Surrounded by hundreds of worshippers and a scrum of photographers, Jenn Lann Temple President and controversial Legislator Yen Ching-piao (顏清標), “a small godfather in political circles” and “the throat and tongue of the people,” according to the temple’s literature, prepared to cast divining blocks to determine the starting day of this year’s Dajia Matsu Pilgrimage (大甲媽祖繞境進香) — the largest pilgrimage devoted to Matsu, patron goddess of the sea and, with more than 500 temples dedicated to her, one of Taiwan’s most revered deities.
Worshippers craned their necks to catch a glimpse of Yen through thick clouds of incense smoke as Yen, flanked by Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平) and Jenn Lann Temple Vice President Chen Ming-kun (鄭銘坤), let go of the oversized glossy red moon blocks that had rested on a thick stack of paper money.
Matsu let the date be known: the third day of the third month on the lunar calendar (April 16 for the solar calendar) — last night at 11pm, when the temple’s statue of Matsu was to be removed from her resting place and brought out on its pilgrimage.
In addition to the bustling crowds weaving through Jenn Lann Temple on Feb. 28 as Yen performed the ritual, appearances by heavyweight politicians such as the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) Presidential Office Secretary-General Liao Liou-yi (廖了以) and Taichung Mayor Jason Hu (胡志強) as well as the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) former deputy Presidential Office secretary-general Lin Chia-lung (林佳龍), attest to both Jenn Lann Temple’s pull and the popularity of the pilgrimage.
The event is so popular, in fact, that organizers decided this year to extend it by a day and a night to allow worshippers more time to receive blessings from Matsu. “Adding another night and day in Singshuei will reduce crowds on the final day in Dajia and allow more time for [pilgrims] to rest,” Wu said.
Departure from Jenn Lann Temple, Dajia, Taichung County, last night at 11pm
Day 1 (today): Overnight at Nanyao Temple, Changhua City (彰化市南瑤宮)
Day 2 (tomorrow): Overnight at Fuhsing Temple, Siluo Township (西螺鎮福興宮)
Day 3 (Monday): Overnight at Fengtien Temple, Singang Township (新港鄉奉天宮)
Day 4 (Tuesday): Main blessing ceremony at 8am, overnight at Fengtien Temple, Singang Township (新港鄉奉天宮)
Day 5 (Wednesday): Overnight at Fuhsing Temple, Siluo Township (西螺鎮福興宮)
Day 6 (Thursday): Overnight at Chengan Temple, Beidou Township (北斗鎮奠安宮)
Day 7 (Friday): Overnight at Tienhou Temple, Changhua City (彰化市天后宮)
Day 8 (Saturday): Overnight at Chaohsing Temple, Singshuei Township (清水鎮朝興宮)
Day 9 (April 25): Return to Jenn Lann Temple, Dajia Township (大甲鎮鎮瀾宮)
It might also decrease the number of fights among local gangsters and the more zealous believers that have become part of the pilgrimage’s lore.
A few years back, Chen, the temple’s vice president, had to break up a fight involving dozens of spirit mediums vying to touch Matsu’s passing palanquin, which is said to bring blessings and good luck.
Matsu’s origins and subsequent hagiography are the stuff of legend. Though written and oral accounts vary, she was supposedly born amid auspicious signs into either a family of fishermen or low-ranking but devout officials in the 10th century in China’s Fujian Province. She was given the name Moniang (默娘), or “silent girl,” because she didn’t cry for the first month after her birth.
She mastered the Confucian classics and demonstrated a flair for banishing demons and averting disasters — particularly those involving the dangerous waters of the Taiwan Strait. According to one legend, she sacrificed her life to save her father and brothers who were out on the open ocean when a typhoon struck, hence her current status as goddess of the sea and protector of fishermen and sailors.
The Dajia Matsu Pilgrimage started more than a hundred years ago with only a small band of worshippers. It has grown exponentially over the past two decades. Wu I-min (吳伊敏), a temple spokesperson, anecdotally estimates that a million people showed up last year, of whom 60 percent were tourists.