During my time in Taiwan I visited many temples and then as now I delight in the colourful vibrance they add to life. They are sacred spaces in busy cities, places of refuge from traffic and noise, and of course active places of worship. I’ve shared in other posts about the Dragon and Tiger Pagodas and Fo Guang Shan in Kaohsiung; the Ergie Fire Walking Festival; and various other temples. Here I want to share visuals of my visits to some of Taipei’s oldest and most beautiful temples. And because I just don’t seem to be able to finish this post in one go, there will be a Part 2. 🙂
Nick Kembel put together a blog on the best Taipei temples – I won’t re-invent the wheel here, so am sending you to his page if you’re planning to visit Taiwan. Of the many temples he mentions, I visited Guandu Temple, the Dalongdong Bao’an Temple, Taipei Confucius Temple, Bangka Longshan Temple, Bangka Qinshui Temple, Tianhou Temple, Xiahai City God Temple, Xingtian Temple (Hsing Tian Kong), Linji Huguo Temple, Songshan Ciyou Temple, Yinhe Cave, Songshan Tianbao Temple. And some others he didn’t mention… 🙂
There are thousands of temples in Taiwan and an even greater number of shrines in neighbourhoods and homes. Most temples are built in the Southern Chinese style of Qing Dynasty architecture, or Hokkien/Minan architecture, found among the Hoklo populations in Fujian province, Taiwan, and Singapore. Distinctive traits of these temples include swallowtail (upward curving) roofs and statues and carvings made of pieces of porcelain. Generally speaking, the temples are incredibly ornate, colourful, busy (visually, that is), and detailed. Confucius’ Temples would be the exception. About 80% of temples combine religious beliefs and deities from Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and folk religion. Another 20% are specifically Buddhist and tend to be simpler and more zen-like in design. All together, there are more than 15,000 officially registered temples in Taiwan.
Something I learned about later in my journey are the Ten things to pay attention to when visiting a Taiwanese Temple. Good to know before you visit, so this is for you. The article is very informative and available on the Travel Taipei website, which btw is a treasure trove of Taiwan travel information. I am borrowing the first paragraph here to start us off and am summarizing some of the info in the paragraphs below:
Taiwan has thousands of temples devoted to Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism or folk religion. All of these faiths and their numerous deities, however, often coexist peacefully under one roof. Unique, beautiful and sometimes awash in incense and fireworks, Taiwanese temples can be a bit culturally and visually overwhelming for a first-time visitor. With a little prep time, you will be able to better understand and enjoy your temple experience.
Something I love about temples in Taiwan is that they are active places of worship at any time of the day. People of all ages, colours and walks of life will pray, seek answers on life questions, sit in meditation, study sacred texts, receive a cleansing, offer gifts to the gods (mostly something edible) and receive blessings. Generally, photography is allowed (unless signs direct you otherwise), which is a blessing – there is just so much to take in! I found my camera helpful in zooming in, framing and capturing details otherwise easily lost in the ocean of artful figurines, inscriptions, carvings, paintings, lights and lanterns… When taking photos, I try to be discrete and more focused on the art than people, not to say that people don’t enter the frames as well 🙂 My guideline is to be mindful and respect the sanctity of the space. And it’s advisable to avoid standing between a worshipper and the incense brazier or god statues.
Pay attention to the door sills and step over them gently (never on them). These sills of varying heights are an invitation to become aware that you are entering a sacred space and align your energy accordingly. Besides, they serve a double purpose – keeping out flood waters and also evil spirits. So if you stumble and fall, does that mean you’re an evil spirit (wink wink)? The highest door sills I encountered were generally in Confucius temples. 🙂
The doors are painted with Door Gods who guard the temple – generally one dark and grim looking, the other lighter and friendlier. Imposing figures…
Looking at the artwork on top and in the centre of the roof you find three figurines or a mini pagoda, or both – and always dragons :). Wealth, luck and longevity are represented by a man holding a child (wealth), a man holding a ruyi screpter (luck), and a bald, elderly man holding a walking stick (longevity). The number of floors the pagoda has, indicates the rank of the main temple’s deity in the bureaucracy of the gods. Even though Confucius is no deity, Confucian temples have pagodas with nine floors to indicate Confucius’ high regard. Other rooftop designs include dragons, tigers, other animals, flowers, and figures from Chinese mythology. Rooftop fish statues are said to protect the temple by bringing water in the event of a fire. Dragons represent power, good fortune, wisdom and creativity. Every quality needed to guard the temple and achieve enlightenment.
Temples typically have three doorways. To enter, look for the door that features artwork with a dragon (or just pay attention which door locals use). In most cases it’s door on the right. The other door will feature artwork of a tiger. In Chinese culture, it is considered auspicious to enter a temple with the dragon and exit with the tiger. See my post about the Dragon and Tiger Pagodas in Kaohsiung. The middle doorway is reserved for the gods and usually blocked by a gate or fence. Smaller shrines often only have one small doorway.
