Mazu pilgrimages showcase Taiwan’s rich cultural tapestry

Taiwan's rich cultural traditions took center stage recently in Taichung City with the launch of two large-scale pilgrimages celebrating the upcoming birthday of one of the country's most revered deities Mazu, the goddess of the sea.

Designated on the 23rd day of the third month on the lunar calendar, which falls April 19 this year, Mazu's birthday is a widely anticipated event offering a unique snapshot of local cultural and religious traditions dating back 200 years. The Taichung processions are among the largest in the country and estimated to attract 1 million devotees from home and abroad each year.

The first of the two, Hanxi Mazu Pilgrimage, got underway early March 28 at Leh Cherng Temple on Hanxi Street in East District of the central Taiwan metropolis. A statue of the goddess was removed from the historic Qing dynasty-era (1644-1911) temple, placed on a palanquin and sent off on a colorful and lively round-city procession. Running for 22 days, the pilgrimage stops at 54 temples and lasts longer than any other of its kind nationwide.

The second, Dajia Mazu Holy Pilgrimage, kicked off late in the evening of March 24 at Jennlann Temple on Shuntian Road in Daija District. Three statues of the goddess were removed from the temple, which was also constructed during the Qing dynasty, placed on a palanquin and dispatched on a nine-day, 330-kilometer round-trip procession stopping at seven temples located in Taichung, neighboring Changhua County, Yunlin County in southwestern Taiwan and Chiayi County in southern Taiwan.

Taiwan is believed to be home to more than 10 million Mazu devotees. Zealous participants seek opportunities during the procession to crawl under the palanquin, an act believed to bring blessings. Residents and shop owners along the route prepare free snacks for the devotees to enjoy.

In 2004, Discovery Channel identified Dajia Mazu Holy Pilgrimage as one of the world's three major religious festivals, with the other two being the hajj�the pilgrimage to Mecca�and the Hindu rite of bathing in the Ganges River. In 2009 UNESCO put Mazu beliefs and customs on its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Taichung City Government listed Leh Cherng Temple as a city-level historical site in 1985 and the Hanxi Mazu pilgrimage as a city-level folk custom in 2008. The Ministry of Culture declared the Dajia Mazu Holy Pilgrimage an important folk custom in 2010.

The Mazu ritual originates among fishermen in the coastal provinces of mainland China and took root in Taiwan in the 1730s. The deity is enshrined at 510 temples around the island. (OC-E)

Source: Taiwan Today