Sunday, June 07, 2015

Matsu Pilgrimage in Beigang, Yunlin / 北港朝天宮媽祖遶境


Matsu is the sea goddess whose birthday is celebrated on March, 23 on the lunar calendar, which is around April or May on the solar calendar. However, the staff of Chao-tien Temple in Beigang, Yunlin has the tradition of taking the cult of the goddess to the homeland of Matsu in Meizhou in southeast China to worship. They return on March, 19 on the lunar calendar to Taiwan, which is why it is the date of the pilgrimage. The one-day pilgrimage was lengthened to two days after 1955. 


     We take the earliest HSR ride, but by the time we arrive at Beigang at 9:30 a.m., the pilgrimage has started in front of the temple. 


     In the two-day-long pilgrimage, the six sea goddesses (ranking from No. 6 to No. 1) and the other gods worshipped in the temple will tour around Beigang to inspect and bless the locals. The cults are placed in exquisitely-decorated palaquins carried by numerous bearers, ushered out of the temple in order. 


     Apart from the colorful palaquins and well-organized bearers, no celebration can do without firecrackers. The moment we step into Beigang, we are immediately welcomed by the "passionate" explosion. 


     The Matsu Pilgrimage is the yearly religious event in Beigang, so many people who grew up here will go back to their hometown at this time of the year to be part of the celebration. Every goddess has a specific group of bearers who are extremely loyal and devoted to their task. During our stay in Beigang, I strongly feel that the whole town is involved in the event, and there is such cohesive power resulting from the locals' enthusiasm for their culture. 


     In the photo is the earliest form of setting off firecrackers. The fire stove is topped with the iron of a coulter. When the charcoal heats the coulter, it can be used to set off the firecrackers and thrown at the palaquins when lighted. 


     To witness the process, we try to gather in front of the temple, but the moment the firecrackers let off, it feels like my eardrums are about to break. Then the smoke forms into huge gray flowers floating into the sky. Despite the deafening noise, it's impossible not to feel thrilled meanwhile. Many bearers' faces turn "black" at the end of the parade because of the smoke. 


     A tremendous budget is spent on firecrackers. The remains have to be immediately cleaned by an excavator. 


     I visited Kyoto, Japan for the renowned Gi-on Festival in mid-summer seven years ago. In fact, the Matsu Pilgrimage in Taiwan is no less significant than that though I see only a handful of foreign tourists in Beigang. Besides the event, the unique local feel and wonderful food of Beigang also make the town a must-visit place for both Taiwanese and foreign travelers. 


     After the ceremony of welcoming the gods out of the temple, it's time for a quick break starting at 10: 30 a.m. At the same time, other things are going on. For example, the floats that are going to tour around the town can be found on the streets. 


     Every float has its theme based on folklore or religious stories. On some, children put on traditional costumes to play the roles in the story. Other floats feature musical or dance performance by adults. The  earliest floats were carried by people, later by animals and today they are fuel-powered. 


     Since cosmeticians are in great demand during the celebration, many people volunteer to help out. There are indeed many special moments to capture during these two days.


     The parade starts again in the afternoon. This time worshippers from other temples in Taiwan bring the statues of their gods to worship in Chao-tien Temple. The parade is accompanied by many traditional performances featuring different famous figures in Taoism. 


     The bearers seem to have their own routines. They will shake the palaquin and move their bodies at their own tempo. 


     The statues and palaquins are dazzlingly decorated. 


     As the sky darkens, it is time for dinner. Basically, people living in the same neighborhood will hire a chef to prepare the feast. Every family sits down at the round tables placed in front of their house celebrating not only with their own relatives but also with friends from afar like us. Thanks to Guei-mei, we are blessed with the privilege of experiencing the Beigang-style dinner party. I can't describe in words how friendly these people are. 


     At six p.m., the floats will begin touring around the town. The children will throw candies at passers-by. We have so much fun picking them up. It is said the sweets will ensure us a smooth year. 


     The float parade lasts late into night when the town drowns in fast-beat music and and festive fireworks. 


     I thought about experiencing the Matsu Pilgrimage for years, and how fantastic it is that I've made it this year. To be honest, this is a festival that Taiwanese people have to take part in at least for once in their lifetime! 

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