A colorful religious festival beyond compare: 2009 International Dajia Mazu Sightseeing and Culture Festival
By Lishea Zheng Translated by Ann Lee
For most places in Taiwan, this month marks the end of large-scale Lantern Festival celebrations and the drawn-out lunar new year season. However, such is not the case at Taichung county's Jhen Lan Temple, where you'll see countless lanterns hanging inside and outside the temple as decorations, welcoming one of Taiwan's largest, most important annual religious events--the holy pilgrimage for the goddess Mazu (Matsu).
The official name for this annual event is the International Dajia Mazu Sightseeing and Culture Festival and, like always, its highlight is Mazu's holy pilgrimage, which lasts for eight days and seven nights. This year's celebration is extra special, though, as Dajia township will be marking the festival's 10th anniversary. In order to celebrate and add diversity to an important cultural landmark which has taken place since 2004, the Taichung County Government this year is planning seven types of events. These will incorporate elements of martial arts, traditional opera melodies, trade and business, the arts, tourism and academic events to honor Mazu's birthday, utilizing this unique opportunity to present the public with the many sides of Mazu and a rich related cultural history.
This year's Dajia Mazu holy pilgrimage will take place over the course of eight days and seven nights, from March 22 to 29 (the 25th day of the second lunar month to the third day of the third lunar month). The official "Rite to Start" ceremony will take place at 11 p.m. on Saturday, March 21 at Jhen Lan Temple. The pilgrimage route will first take the pilgrims to Changhua City's Nan Yao Temple on March 22 (first day), making a stop at Fu Xing Temple in Siluo township on the 23rd. The next stop is Feng Tian Temple in Singang township on the third day. On March 25, the pilgrimage's fourth day (29th day of the second month on the lunar calendar), there will be a Mazu birthday ceremony at 8 a.m., when the group arrives in Singang, where there is a ritual "Mazu reception" at the local temple.
On March 26, the fifth day, the pilgrims return to Fu Xing Temple in Siluo. They move on to Dian An Temple in Beidou township on the sixth day, followed by Changhua City's Tian Hou Temple on the seventh. Finally, on the eighth day, March 29, the group travels back to Jhen Lan Temple in Dajia.
Throughout this entire journey, Mazu makes her way from Dajia through four central/southern Taiwan counties (Taichung, Changhua, Yunlin, Chiayi), stopping at a total of 21 towns and close to 80 temples. Every step of this 330-kilometer journey is joined by local and foreign devotees.
Recent years have seen a growing number of promotional events designed to inform the public about Taiwan's long-standing Mazu culture. Mediums for promoting this religious festival have also become more e-friendly, creating a more vibrant image that is attractive to younger generations. The result is that each year has more youthful participants. Notably, the colorful event is now attracting large numbers of tourists and foreign visitors, too.
First among the many events being organized this year as part of the International Dajia Mazu Sightseeing and Culture Festival was the "Pray for Mazu Goddess, 2009 Bike Your Way Through Taiwan" event. This massive event, which once again broke a Guinness world record for mass bicycling, highlighted environmental protection and reminded the public to protect the environment and keep it clean by riding bicycles instead of driving cars. Among the participants were friends from around the world, enjoying the pure fun of exploring Taiwan on two wheels.
The upcoming "Regards to my Hometown" event allows the public to enjoy the unique experience of watching folk dances from different parts of the world, much like going to an exotic cultural carnival. Those interested in learning more about this rich, cultural event can go on-line. Until May 31, visit http://ni7day8.touch-web.tw/ and get hands-on information about the festival, any time of the day. A youthful, lively facet of this year's festival will be an array of martial arts shows, as festival organizers have gathered international martial arts masters to perform on the same stage in Dajia. This will be joined by a traditional lion dance show in a talented combination not to be seen anywhere else.
On another interesting note, the 2009 Chong Zheng Cup Shaolin Martial Arts Competition will also take place at the festival site, where you can watch kung fu fighters competing with each other onstage. Traditional opera musical performances and other artistic performances have also been scheduled into this year's program.
The Taichung County Government has made great efforts to present a variety of quality shows to festival goers this year. For more information on the festival program and events, check the events schedule, and pick and choose what you want to attend. The other option, of course, is to simply go straight to the festival site and enjoy a multi-cultural feast, celebrating Mazu's birthday with thousands of local and foreign participants. You can also choose from a number of transportation options for getting to the festival sites, including train.
The main objective of this year's festival is to highlight the traditional Mazu culture and share it with the rest of the world. For those who join all or part of the eight-day, seven-night pilgrimage, there is the sincerity, warmth and humble devotion shared among the hundreds of fellow participants, as one enjoys a truly eye-opening experience and interaction with Taiwan's rich religious culture. Pilgrims also enjoy polite hospitality from local townspeople as they stop at local temples along the way, offering incense to the local gods.
It might not be a bad idea to take a day from your busy schedule to check out this pilgrimage and enjoy a bit of calm. The pilgrimage starts at midnight on the evening of March 21, as the devotees all wave their banners over the Jhen Lan Temple's incense holder and begin their trip. For anyone seeking an unforgettable Taiwanese cultural experience, this year's 2009 International Dajia Mazu Sightseeing and Culture Festival promises to be the biggest, most significant festival yet.