Sun, Apr 18, 2004 - Page 17 News List

Pilgrimage kicks off with religious fervor

Over the coming week millions of people will witness the grandest event in Taiwan's religious calendar - the annual Matsu pilgrimage. While sometimes marred by violence and always a media circus, the huge tourist attraction continues to attract the pious

By Gavin Phipps  /  STAFF REPORTER


At 10:10pm last night the narrow streets adjacent to the Jenlan Temple (鎮瀾宮) in Tachia, Taichung County, were awash with throngs of worshippers praying, waiting to greet the effigy of the goddess Matsu and preparing to participate in the largest and noisiest religious celebration in Taiwan.

The normally sleepy town was transformed into a giant, all-day night market, with crowds shoulder to shoulder in a chaotic jumble that inexplicably moved in the right directions. At one point yesterday afternoon, President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) arrived with a large security entourage and delivered a short speech to kick off festivities surrounding the annual Matsu pilgrimage.

Originating in China during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the pilgrimage was outlawed by the Japanese in Taiwan during their occupation between 1895 and 1945. Although local farmers and fishermen began their own mini-Matsu pilgrimage shortly after the surrender of the Imperial Japanese Army on Taiwan in 1945, the pomp and circumstance that surrounds today's pilgrimage began in earnest in 1987, when a reported 100,000 people participated in the event.

Since then, the pilgrimage has gone from strength to strength and now attracts hundreds of thousands of participants and is watched by over a million onlookers as it crisscrosses west-central Taiwan. It lasts for eight days and seven nights and passes through 53 towns in three counties. By April 25, when the thousands of devotees who choose to follow the pilgrimage's round-trip journey through the countryside and back to Jenlan Temple, which is run by controversial independent legislator, Yen Chin-piao (顏清標), they will have covered 280km.

Along the way, well over a million people will have witnessed the procession as it passes by their homes to mark the 1,118th anniversary of Matsu attaining the status of a goddess.

"The festival gets bigger every year and now it's impossible to put a number on the amount of people who take part in it. [Matsu] is one of the most revered gods not only in Taiwan, but all around the world," said Yen. "People from local communities participate. People from all over Taiwan come, as well as visitors from Japan, China and other countries."

The pious, travelling on foot, bicycle, scooter and in cars, follow the goddess' effigy, which is carried at shoulder height by groups of bearers for the entire journey. Every year, the pilgrimage brings with it horrendous traffic congestion.

Delays are commonplace, yet worshippers and the curious alike are happy to wait several hours just to catch a glimpse of the goddess that has become the nation's semi-official patron saint.

Yesterday, Tachia's main drag and all the roads leading to the Jenlan Temple were completely blocked and are set to remain so until the pilgrimage finally begins snaking its way toward Nanyao Temple (南搖宮) in Changhua County on the first leg of its annual journey.

The Heavenly Mother, or the Goddess of the Sea, as Matsu is often referred to in Taiwan, is thought to have originally been a woman named Lin Mo-liang who lived in China during the Song Dynasty (960-1127).

"Along with being the Goddess of the Sea, Matsu is also the Goddess of virtue and righteousness. Although Taiwan's people may worship many different gods and follow many different paths, Matsu unites them and is revered by all," said Cheng Ming-kun, (鄭銘坤), deputy chairman of Chenglan Temple. "It's widely known that anybody who touches the [palanquin] or lays their eyes on the effigy will enjoy good fortune and peace for the rest of the year. Matsu is a goddess for everyone."

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