I took a new way home today, just outside the city as opposed to through downtown, and was intrigued by a nearby temple. Live here even a few weeks and already temples will seem as unremarkable as golf courses in suburban Columbus. They all have a great variety of brightly colored statues, intricately carved statues and concrete walls, and impressive looking deities breathing offerings of incense and paper money. Really, each one is fascinating, but they can be found every 300 yards, and some even closer to each other than that.
So, why stop here? It was a beautiful day, and, I hadn’t seen a deity like this atop any yet. I pulled up to the small incense offering pagoda outside the entrance; this is where I typically stop when approaching temples. They are frequented by families or celebrating parties quite often, and I don’t like to seem to rude, knowing the majority of my interest is in taking pictures.
Two boys standing at the entrance pagoda were playing with a bug, and ignored me for the most part, until I took off my full-size helmet. “Woah!” they were fascinated by the foreigner that magically appeared in front of them. “Hi, Hel-lo!” Sometimes you’re hardpressed to get a 你好！ out of frightened kids; the bold young doormen were a good sign. A man in his thirties yelled for me to approach, where a group of elderly gentleman, and young adults were sitting around tables, playing cards, smoking, chewing betel nut, drinking liquor and laughing up the afternoon. The man introduced me to his wife and young daughter, and soon the temple matron walked over with a smile. She invited me inside the temple, encouraged me to take pictures, and explained about the temple.
It’s a Mazu temple. Most temples have a main deity of worship, with many little deities in front, guarding and assisting the main deity. You enter the temple, purchase (price is your discretion) incense or offering paper, bow and make a prayer and stick your incense in front of the deity, walk out and do the same at the gate. My host brought me upstairs to another temple, and continued to explain about the deities. My comprehension in regards to religious matters is still pretty low, but I did gather that this was a Taoist Temple, devoted to Mazu. Mazu is the Queen of Heaven and Goddess of the Sea and is regarded as one of the most important deities in Taiwan. The statue atop the temple, which had initially pulled me in, was her colored black. This represents Mazu as she appears when saving people, as opposed to the red skin of everyday appearance.
This is about the length of time that I typically spend during temple visits. Everyone is always eager to invite me to stay for tea or food, and always eager to tell me more, but when it becomes clear that I can’t understand everything they’re saying, I tend to feel like a burden. My host was being very friendly, and didn’t mind repeating herself, so I was encouraged to stick around.
****A Most Gracious Host****
Glad I did. First came costume dances. They showed me a variety of large outfits that fit on your shoulders, turning you into giant costumed deities. These are used during parades. I wore both this pictured green one, whose arms swing back and forth if you move your hips right, and the brown one, who is a drunkard with a slight top-heavy sway; quite a great visual affect.
After trying on a couple, I figured it was game over, 20 minutes into visiting. “Wait 15 minutes. Do you have time? There’s going to be….” Anything after “to be” was kind of guess work. Ok, I have time. Yes, and ooh! I caught “performance” and she is definitely talking about these costumes. Ok, so some people are coming back, and going to put on the costumes, and I am, what’s that? Oh, yes, sure, able to take photos. 慢慢来。Slowly comprehending.
I was taken to a seat around the table where adults are playing cards. A curious 1st grader asked me as many questions as I could comprehend, the “Where are you from? How old are you? Why is your nose so big?” Her father is friendly, and the husband of the woman who has been showing me around. I’m feeling quite relaxed.
****One new friend - When asked about my nose size, it's length in particular, I tend to ask back "Why's yours so short?"****
****Fun with Firecrackers and Tops****
I share that I teach at Gong Jheng Guo Xiao, and those last two words work their magic like always. Guo Xiao or “Public Elementary” always gets an appreciative “ahh” from your audience; it takes extra credentials to work in the public schools, and thus you’re immediately garnered a bit of respect. Gong Jheng is also a large school, so someone inevitably knows someone there now, graduated from there themselves, or has a sister/brother/mother teaching there. This time one of the ladies selling fruit outside the temple has a sister, mom of a first-grader, and yes, I do know some of the first graders (haven’t taught them yet; next week).
