The annual eight-day Mazu Holy Pilgrimage from Zhenlan Temple (鎮瀾宮; zhènlángōng) in Dajia (大甲; dàjiǎ) to Fengtian Temple (奉天宮; fèngtiāngōng) in Xingang (新港; xīngǎng) has become one of the greatest and perhaps most bizarre of all Taiwan’s religious festivals. The event has become a veritable media circus, attracting ambitious politicians and even street gangs who in the past have ended up fighting over who “protects” the goddess during the procession.

The pilgrimage traces its origins to the early nineteenth century, when Taiwanese pilgrims would cross the Taiwan Strait to the Mazu “mother temple” in Meizhou in Fujian every twelve years. The practice was suspended after the Japanese occupation in 1895 but cattle herders are believed to have restarted the pilgrimage in the 1910s, making the more permissible journey to Chaotian Temple in Beigang, long regarded as Taiwan’s most senior Mazu temple. In 1987 however, after Meizhou officials assured Dajia that its Mazu statue was equally sacred, Beigang was snubbed with a new annual pilgrimage route to what was considered a “sister” temple in Xingang, 5km east.

The core procession comprises a series of palanquins that ferry Mazu and other senior Taoist deities 300km through rice fields and small villages, the roads lined with believers who kneel to allow Mazu’s palanquin to pass over them for luck. Stops are made at smaller “branch” temples to enhance the power of local deities, and a constant stream of free drinks and food is handed out to the pilgrims trudging along behind. If you want to experience the mayhem you’ll need to plan ahead – the best locations to watch the procession are in Dajia itself when it leaves town and returns eight days later, or in Xingang at the end of the third day when the town becomes a massive carnival of parades and traditional performers. The statue remains in Xingang for a day of celebrations (confusingly termed “Mazu’s birthday”, though the official birthday is Lunar March 23) before embarking on its four-day journey back to Dajia. Unfortunately, it’s hard to know when the parade will start until a few weeks before: the day of departure is determined by a special cast of “throwing blocks”, on the eve of the Lantern Festival (usually in January or February). The parade itself usually takes place in April in the period leading up to Mazu’s official birthday (see wmazu.taichung.gov.tw for the schedule; Chinese only). Dajia Bus Company runs minibuses from Taichung train station (on the corner of Jianguo and Chenggong Roads) to Dajia throughout the day, but you can also pick them up on Taizhonggang Road.

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