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.
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.
As the time approaches for Matsu to depart the temple at midnight, tens of thousands of worshipers will have already crowded the main square in front of Jenn Lann Temple and surrounding streets, who will follow the deity’s palanquin as she departs on her nine-day journey.
After Matsu departs, walk with the pilgrims to the Dajiahsi Bridge (大甲溪橋) and remain there until Matsu begins her crossing, when an an extravagant amount of fireworks will be let off at around 1:30am — one that rivals in quantity the amount used at Taipei 101 on New Year’s eve.
After watching the fireworks, continue across the bridge with the pilgrims and walk until you reach Shalu, around 5am. From there, you can take the train back home or continue on the journey with Matsu.
DAY FOUR — SINGANG’S FENGTIEN TEMPLE
Matsu will arrive at Fengtien Temple (奉天宮) in Chiayi County’s Singang Township (新港) at around 4pm on the third day and will remain there until she departs in the early morning of the fifth day.
If you aren’t walking the nine days, you will miss out on one of the best aspects of the pilgrimage: being able to walk and talk at a leisurely pace with other pilgrims. Singang, because visitors will be in a festive mood and not rushing to the next temple, is an ideal forum to strike up conversations with pilgrims to get their perspectives on the event.
The performance troupes seen at Jenn Lann Temple on day one now put on an extravagant display along the broad roadway that leads up to and bisects Fengtien Temple. Expect literally tons of firecrackers to be let off as dragon dancers, lion dancers and dozens of other performance troupes from temples throughout Taiwan parade in front of the temple, which leads up to a crescendo of smoke and sound as Matsu’s palanquin files past.
You can also expect to see several slaughtered pigs lined up on platforms to one side of the temple, while the other side will feature a spirit medium unblocking the qi (energy) of pilgrims by slapping them on the back with a feather.
Getting there: Take the High Speed Rail to Chiayi Station and take a 20-minute taxi ride to Fengtien Temple; or take the Taiwan Rail to Minhsiung Station (民雄火車站) and take a 15-minute taxi ride to Fengtien Temple.
DAY SEVEN — GETTING ROWDY IN CHANGHUA
I’ve never been able to get a straight answer as to why this might be, but in the several times I’ve walked the pilgrimage, Changhua City is by far the rowdiest stop that Matsu makes on her inspection tour.
Whereas Singang is an orderly and, some pilgrims have complained, sanitized and commercialized version of what the pilgrimage used to be, believers in Changhua City let it all hang out.
Try to arrive in the late afternoon, around 4pm.
Changhua City’s rowdy atmosphere can be attributed, pilgrims have told me, to the passion of its Matsu believers — and the hoodlums and gangsters who come out in full force to show her respect (or, perhaps more accurately, Jenn Lann Temple’s chairman Yen Ching-piao, 顏清標, a former legislator and known gangster).
But I attribute Changhua’s rambunctious vibe to a competitive streak found nowhere else along the route. And this has to do with keeping Matsu’s sedan chair in a particular area for as long as possible, a feat that is effected through the dramatic release of firecrackers and fireworks — at street level, from the hands of pilgrims, off the back of tractor-trailers. The greater the number used, the longer Matsu’s palanquin is forced to remain in one place, which consequently, it is believed, increases the territory’s spiritual power, while driving away ghosts and boosting the area’s prosperity for the coming year.
It is not uncommon to see young toughs in one territory screaming at those in another territory to let Matsu pass — after all, the goddess is on a tight schedule and the more time spent in one territory, the less time she has for another.
Though there are many starts and stops, arguments and curses, fireworks and firecrackers, Matsu’s sedan chair eventually makes its way toward Tianhou Temple (天后宮) in the city center.
Getting there: Take the Taiwan Rail to Changhua Station (彰化火車站) and walk 15 minutes along Yonglu Street (永樂街) to Tianhou Temple. Just follow the noise of firecrackers.