10 minutes later this guy comes running around the corner, yelling “laoshi!” as he jumps up into my arms. He’s my bud, and comes to bug me in the office quite frequently. We’ve got a series of hand-shakes and clap-games that we’ve taught each other, play rock, paper, scissors, and take photos with the Mac Photobooth (he’s learned to navigate my computer). Of 1800 kids at the school, what are the odds this guy comes to join me? I’m telling you, life pieces itself together perfectly, and unfolds itself in the best ways when you will it.
****Firecrackers too Loud for Kenny****
So, I’m feeling more comfortable than ever. I can’t engage in heavy dialogue with the adults, but with kids, I’m quite at home; I’ve got a place here in the temple culture for the afternoon, and yes, I would like to stay and take pictures.
And then, the firecrackers start. Around the corner they’re exploding, and my host and all the kiddies are all directing me around the temple, to the road, front-and-center, in order to get the best photographs. I’m not the most aggressive photographer, so I won’t often run into the middle of a parade to get the photos I want. Here I was walked by temple-hosts right up to where I needed to be. Next, I just need to learn how to take pictures, otherwise I’d have more for you today ;)
But back on issues of translation: I knew it was a performance; I caught that much. What a performance, though. The costume deities were all worn as a greeting party for 50 or so members from a temple congregation in Taipei. They worship at a different deities temple, and came down to bring some of their gods to Mazu’s place, like kids hanging out for the afternoon
The procession involved a man leading with a long red stick, dancing in greeting around the costume-gods. He proceeds forward. He is followed by incense bearers, who exchange incense with representatives from the host temple. They proceed forward. Then come martial arts dancers of sorts, walking as if in a trance, self-abusers (more below), and then the visiting gods (in statue form).
****Visiting Party on the Right****
Walking up to the temple, they cross over a long lines of firecrackers, which are lit underfoot. Once everyone has proceeded forward and bowed to the deities inside, the rest of the congregation from the bus comes forward and makes their offerings. More loud firecrackers, more bowing and incense, and then off to the neighboring building for a dinner provided by the host temple.
****To the Temple***
****Martial Arts Entrance****
****Treacherous - Visiting Deity on Back****
****Note the Sandals****
****Dressing the Deities - This gentleman dresses the gods in order preparation for their parlay. They remain in the temple and interact with Mazu's pantheon. This is the religious motive behind the visit, though the social exchange and opportunity for the community to get involved in hosting guests make clear there are other, more tangible Earthly motives****
This man walked as if possessed, carrying a variety of weapons, all with nails sticking out, and would pause, motion at the ground, wait for yellow paper offerings to be lit in front of him, and then proceed to beat himself on the back with the weapons. Altogether, he stopped a good 25 times, though I am sure only really flailed himself a few initial times (swords and nails would’ve done more damage). Regardless, he was followed by someone continually mopping the blood off of his back.
I was offered dinner, betel nuts, cigarettes, liquor, fruits, pastries, sweets, and lots of friendly smiles (don't worry Mum, turned down the nuts, drink, and smoke), as well as information about future celebrations. Apparently they occur frequently, and was welcomed to return next Saturday morning. Plenty of photo-ops today, but beyond that, I felt really welcomed. Not a better way to spend Sunday afternoon.
1) there is no reason to feel guilty about elbowing your way in for a photograph if you take the time to know your subject
2) need to bring more than 4 Gigs of memory for an all-afternoon photo-shoot (saving in both NEF and JPG costs 15-18MB per photo)
3) worship can hurt, the ears and the back.
1) Temples are sumpin' pretty neat
2) Kids are wonderful
3) The people here are more-than friendly, more-than welcoming, and a charm all over