Zhunan, Matsu pilgrimage – a testament of faith

TAIPEI (The China Post) — Zhonggang Cihyu Temple (中港慈裕宮), a red-bricked structure built over 300 years ago as a testament of faith to Matsu, the goddess of the sea, stands resolute on the opposite side of food stalls and a convenience store. 

Daying Road (大營路) and the temples front courtyard are now brimming with locals, musicians, performers, and politicians who await the start of the procession. Its seven in the morning on Sep. 1, and thousands in Zhunan Township of Miaoli County have been preparing for the revival of this once forgotten celebration. 

Cihyu is one of the three oldest Taoist temples in Taiwan, collectively known as The Three Matsus (台灣三媽祖), but its structure is quite unique. 

The interior was left to two famous master designers at the time, but neither was to reveal their work until after completion of the structure. So, the temple was divided into left and right sides, and each designer went to work without knowing what the other was up to, explains Cloud Chen (陳萬典), one of the organizers passionate about maintaining Taiwans cultural heritage. 

The result is a single temple structure, but with two very different designs which reflect the personal style of each master,” Chen adds. Hes not alone, though. By eight o clock, an immense line of faithful revelers, thousands upon thousands, fill the two-lane street at the temples entrance and neighboring roads. 

After 22 years since last holding this ceremony, weve decided to bring back this annual event, in hopes to preserve traditions that are in danger of being forgotten, says Fang Chin-hsing (方進興), the township chief, 51 local temples have joined to revive this festive religious pilgrimage.” 

The procession was originally started back when Zhunan Township was only a cluster of 53 separate villages, each belonging to a different ethnic group: Minnan, Hakka, or Aboriginals. It was a time of frequent armed conflicts between the villages, so this peaceful pilgrimage was organized to visit each villages temple and pay respects to the goddess that they all revered equally, Matsu, the protector of fishermen and sailors. 

One of the most central features of this event are the gods palanquins (神轎), highly decorated sedan chairs of different sizes where the idols are placed. The designs are as varied and extravagant as the wood and stone work within each temple visited, and colorful banners attached to the palanquins show the name of the temple it hails from.  

Strapped above a framework of bamboo, the palanquins are either carried on the shoulders of four individuals or carted around on wheels. Either way, the bells attached all around these seats jingle rhythmically, following the pace of the four carriers choreographed steps. 

Throughout the day-long procession, these palanquins stop at every temple in the township one-by-one to pay their respects to Matsu and the temples community. As a palanquin approaches each temples entrance, it is rattled vigorously and charged forward towards an urn holding incense and offerings for the goddess, and then continues its path onwards to the next temple. 

Holy idols in majestic sedan chairs arent the only components to the procession. High school bands and organizations from other cities dress in matching uniforms and play traditional instruments, such as high-pitched Chinese clarinets, rumbling tanggu drums, and chiming hand cymbals.  

Floats and cars containing massive disk-shaped drums and silver-plated gongs parade through the entire center of the city, while each playing their own distinctive music. 

Somewhere along the winding crowds are the large holy generals (神將) with their expressive, sometimes grotesque-like, facial features. These tall figures in color-coded robes roam in a single-file line, mechanical arms flailing hypnotically forwards and backwards. 

As night falls on the town whose streets still have a lingering smell of firecrackers and fireworks, each of the aforementioned groups returns to where they once started, Zhonggang Cihyu Temple, to pay their final respects to Matsu in a very rambunctious fashion.  

Each team carrying the god palanquins tips it over towards the Matsu statues within the temple, in a final bow of reverence, and then violently shakes the bamboo poles in an attempt to finally snap them, thereby demonstrating the depth of their faith towards the goddess. 

Every group has their chance to give one final performance before her, every ritualistic act that had occurred repeatedly throughout the day is now given twice the dedication and double the ferocity.  

The music, firecrackers, and dancing are all reaching their climax as the final hour of the ceremony closes at around nine o clock in the evening. Gold-colored paper resembling money falls over the holy generals as they now dance more ecstatically.  

Younger revelers perform dances with modern electronic music, an addition made to help encourage the younger generations to participate in this otherwise traditional ceremony. 

The revelry outside is a stark contrast to the solemn atmosphere of the closing ceremony inside the temple. Under the light of the yellow lanterns symbolizing the yellow robes worn by the Matsu statues in Cihyu Temple, the township chief and others pay their final respects for the evening, bowing before the altar that now overflows with offerings for the goddess of the sea.  

Amongst countless incense sticks, the crowd practices a moment of almost monastic silence, and ends the pilgrimage which has been saved from becoming a mere relic of the past. 

By Gregory A. Thorpe Badrena