Religion in Taiwan: 2. Home of the Gods

Posted: 2014 年 03 月 05 日 in Religion in Taiwan
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Dragons and Phoenixes

    One important element of architecture is the temple roof. This is where one finds the most ornate décor and skilled craftsmanship. Indeed, temple roofs are alive with images of deities, immortals, legendary heroes and fantastic mythological animals, all of which serve to attract good fortune to and repel evil from the temple and surrounding community.

    The center ridge of a temple roof usually is crowned with one of four symbols: a pagoda, which represents a staircase to heaven; a flaming pearl, which symbolizes the beneficial yang (陽) spirit, the sun, and usually is flanked by two dragons; a magic gourd, which is said to capture and trap evil spirits; or the Three Star Gods of Posterity, Wealth, and Longevity (福祿壽三仙). These roof symbols usually reflect the role of the temple’s main deity. Often one of these symbols tops the main gate while another crowns the main hall.

    Below this central symbolic image ae the fantastic and often gaudy assortment of figures so much associated with Chinese temples. The eaves slope down, then rise again in sudden curves, with multicolored dragons and phoenixes, fish, and flowers flying from the timps. The phoexnix, a mythical bird said to appear only in times of extreme peace and prosperity, and the dragon, symbol of strength, wisdom, and good luck, are the two most auspicious symbols in Chinese mythology.

    These exterior features, however, are at first glimpse very much the same in Buddhist and folk-religion temples alike. Inside the difference is much more obvious. Buddhist temples and monasteries in general contain few images, with one to three major gilded Buddhas on a main altar. Confucian temples, severe by comparison, do not contain any images. The image of Confucius can be found on one or two of the altars of a few folk religion temples, however.

 Home of the Gods

    In the eyes of devotees, folk-religion temples are the public residences of the deities. Taiwan’s temples were originally built in the 18th and 19th centuries by Chinese craftsmen. They range in size from small, dog kennel-size shrines containing one or two images or tablets to large establishments with several main halls flanked by minor ones, each holding separate altars and murals. As a rule, a temple is named after the chief deity on the main altar. Even if the temple has a literary lable or is home to a scor of other gods, the locals still usually refer to it by the name of its principal deity.

    Once drab with age and lack of maintenance, many of these old temples have been renovated in recent years. In some cases, their colorful new ornamentation has transformed them into exotic curiosities that may appear garish to the Western eye. Modern folk-religion temples have also been built, especially in central and southern Taiwan. These are invariably large and costly buildings with only one or two images.

    The interior decoration of folk-religion temples varies considerably. Many of them contain fascinating murals depicting scenes from Chinese mythology and history. Pillars and balustrades may be intricately carved works of art. Most temples have guardians painted on the outside faces of the main doors; these pairs can vary from ferocious generals to more benigh-looking military and civil mandarins, or even young learned scholars.

    The main altar of a typical folk-religion temple bears the image of its major deity attended by minor aides, officials or servants. Fronting the principal deity is a smaller image of the same god; this miniature is borne from the temple precincts to bless devotees as they stand in their doorways, or is carried during festivals to other neighboring temples.

    In addition to the main altar, most temples also have two secondary altars flanking the main one on either side; in some larger temples, there are further altars down the side walls. Beneath the main altar, at ground level, are one of two forms of small altar. One contains a tablet dedicated to the tutelary or protective spirit of the temple itself; the other contains stone or wooden “white tigers,” the bringers or destroyers of luck. A common offering for these tigers is a slab of fatty pork.

An overview of folk religion in Taiwan

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