At 2am on April 22 last year, I departed Chengan Temple (奠安宮) in Changhua County’s Beidou Township (北斗) surrounded by thousands of Matsu devotees. I had endured six days of Jenn Lann Temple’s (鎮瀾宮) Dajia Matsu Pilgrimage (大甲媽祖繞境進香), walking 12 to 14 hours a day and sleeping an average of six hours, most recently in the mosquito-infested inner courtyard of a school. I hadn’t defecated in three days.
At least I was hydrated, having drunk an eight-liter daily ration of water — handed out by generous Matsu devotees along the route — and two large blended fruit juices just before setting out that morning. My bright red, chafed inner thighs forced me to walk with a goofy cowboy-like gait. The blisters on my toes were the size of small grapes.
About three hours outside of Beidou I noticed suddenly that the refreshing juice I’d had earlier was serving as a laxative. With no gas station in sight and all doors shuttered I rushed into a back alley and relieved myself, temporarily forgetting about all my other complaints. More than anything else, the nine-day Dajia Matsu Pilgrimage makes one intensely aware of one’s own body.
Dating back to the Qing Dynasty, the Dajia Matsu Pilgrimage is the largest procession of its kind in Taiwan, attracting more than 1 million visitors every year. Pilgrims follow Jenn Lann Temple’s Matsu palanquin for nine days and eight nights along a fixed route from Dajia District (大甲區) in Greater Taichung south to Singang Township (新港) in Chiayi County and back again. The pilgrimage takes place every year in the weeks leading up to Matsu’s birthday, which is on the 23rd day of the third month on the lunar calendar (April 27 this year). This year’s pilgrimage begins tomorrow and ends on April 17.
Information on the Dajia Matsu Pilgrimage, including details of its route, can be found on the Chinese-language Web site www.dajiamazu.org.tw
* Temples along the Dajia Matsu Pilgrimage route offer rudimentary accommodation. Camping outside of temples and in some school courtyards is also common. Free water and vegetarian food are provided by temples and believers along the entire nine-day route.
* Jenn Lann Temple is a five-minute walk from Dajia Train Station (大甲站). Return tickets on Taiwan Rail from Taipei Train Station are NT$480. The Taiwan High Speed Rail does not have a station near Dajia.
* Travel light. Bring talcum powder and sun block.
I traveled, ate and slept together with thousands of other pilgrims (known as “incense guests” (香客) in Chinese). We visited close to a hundred temples altogether. Some people drove, others cycled. Most were, at one time or another, on foot.
The total journey was over 350km.
Back on day six of last year’s tour, I cleaned up after myself, checked my map and noted that I’d already visited 60 temples, some more than once. I had slept in a field, below a temple’s incense burner, in a park and on the side of the road. I’d eaten the same vegetarian meal of rice, noodles and porridge and washed it down with plenty of sweet tea and water.
What follows is an anecdotal account of my trip, which began at 11:30pm on Friday, April 17. Tens of thousands of worshippers crowded into Jenn Lann Temple and its large outer square to witness the removal of the Matsu statue and its placement into a lavishly decorated palanquin. To the sounds of blaring horns, booming drums and firecrackers, worshippers rushed to touch the palanquin as a dozen men slowly inched it out of the temple, into the main square and out to the street. The pilgrimage had begun.
Day 1 (Saturday) POWER AND WEALTH
From Jenn Lann Temple I walk slowly through the neon-lit streets and celebratory atmosphere of Dajia City. Pilgrims and tourists put their hands together in prayer as Matsu’s sedan chair passes. A spirit medium, tongue protruding and eyes rolled back in religious ecstasy, trances slowly behind. The pungent aroma of lit incense and burnt firecrackers fills the air.
We travel south and cross Dajiahsi Bridge (大甲溪橋) into darkness, a few kilometers of humanity walking single file or in groups of up to 10. On the other side of the bridge, we pass through the narrow back streets of rural Greater Taichung toward Dadu District (大肚區), our first rest area six hours away. We will visit five temples on the way.