Even without counting the ancestor altars that are found in many homes, Taiwan has tens of thousands of places of worship. Some of these shrines are no bigger than a sentry box, while others are multi-level palaces. In a good number of the former, the ceiling is so low that those who step inside to make an offering can’t stand up straight. In many of the latter, visitors can wander from one interconnected chamber to another, marvelling at intricate artwork and no-expense-spared decoration.
Visiting and trying to understand a temple is a key Taiwan experience, and an excellent way to gain some insights into local culture. One of the best places to do this is Tainan, which all agree has the lion’s share of noteworthy shrines. The ancient city served as the island’s capital for more than two centuries, and it’s said to have, ‘a major temple every five steps, a minor shrine every three steps’. Buddhist halls of worship tend to be less ornate than the mainstream temples which embody Taoist, folk and popular religious practices. That said, famous Buddhist-leaning landmarks like Longshan Temple (in Lugang in central Taiwan) feature mesmerising detail.
Before setting foot inside a temple, you should spend at least a few minutes looking carefully at its exterior. Before getting too close, gaze up at the roof. At the highest point in the very centre you’re likely to see a trio of statuettes (pictured above right). From left to right, they represent Taoist immortals who symbolise blessings, wealth and longevity.
Now study the facade. Most halls of worship have three entrances, but larger shrines may have five or even seven. However many there are, the central doorway isn’t there for humans to use. It’s reserved for deities and other supernatural entities, so avoid stepping through it. All visitors – whether pious or tourist – are expected to enter via the doorway on the right, and leave through the doorway on the right. The former is known as the ‘dragon door’ while the latter is the ‘tiger door’. As soon as you step inside, turn around so you can appreciate what are called ‘door gods.’
On the each door, a full-body portrait depicts a man (very occasionally a woman or a divine personage) in classical Chinese attire who guards the entrance. Often the faces are based on those of famous soldiers who lived and fought more than a dozen centuries ago, and who were deified after death. These sentinels bear arms, but other door gods hold musical instruments or items that represent scholarship. The one shown lower right is the King of the East and God of Music, one of Buddhism’s Four Heavenly Kings.
In the second and third parts of this article (coming soon!) we’ll look at what can be seen inside a typical temple, and how people offer incense and communicate their prayers.