Standing in the square outside Longshan Temple, we were hesitant and a little apprehensive about the sea of humanity on every side. Large groups milled around, and a long line snaked in through the main gate, moving slowly or not at all. It was approaching midday on the second day of Lunar New Year, a Saturday, and any hopes of a quiet stroll around a peaceful old temple were dashed. Steeling ourselves for the jostling crowds, the press of bodies, we joined the throng and slowly, slipped inside Taipei’s oldest temple.
Moving through the outer courtyard, and in one of the high wooden doors, all apprehension passed away. Kim wandered off, camera in hand. Finding quiet spaces, back to pillar or wall, I stopped to observe, letting the festive atmosphere wash over me.
A constant hum filled the air as quiet voices joined together, in prayer or muted conversation.
In the doorways of the main entrance, a soft clack, clack, clack could be heard, repeatedly, rhythmically. People dropped pairs of small red wooden blocks, shaped like peaches from a can. Bending down, they examined how they fell, perhaps looking for some auspicious sign of good fortune, before rising, and tossing them again.
Left and right, two brass candle holders stood like twin guards, taller than people. Forming a circle on each were stacks of red candles, bunched together like sticks of dynamite, smoking, flames dancing energetically in the strong breeze. One after another, people approached, touching their incense sticks to the yellow flames.
Between these burning beacons, a long wooden table supported metre-high Buddhas, facing towards the temple’s main hall, surrounded by bright purple, velvety orchids. Above, the temple wood was smoke-blackened, weathered and old. Light glinted off peeling gold-lacquer paint, and carved dragons were worn from a lifetime adorning the temple walls.
The smell of incense filled the air.
In the central courtyard, hundreds of people stood, lightly smoking sticks held between thumb and forefinger, their faces peaceful, reverential. Behind and to the sides, long metal tables were piled with baskets of fruit, dried snacks, biscuits, crisps, dried seaweed and even beer. Small plastic plates were piled at the ends for people to take and fill with their offerings.
Large brass urns sat in the courtyard, white smoke swirling and rising from the burning spirit money inside. A few shafts of sunlight broke through the overcast sky, glinting off the urns, transforming the smoke into a shimmering haze. Through the haze, colourfully-tiled swooping serpents sprung from the corners of the temple roof.
I followed the crowd, crawling up the few stone steps to the main hall, home to Guanyin, the bodhisattva of compassion and mercy. The entrance was thick with people, all praying, some with the utmost devotion. Unable to get too close, unwilling to get in the way, I hung back, admiring the huge bronze and stone pillars, covered and carved with spiraling dragons, people, flowers and strange creatures.
The temple grounds continued round, past Guanyin’s home, to another smaller courtyard. Lining the back of the hall, a row of purple orchids, petaled heads bobbing on long stems, silent watchers. Like before, tables stretched the length of the courtyard, laden with goods, offerings to the gods. In the centre of the courtyard, two more brass candle holders held rings of blood red candles, but here, sheltered from the wind, their flames fluttered tamely.
The courtyard faced Longshan’s rear hall, home to the folk deity of travellers, Matzu. The goddess’s hall was fronted by three tall wooden gates: the middle gate rose tallest, flanked by two smaller ones, all painted bold red and topped by a sunburst. On the roof, tucked in the corners, small mosaically tiled figures looked down on the worshippers, protecting, or maybe warning. Again, the crowd was deep before the temple hall; finding Kim, we stood back and watched.
Slowly, we made our way back through the temple complex, skirting the crowded main courtyard.
Passing out the central door, unseen as we entered before, a huge red lantern hove into view; hanging stately from the darkened beam, it was kept company by an elaborately gnarled tree, reminiscent of a bonsai. Leaving by the main gate, we stopped one last time, pausing to admire the rows of yellow lanterns before setting out into Taipei, the faint smell of incense lingering in the air.
Taipei’s oldest and most famous temple, Mengjia Longshan Temple is central to the history, traditions and culture of Taiwan’s capital city. It celebrates a large number of festivals throughout the year, most notably on the eve of the Lunar New Year. The temple holds a lantern lighting ceremony, and signals the new year by striking a bell and drum from within its towers.
Built in 1738 by immigrants from China’s Fujian province, it has survived war and natural disasters, each time being faithfully and lovingly restored. Although mainly a Buddhist temple, it’s home to many folk and Taoist gods too; both Guanyin and Matzu are accompanied and guarded by a host of other deities. Matzu is particularly favoured among seafarers, and of the 1500 or so temples worldwide, about 1000 are found in Taiwan.
Longshan Temple is a magnificent structure, full of character and history. And far from the crowds making the visit an uncomfortable one, they only serve to add to the experience. Going at a quiet time just wouldn’t be the same.
Longshan Temple is in Wanhua District in the west of Taipei. Take the Blue MRT line to Longshan Temple Station and head for Exit 1. The temple is just in front of the big square as you leave the station.