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You do not need to know the history of the Catholic Church to appreciate a cathedral. Similarly, you do not need to understand 5,000 years of Chinese culture to learn something from a visit to a Taoist temple. The incense smoke may never clear inside, but that does not mean the experience should make your eyes glaze over. A little connoisseurship can be picked up rather easily.

The basics
House of worship, community centre, marketplace and front for organized crime: a temple can be all these things and quite a lot more. But it is also simply a building, in essence, a raised platform atop which sits a collection of halls. Each hall has a wood post and beam frame (joined without nails), a gabled roof with overhanging eaves and a sweeping roof that tapers out like the tail end of a swallowtail (and is indeed called a swallowtail roof, or ridgeline). 

The collection of halls is arranged in a predictable manner. First, a main gate opens onto a stone courtyard, at the back of which stands (remember a temple is always raised) the aptly named front hall. This hall will always feature two stone lions, at least two stone pillars carved in the shape of dragons, and three to five doors, all of which serve to welcome human visitors in and keep unwanted spirits out.

Beyond the front hall will be a series of alternating courtyards and halls aligned in a straight axis. A statue of the main temple god sits enshrined in the second hall, while adjoining rooms to the left and right -- and a rear hall if there is one -- contain shrines to secondary deities, Buddhas, or more mundanely, office space. The latter may seem out of place at first, but someone has to manage affairs. Most temples in Taiwan are now in fact incorporated and play a central role in community life, including influencing local and national politics.

Every Taiwanese temple is a variation on this basic outline and no two are exactly alike. Sleuthing about for the differences is one way to keep interest levels high when touring multiple sites.

Decorative arts
Taiwanese love to beautify their temples (some might say they over-decorate). In the past, master craftsmen could hardly keep up with the demand for fine stone and wood carvings, door paintings, glazed tile and ceramic work, and the striking jiannian, a type of 3D mosaic found on rooftops. Jiannian is unique to Taiwan, so look up as you approach any temple. Often the roof will be so laden with mosaic dragons, tigers, flowers and historical tableaux it will appear ready to topple over.

As with the temple layout, look for variety to sustain interest. Short pillars for example are often carved in the shape of melons, but they can also be elephants, lions, flower baskets and even human figures bent over as if truly bearing a load.

Deities
There are 15,000 official temples around Taiwan, dedicated to hundreds of gods, folk heroes, animals, and even a pair of 17th-century Dutch Admirals. The most commonly worshipped deities include Matsu, the Empress of Heaven; the Wang Ye, former plague demons now considered guardian spirits; Tudi Gong, the earth-god (and Santa Claus look-a-like); and Guanyin, not a god but the well-loved Bodhisattva of mercy.

Rites
Avoid evil and secure good luck. Those are the basic aspirations of most temple goers. And it does not matter which god is their focus, everyone performs similar acts of baibai (worship) to help get what they want.

Common offerings include food, candles, prayers, opera performances and birthday parties. While commonplace, burning incense is among the most sublime and mystical of temple rites; ash and smoke from the main censor are believed to embody the very divine force of the resident god.

Moon blocks, found on the altar of every temple, are cast (bwah bweh) on the floor to divine the answers to personal questions. Should I take this job? Marry this person? See this doctor? Can I please make more money? These are all fair requests.

And how should the non-believer act during all this? Natural. No one is bothered in the least by visitors.

Worth exploring
Most of Taiwan's best temples (defined by age, beauty and popularity with worshipers) can be found in major urban areas or easily accessible smaller towns. They include Taipei's Bao'an and Longshan temples, Tainan City's Matsu and Confucian temples, Hsinchu's City God Temple, and Lukang's Matsu and Longshan temples.

© 2011 Lonely Planet. All rights reserved. The article ‘The tao of Taiwanese temples’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.

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