So, it’s not uncommon in Taiwan that you might see pole dancers, electronic music, gaudy LED lights, or even Japanese anime-themed “itasha” cars at temple festivals. Part of this probably reflects the interests of the young people part of temple troupes, who incorporated what they were interested into temple festivals.
Last week, I ventured to the Dajia Mazu festival, the largest religious festival in Taiwan. Consisting of a nine-day journey from Dajia to Chiayi, then back—some 360 kilometers—it draws over one million worshippers through the course of the festival.
Mazu is probably Taiwan’s most important deity; seeing as Taiwan is an island nation, it may not be surprising that Mazu is a sea deity. Born as Lin Mo in 960 AD, Lin Mo was deified after death in 987 AD, and became the sea goddess Mazu. Mazu is worshipped not only in Taiwan, but coastal provinces of China. Each temple devoted to Mazu has its own Mazu statue, which goes on tour to other temples as part of religious pilgrimages—the Dajia Mazu pilgrimage consists of the Mazu from the Dajia Jenn Lann Temple traveling to the Fengtien Temple in Chiayi.
Mazu herself (top) and Sun Wukong (bottom), passing by in their palanquins. Photo credit: Brian Hioe
Last year’s festival was postponed by several months due to COVID-19, with celebrations scaled-down and real-name registration required at temples. But there have only been over 1,000 COVID-19 cases in Taiwan and eleven deaths to date because of the coronavirus, due to the swift government response. So the pilgrimage could go on—organizers claimed that over one million participated in the event—which I’m not sure I actually believe. The King Tsingshan Festival in my local neighborhood of Bangka, another one of Taiwan’s major festivals, actually seemed larger to me this year.
In any case, the tone for this year’s celebration was still more muted than usual. As it is believed to be auspicious for the palanquin carrying Mazu to pass over worshippers, worshippers often fight to have the palanquin pass over them. Otherwise, temple groups will try to divert the procession and seize the palanquin to keep Mazu in their territory, because this is also believed to be auspicious.
By contrast, the DPP is more affiliated with the rival Baishatun Mazu pilgrimage, which begins in Miaoli. The Baishatun Mazu pilgrimage is known as the longest religious pilgrimage in Taiwan, having an unpredictable route that is determined randomly by the swaying of the palanquin—sometimes resulting in odd events such as Mazu visiting a supermarket or deciding to take a swim in a river.
Oftentimes, you’ll have worshippers traveling to cities and waiting for the palanquin to arrive along the parade route or catching up with the palanquin after catching up. You’ll often be able to recognize them from the temple flags that they carry on them. There will be supply stations and tents set up for locals to provide them with food and night market-like stalls will be set up to sell food or souvenir items. There’s a veritable economy of its own for religious pilgrimages, between the companies that produce such souvenirs and the merchants that sell them, the troupes of dancers that travel between temple festivals to perform, the singers, DJs, and other performers that play at festivals.
The sacred intersects, then, not only with the profane but also the highly secular or mundane. Or so you’d think, anyway, except for the embeddedness of religion in everyday life—rather than as some far-removed realm of the sacred.