Taiwan is FULL of temples – over 4,000 of them. I think I even read somewhere that it has the highest number of temples per square mile anywhere in the world. This post is about one of the most famous of these – Longshan Temple in Taipei.
Built in 1738 by settlers from Fujian during the Qing rule, this temple is visited by thousands of people everyday; some of them worshippers, many of them tourists. This does mean it is almost impossible to take a photo of the temple without a lot of people in it. Thankfully, even this doesn’t detract from the beautiful architecture, incredibly intricate wood carvings and atmospheric feel of the place.
I’ve visited this temple several times – once on my first visit to Taipei, once on a walking tour and a few times since. I find it fascinating every time and each and every time I learn something new. In this blog I’ve thrown together a few of my favourite photos from the temple, as well as a few of the fun facts I’ve picked up along the way.
Longshan Temple has been destroyed a lot. Earthquakes, fires, floods and American bombs during WWII (apparently the Japanese were hiding weapons in the temple) have all caused destruction. Luckily for us, it’s been rebuilt every time. Who has often taken responsibility for the rebuilding? The locals who worship here – Longshan temple is part of the community.
Fascinatingly, Longshan temple is a temple for more than one religion. Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian beliefs are represented, making it the embodiment of religious tolerance and inclusiveness. I can’t think of too many other temples like this.
The first time I visited the temple I was amazed at watching the routines and rituals that people undertake to pray – amazed, but I had absolutely no idea exactly what I was watching. Thankfully, I received a bit of information on my next visit from my Like it Formosa guide. However, it wasn’t until I actually spoke to someone in the temple that I really got to know what was happening. Here’s a bit of a low down.
People pray in front of the Gods relevant to what they’re praying for. If you’re a high school kid and you’ve got an exam coming up, you’ll pray in front of Wenchang Dijun, the God of Culture and Literature. If you’re trying to have kids, Zhusheng Niangniang, the Fertility Goddess is probably a good place to start. If you’re a businessmen, or a police officer, or a criminal, then it’s Guan Yu, the God of War, who is supposed to provide you with wealth, strength and courage. The list goes on.
Every time I’ve been to Longshan there has been one God who is busier than all the others. In the far left-hand corner, you’ll find Yue Lao, or ‘the old man under the moon’. Ladies and gentleman, step up to the Taiwanese cupid. Crowds of twenty to thirty year olds, all looking for love.
So, that’s who you can pray to – but how do worshippers pray? Well, this is where it gets really interesting. Firstly, when entering (which you must do through the right door – left is for the exit and the middle is… for the Gods), you’ve gotta pray to the “host” God of the temple – this gives you permission to enter and to ask questions. You state your name, birthday AND address so that the God know’s who exactly they’re talking to. Then you can move on to pray to whichever God you like – placing three incense sticks in the burner each time you do.
Not only can you pray, but you can ask questions too – but only yes and no questions. For this, you need to get the moon-shaped divination blocks. You drop these in front of you, and depending what way they land gives you your answer (one up / one down = yes, both with the rounded side up = no, both with the flat sides up = the question wasn’t clear enough). It’s not over yet. Once you get THREE consecutive yeses, you can pick from a basket full of answers. You then drop the blocks again, asking if this answer is the real or right answer. If you get a no, rinse and repeat. I’ve been told that you’re not allowed more than three goes to get the answers you need – but apparently those looking for love often flaunt this rule.
If you’re praying for love with Yue Lao, you also get a red thread, which you have to take around the incense burner three times. You’ve got to put this in your wallet and keep it with you until you meet your one true love. Isn’t that nice? But be careful – if you lose it, you’re not allowed to ask for another one until you’re 100% sure it’s gone forever, i.e. you can’t ask for another one if you might’ve just lost it down the back of the sofa.
Finally, people bring offerings too. The first time I visited I was real surprised about exactly what people offer – it’s not all fruit and flowers, like you see in some countries in South East Asia. You’ll see chocolate bars, tea, biscuits, cans of drink, candy and pretty much everything else – I’ve even seen a bottle of blended whisky. Why? Because people get to take their offerings back after they’ve absorbed the blessings of the Gods – so you might as well offer something you like.
All in all, Longshan temple is a fantastic place to visit and I would thoroughly recommended spending an hour or two absorbing the atmosphere of the place – this is easy to do, even if you don’t follow any of the religions which are represented there. If you’ve got any questions or suggestions, please hit me up below.