Mazu Mania: Taiwan’s Not-so-Average Religious Festival

http://www.ancient-origins.net/

Who is Mazu?

Mazu, Goddess of the Sea and protector of fishermen and seafarers is not your average folk legend. Arguably the most worshipped deity with 1500 temples and over 100 million devotees, Mazu’s legend is almost as varied as the 26 countries she is reported to be worshipped in. Taiwan’s widespread belief however, entails of a young girl from a fishing village who possessed other-worldly powers to help fishermen stay safe when out at sea. The most well-known account was when her father and brother were caught in a storm and went overboard. Mazu was at home when she went into a trance and transported herself to go save them. She was able to rescue her brother but her mother obviously worried at her state, woke her from her trance and her father unfortunately drowned. Due to her personal loss, her soul remained at sea, continuing to roam the seas to save as many people in trouble as she could.

Don’t downplay the hearsay. Such stories of heroism led to her deification in both Buddhist and Taoist traditions. Then, sometime in the Qing dynasty, after being conferred a number of official titles by emperors themselves, local Taiwanese grew to venerate Mazu not only as the Goddess of the Sea, but as the patron guardian for the island as a whole; making her the most alluring heavyweight of cultural and religious significance for Taiwan.

The Holy Pilgrimage

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People really go manic for Mazu here, and few holy pilgrimages across the globe can measure up to that of Mazu’s in volume, distance, and sheer noise. Over 9 days, some 5 million people participate in the annual event which is a giant early birthday bonanza for Mazu (her birthday is on the twenty third day of the third lunar month which usually falls in late April or early May). Sitting in a tiny palanquin, the statue of Mazu will be carried on-foot from Jenn Lann Temple, her home temple in the small township of Dajia (大甲鎮瀾宮), followed by a giant swarm of devotees walking continuously for 8 days and 7 nights through the counties of Taichung, Changhua, Yunlin and Chiayi before returning to Dajia. Celebrations though are not limited to traditional rituals. A part from having some of the most impressive fire power to be witnessed, Mazu mania involves light shows, parades, talent competitions, night markets and more. Not too shabby of a birthday celebration for someone believed to be born in 960 AD.

Wanting to see just how big a party Taiwan can throw for Mazu, I went to catch up on the action from day 8 of the Pilgrimage as she was heading back through Qingshui township towards her home temple.

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Nothing prepared me for the crowds.The number of people and fire power for Mazu’s festivities made me wide-eyed and frankly, slightly nervous.
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Pop up food stalls were dotted along the road to welcome both tired participants of the pilgrimage and hungry spectators. Cooked by volunteers and free-of-charge to eat.
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I was jostled around like a pingpong ball. As the fireworks got closer and fiercer, it was proving difficult to find places to stand with even the scarcest of possessions (my cameras) and a small backpack.
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There is nothing more terrifying than seeing boxes upon boxes of firecrackers ready to be set alight on a single street and the masses of people stampeding away from the fiery haze that was drawing closer and closer
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The sheer amount of fire crackers being set off in close proximity created a mid-air fireball mere metres from the crowd. It’s fascinating that none of the locals backed away. Not one flinched while they had their cameras poised. I was ready to bolt.
A devotee who have joined the pilgrimage maintained his good spirits while the blisters on his feet were being heat-treated. As chaotic as this pilgrimage can be, there are healthcare services en-route, open late into the night to tend to those who need it. When the smoke got to choking levels, I also grabbed a free face mask.
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Arriving twilight of Day 9, Jenn Lann Temple was still rather quiet and peaceful with only a few visitors here and there. The ambiance would be sure to change in a a few hours when Mazu is expected to arrive.

“Miss, if you’re tired, you can head downstairs to rest. There are many others who are staying, waiting for Mazu.”

A volunteer of the temple directs me to a place to rest my tired legs. Obviously experienced with overnighters before, the Temple had a pile of flattened cardboard boxes to be used as mattresses. Thankful just to not be sleeping outside on concrete, I grabbed a few and set myself up in a small alcove amongst piles of incense paper, ready to be burnt in prayer rituals for Mazu.

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Drawing close to Mazu’s arrival, the crowd gathers in front of the temple to observe traditional religious customs
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Several depictions of Taoist gods and deities line up to dance in front of the temple.
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Taoist gods and immortals are usually depicted with black faces. The reason for this, I’ve yet to discover.
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A palanquin bearer wipes sweat from his eyes after finishing a ritual. He, amongst eight other bearers rushed back and forth with the palanquin in front of the temple entrance, and yelled at the top of their lungs as they did so.
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Cheerleaders dance for Mazu. No form of celebration is excluded.. Fashion shows, parading bands and martial arts performers all lined up to honour Mazu.
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The more colourful and boisterous, the better. Performers release even more firecrackers and streamers to start the celebrations in anticipation of receiving Mazu back to her home temple.
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Loud clanging and ear-piercing tunes from traditional trumpets and reed pipes are customary for Taoist events, and Taiwan’s patron deity deserves frequent and the noisiest of music. Tied in with exploding firecrackers and the high-pitched squeals of fireworks, it makes the festive atmosphere even more riveting.
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The very last picture I took before heading back to Taipei. Jenn Lann Temple is located at opposite ends to the Dajia Train Station on the same street. On this day, the usual 3 minute walk took me 10 minutes to dart around the crowd and continuing parades.

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