FYI SOUTH Magazine, March 2004.




International Dajia Festival Celebrate Matsu's birthday

By Cheryl Robbins Translated by Blankie Hsu

     Each spring, Taichung county's Dajia (Tachia) town becomes a busy hive of religious and tourist activity as preparations for the goddess Matsu's birthday celebrations take place. Matsu, who came to Taiwan with 17th-century immigrants from Fujian province, is the most worshipped deity in Taiwan with hundreds of temples around the island devoted to her.

    There are a number of stories about the origins of Matsu. One of the most popular is that her earthly incarnation was born into a Sung Dynasty fishing family in Fujian. She was highly intelligent and, by the age of 10, was chanting Buddhist scriptures day and night. By the age of 16, she caught the attention of the gods, who gave her a special amulet, used to communicate with the gods, drive off evil spirits, avert disasters, cure the sick and rescue ships from disaster. Instead of dying, she is said to have ended her life on Earth by climbing a mountain. When she reached the peak, the clouds suddenly parted and she was spirited upward. Following her ascension, her spirit frequently appeared to save shipwreck victims and, thus, became known as the guardian deity of sailors and fishermen.

     Matsu's birthday falls on the 23rd day of the third lunar month, but is usually celebrated earlier with a pilgrimage to sister Matsu temples. The pilgrimage procession starts from the Chenlan Temple in Dajia and goes hundreds of kilometers through Taichung, Changhua, Yunlin and Chiayi counties before returning to Dajia eight days later.

    Matsu takes part in the journey in the form of a statue, respectfully carried by her followers in a sedan chair. A number of companions in the form of large puppets create a colorful parade. These include her "bodyguards", who also serve as her eyes and ears. At the front of the procession is a person who acts as a messenger, striking a handheld gong to announce Matsu's arrival.

    The start of this procession is the highlight of what has become a month-long international festival designed to help more people to learn about Matsu's history and culture, and to boost local tourism. This year, the festival starts in early March and continues until April 24. The procession will begin around 10 p.m. on April 17, with thousands of well wishers crowding the streets of Dajia to see Matsu off, and a parade featuring lion dances, floats, a variety of performing artists, the lighting of piles of firecrackers and the sounds of gongs and drums. Preparation festivities begin in the afternoon at about 3 p.m. This is one of Taiwan's largest folk religion rituals and is extremely colorful, loud and lively. During the month-long festival, there are exhibitions related to Matsu and folk cultural performances in and around the Chenlan Temple. To emphasize that this is an international festival, organizers have invited musical groups from around the world to perform.

    The Chenlan Temple itself is worth a visit. It was established in 1732 as a shrine for an image of Matsu brought from Fujian Province two years earlier. The shrine was rebuilt as a small temple in 1770, and expanded to its present impressive size over the past 200-plus years.

    For more information about the 2004 Dajia Matsu International Culture Festival, go online to http://mazu.taichung.gov.tw or call the Taichung County Cultural Bureau at (04) 2526-0136.