gods to chat! The interesting thing is whenever a God arrives or leaves, they always announce through the speaker where the God is from and what the God will do now.
A mix of people and different Gods.
The main shrine in Chao Tien Temple. There are in total 7 Ma-Tzu statues inside the casket.
The backyard of the temple. I love the shape of incense burners in this temple.
When we were on our way back to the buses, there are more people coming into the village. This is going to last until the end of March.

The palanquins from our group. The first one is for wooden plates, which are used to indicate the presence of the heavenly troops whose function is to work for the Gods, and the second one is for Gods.

After Chao Tien Temple, we headed to a small one named Bao Ang Temple. They went there because after a year's service, the heavenly troop has to change. So they have to visit this temple to receive another troop from the Five Heaven's Delegate.
When we got there, the leader of the group started to communicate with the Gods. This is a highly formal ritual. The leader started to move in a rhythm like dance and used all different kinds of weapons to show the divine power of the Gods. The palanquin for wooden plates would run towards the leader whenever the leader said something or set small firecrackers. After this, the palanquin ran to the table and started hitting the table. This is like coding. Then another man appeared to explain what the palanquin indicated through this action. We didn't get to see this part when we were in the previous temple, and I believe they did not practice this there, either. There were too many people, and I guess it is not allowed there. Ma-tzu has a higher status and probably it is not considered as respectful and appropriate to show any violent scenes in front of her.

Then when everything is done, all the men removed the Gods and placed them inside the temple again. For this, the process is exactly the same as when they were in the previous temple.

After a 15 minutes stay, we left that temple and went to the last one, Tai Tien Temple of Nan Kwun Shen. This temple is special for the Five Heaven's Delegate. According to the legend, they were all worriers who had great contributions to the country (or the local area). Due to their great work and good intention to the welfare of people, the Emperor of the Heaven(玉皇大帝)granted them the power and status to be the representative of himself in our world. Therefore, these Gods are also widely worshiped in Taiwan.

Nan Kwun Shen is also built in the late 17th century, and it is like the headquarters of all temples for Heaven's Delegate. It is huge and the decoration in the temple is such a precious artwork. Unfortunately, the temple is also under renovation now, and they are in the process of building another temple dedicated to the Emperor of the Heaven at the back of its main building.

There's an interesting legend about this temple. At first, there was a lower status child god occupying this land. When the five delegates traveled to this area, they though that this place is perfect for their temple. But the child God didn't want to give the land to them, so they started a 3 day fight. Of course, we cannot be sure who actually won, but the legend said that both of them reached an agreement, that is, the front (the bigger part) of the area would be used by the delegates and the small part at the back shall be for the child God. So the temple in fact is composed of two different temples, and if we count in the one that is under construction work now, it will be three in total. So people there always say if you visit this temple without paying your respect to the child God, you will have tummy ache! I don;t want a tummy ache, so I did not dare to disobey this rule. This thing is used to light up incense sticks. This is so special. I don't know how this works. All you do is stick incense sticks upside down into this thing for a while, then they will be lighted up. It seems like they burn coal inside it.
The leader of the pilgrimage practice the same ritual again. There were a lot of people in this temple, and during our stay there, new groups kept coming in.

I was really enjoying this pilgrimage, and I think I will join them again next year. Seeing the ritual being practiced right in front of my eyes is such a fascinating experience. Being a Chinese, I believe in the old Taiwanese saying, that is, "Once you pray to the Gods sincerely, you will be blessed and protected by them."(有拜有保庇)

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