Mystical welcoming of a god into his Taipei temple
Behind the warren of a late-night Taipei market, a moving ritual took place
I stand there for about an hour, intrigued and mystified, when the chanting ends and one of the women comes over. It is about 9pm. You must come back at 11pm, she manages to say using a mix of English and pointing at my watch.
The God Tu Di Gong
It is later that I learn I am in a Daoist, or Taoist, temple to the god Tu Di Gong, perhaps the most ubiquitous of the gods in Taiwan. My sources are Ning and Elaine (both aged 27), who tell me things as they incinerate offerings to him. Ning has said prayers for her family, beseeching Tu Di Gong that they may have a long life. Elaine is hoping he will assist her cause for promotion in the travel agency where she works.
Tu Di Gong is the Earth Lord, the most lowly god in the Taoist pantheon and so ubiquitous in homes, shops, factories and fields that he even pops up regularly in temples dedicated to other gods. Tu Di Gong protects and guards, and is a benevolent god, very accessible to ordinary people and a good entre to the higher gods.
In Tu Di Gong’s temple by the Liaoning food market when I call back at 11pm, an event of major importance is taking place. Gone are the crepe facial wrappings: the plump little pink-faced seated god with his long beard of whispy-white hair is visible for all to see. He wears a gold crown and carries a sycee, or gold-coloured ingot in his left hand, and a sceptre, a ruyi, in his right, the symbol of power and good fortune.
Clouds of incense are belching from a pot in front of him. A priest rubs his fingers through the smoke. He moves about the statue, brushing dust from it and caressing it with his smoky hands, stroking its head and shoulders. At times, the priest emits a rasping noise, seeming to clear his throat, but it is apparent he is performing a rite.
He takes a cup of water and a pen-like stick. He dips the pen into the smoke and then into the water. And then, with precise movements and as though touching up a masterpiece, he approaches Tu Di Gong and delicately tip-touches his eyes, ears, mouth, shoulders and other parts of his body up and down. He does this several times. And after each movement, he retreats, leans back with his hands on his hips and inspects his work.
When he is satisfied that anything that could interfere with Tu Di Gong has been dealt with and that he has been properly welcomed into the temple, the little god is carried to the top altar and placed centre-stage.
A cup of tea
The women bang a great drum and a large suspended bell. It is done. Afterwards – a good two hours later – the friendly woman asks me to join her and the priest for some tea.
And we sat there for maybe 20 minutes, him babbling away, warm and friendly and clearly delighted at the oddity visiting his temple. I understood not a word; he perhaps understood no more from me than the little map of Europe with Ireland in the top-left corner.
The women resumed their chanting, as valid and mysterious a religious observance as you will find anywhere.