I think every temple I visited had a pair of stone lions at the front. Even though they look identical, one is supposed to be male (holding a coin or ball) and closest to the dragon door, the other female (with a baby cub hidden underneath) closest to the tiger door. Touching temple decorations is not permitted, except these lions. And as I found out after the fact, there often is a ball you can touch inside the lion’s mouth. It has been carved inside the mouth and is a clever bit of artistry. It cannot be removed.
Flowers, incense and food items on tables and altars inside temples are offerings to the gods. It’s common to see fresh fruit as food offerings are traditionally raw and uncut. On street altars in front of stores I have also seen fresh cut meat, fish, eggs and other items not so commonly seen inside the temples. Nowadays, packaged foods are also common. And depending on the deity there may be other products like beauty products or particular flower varieties for goddesses. During larger celebrations, offer tables overflow with gifts – abundance! I love that the food is given to those in need once the gods have had their fill. Tea, candles and joss money (yellow paper that is burned in a small furnace) are other items you’ll see…
The tossing of moon blocks… many times I witnessed worshippers toss a pair of red moon blocks onto the floor. These crescent-shaped red blocks are known as jiaobei (筊杯), and have a flat and a curved side. Jiobei are used in a designated area and anyone wishing to consult the temple gods may use them. First, you introduce yourself to the gods before asking them a yes-no question and then dropping the blocks on the floor. The landing position of the blocks reveals your answer. If they both land flat side down, the answer is No. Curved sides both landing down means your question is irrelevant, and the rocking blocks indicate the gods are laughing. One jiobaia curved side up and the other curved side down means Yes. You can toss typically between one and three times for any particular question.
In many temples you’ll find a wall (or several) filled with glowing lights, known as guangmingdeng, or blessing lights. This wall is actually made of numerous small boxes with a light and small figure in each one. The figure inside will match one of the main temple deities. At the bottom of each box is the name of the person to whom the box is dedicated. In order to make a donation to the temple, worshippers reserve a box for a loved one. Having a box dedicated to you is believed to bring you good fortune.
Temple ceilings and floors serve as canvases and are richly decorated. Sometimes one doesn’t ‘t know where to look first! Usually, there’ll be a large drum and a bell hanging from the ceiling or a special post. The bell is placed in the East to greet the morning light. And the beating of the drum announces the end of the day at dusk and is placed near a western wall. If the temple is old, the bell and drum may be considered antiques, and may be for display only. Please do not play them.
Dalongdong Bao’an Temple is absolutely lovely – one of the older ones, beautiful craftsmanship and art, very ornate and colourful, and a such enjoyable atmosphere. It is (as the name says) located in Dalongdong. The temple has a UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Award for Culture Heritage Conservation. It was built in 1804 and repaired or expanded many times. Originally, it was the site of a wooden shrine dating back to 1742.
Next door to Bao’an Temple is the Taipei Confucius Temple. As mentioned before, Confucius Temples are much simpler in design, they feel more spacious. Instead of numerous god statues I see tablets and plaques with calligraphy, as well as instruments and other tools related to the six sacred arts. I’ve inserted a couple of slides that talk a bit more about the Confucian School. The Kaohsiung Confucius Temple was much larger and more imposing. I loved this one in Taipei.
Longshan Temple is one of the oldest temples in the city built in 1738 and probably the best known temple in Taiwan. It’s located at the heart of Wanhua District. This area has a bit of everything… outside the gates is a large plaza, always busy with gamblers , old men playing games and betting, beggars, and begging monks. There is a bustling night market close by, and an area that reminded me of Hastings Street in Vancouver, where homeless people congregate paddling their fares… this is the gritty Taipei, where all masks fall away. There is a Buddhist chanting ceremony that takes place every morning at 6 and 8 a.m. – I caught it by chance on my first visit in February 2020 right around the time of lunar New Years’ celebrations. Wonderful!
Shilin Cixian Temple – I just happened upon this gem as I strolled the night market one evening. I’m particularly fond of these memories and images because of the lighting, the lanterns, the ambience, the flowers,… Enjoy!
It took me a while to find Qinshui Temple which is hidden between buildings in the popular Ximending neighborhood. The temple is dedicated to Qingshui Zushi (Master Qingshui), a Song Dynasty Buddhist monk who, according to legend, saved a town from a drought. The ceiling art work in this temple is stunning.
Okay, I shall conclude Part 1 now and publish this post. May you have the most pleasant dreams of dragons and tigers, Buddhas and Taoist Gods, and be saturated with colour, swirls and artsy impressions from this visual journey.
Part 2 will cover Guandu Temple, revisit Yinhe Cave, Songshan Tianbao Temple, and Xingtian Temple; get a little Zen at Linji Huguo Temple; and a slideshow of the Bangka Quinshan Celebration.