Deities, spirit mediums, performance troupes, gangsters, pole dancers and politicians will walk, drive and cycle to the sound of fireworks, drums and trumpets during Jenn Lann Temple’s (鎮瀾宮) nine-day Dajia Matsu pilgrimage (大甲媽祖遶境), which begins on Friday at midnight at the temple in Taichung’s Dajia Township (大甲).
Hundreds of thousands of worshipers, sightseers and the curious will join the procession that celebrates the birthday of the goddess Matsu, which is said to fall on the 23rd day of the third month of the lunar calendar, in what is arguably the nation’s largest religious event and, according to the organizers, the world’s third largest pilgrimage — after the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca and India’s Kumbh Mela.
The yearly event is an opportunity to see much of Taiwan’s rich popular religious culture, and the day and night markets that support it, in one setting — albeit one constantly on the move. Pilgrims will show their respect to Matsu by walking through the rural backstreets of Changhua, Yunlin and Chiayi counties to Singang and back again to Dajia, in a journey that extends 330km.
Matsu’s palanquin, which is embedded with a GPS chip so participants can follow her location, will visit over 100 temples along the way in a ritual that is meant to restore the spiritual power of each individual temple visited.
The purpose of the pilgrimage is for Jenn Lann Temple’s Matsu statue, said to be among the oldest in Taiwan, to “inspect” (遶境) her territory, which consists of temples that are related ritually or with close networks to Jenn Lann Temple.
Pilgrims will also visit each temple to pick up yellow paper talisman, which they then affix to a flag that they carry throughout the journey. The flags can be purchased out front of Jenn Lann Temple for about NT$400. And as Matsu’s palanquin passes, be sure to get in line and have her pass over you so as to bring luck and blessings to you and your family.
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 yards is also allowed. 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$350. The Taiwan High Speed Rail does not have a station near Dajia.
>> Travel light. Bring talcum powder, mosquito repellent, face masks and ear plugs (to protect against the firecrackers) and sun block.
The event also shows off the generosity of Taiwanese, with believers en route handing out free water, coffee, fruit, noodles, rice and other vegetarian fare to the weary.
Having walked the pilgrimage twice in its entirety over the past few years, in addition to a few one-day jaunts, I have provided the following one-day trips that highlight some of the more colorful aspects of the ritual, if only for a day.
DAY ONE — MATSU DEPARTS JENN LANN TEMPLE
The first thing you want to know is that you should arrive early to Jenn Lann Temple, preferably in the early afternoon on Friday. Although Matsu doesn’t depart until midnight, the dozens of performance troupes that perform in front of the temple and the market selling all manner of street delicacies that surround the temple, will keep you occupied.
Expect to see young and old lion dancers, the Bombing of Master Handan (炸寒單) (throwing firecrackers at men representing the mythical figure Handan), pole dancers, Eight Generals (八家將), the Third Prince (三太子) and many others performing for Matsu. Many of these performances involve a liberal amount of firecrackers so be sure to cover up and wear ear plugs when moving in close to take photos.
As you soak in the atmosphere, be sure to head over to the front of the temple and buy a yellow triangular pilgrim’s flag. The flag serves at least two purposes: to show that you are a pilgrim (and therefore respect Matsu) and to affix to it the auspicious talismans (符). Each of the seven temples Matsu will visit between Dajia and Shalu District (沙鹿) will give out a talisman, a strip of yellow paper emblazoned with Chinese characters and religious iconography.