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.
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).
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
should the non-believer act during all this? Natural. No one is bothered in the
least by visitors.
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
temples, Tainan City's Matsu
temples, Hsinchu's City God Temple, and Lukang's Matsu and Longshan temples.
The article 'The tao of Taiwanese temples' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.