Taipei, Taiwan’s capital city, is buzzing with activity and has a ton of sights to see and things to experience. Undoubtedly, the city’s top draw is its ubiquitous temples. Most temples are either hidden in plain sight or tucked away in quaint alleys, historical blocks, or even between towering buildings. It will be hard to choose amongst the many famous temples in the city. It’s better to shortlist a few before temple fatigue sets in.
People in Taipei are incredibly friendly and welcoming. And that reflects even in their spiritual places of worship. Foreigners are welcomed and allowed to look around. Most temples listed on the tourist radar are active places of worship. Locals offer prayers and offerings to the temple deities. Photography may be restricted in parts of the temple and always pay attention to the instructions. Bear in mind, these temples are important spiritual centres and it’s preferable to be respectful of local practices. Avoid clicking selfies or posing with deities or monks. Instead, try to find a quiet corner to meditate.
History of Taiwanese Local Religion
Taoism is an ancient religion and philosophy that originated in China. Many of its principle deities are actually deified people who made significant contributions to society in the past. Taoist practices and core beliefs are also deeply influenced by the cosmos and nature and imbibe principles from other Chinese schools of thought. During Japanese colonial rule (1895-1945), there was a deliberate attempt to subdue Taoist beliefs because its core principles are intertwined with Chinese culture. Taoist believers were forced to practice their faith, in hiding, inside Buddhist temples. Thus began the duality of beliefs and an emergence of a compound religion based on Taoist, Buddhist, and Chinese folk religions. It’s fascinating to see how these religions mutually coexist today — even after the reason for its origin — is long gone.
Taipei Metro is perhaps the best way to navigate around the city and reach most temples. Directions boards and maps can be found without trouble. Most temples are within walking distance of the metro.
Lungshan Temple was constructed in 1738 for Fujian settlers from China, but was rebuilt into the present day temple in 1919. The temple and the statue of the principle deity miraculously survived the bombing by the allied forces in 1945. Lungshan Temple is designated as an important historical site by the local gorvenment.
The carvings on the temple rooftop are truly exquisite. The fading colour of the carvings adds a rich texture to the ancient form of Chinese storytelling.
The front garden has a gushing waterfall to cleanse a visitor’s heart before entering the temple. On the other side, a dragon sprinkler spurts water from its mouth.
The temple is divided into three halls according to the area of worship. The forehall is the primary place for people to pay their respects to the deity. The statue of Guan-Yin, Goddess of Mercy, is enshrined in the main hall.
Lungshan Temple was the first temple we visited in Taipei. We were a bit tired after our journey from Seoul. The incense in the air was soothing and was the perfect remedy for travellers’ fatigue.
The rear hall of the temple is dedicated to Mazu: Goddess of Marine Voyage. The other deities include the God of War and Goddess of Literature.
We visited the Confucius Temple on the second of our stay in Taipei. It had been a long day of visiting iconic sights in the city and we finally made it to the temple before sunset. Most tourists had left and the only people inside were probably locals. It was close to golden hour and sunlight lit every colour on the rooftop.
Pan Gong & Hong Gate
Pan Gong (East Gate) and Hong Gate (West Gate) have ‘swallow-tail’ styled curves in their rooftop architecture. It is believed that whoever enters these gates will begin their learning in the Confucian School. All visitors have to take the path of righteousness (Yi Lu) and enter from the side gate to show their respect to the sage.
The front garden has a small pond. A family of turtles stared as walked around the pond. The Pan Pond is designed to reduce the heat in summers and prevent natural disasters. The pond’s placement is in accordance to the principles of geomancy (an ancient belief of placing objects in auspicious locations on the ground).
Like most temples, the rooftop is decorated with intricate designs and painted with bright colours.
Each gate is named in accordance to the role it plays in the temple. In ancient times, only scholars who excelled in civil examinations were allowed to pass through the Lingxing (star sign for literature) Gate. The studs on the gate and the painted murals on the beam are believed to ward off evil spirits. Dragons are intricately carved into the stone pillars of this gate.
The Yi Gate leads right into Da Cheng Temple. The main gate is closed on regular days and visitors are only allowed to enter from the side gate.
The Yong Bell and Jin Drum are used during Confucius Ceremony.
Dacheng Hall translates as Great Achievement. Few people wandered here and it’s emptiness was the highlight of our visit.
Baoan Temple Garden
We walked in search of Baoan Temple (a stone’s throw away from Confucius Temple) and entered the side gate of an interesting garden. At first, we thought it was the temple and after walking around we realised it was a garden. Most tourists probably skip this inconspicuous gem hidden in a dense thicket. Locals seemed to enjoy the tranquility and calm of these gardens. I would have loved to spend more time here and take in the quiet.
We walked towards the main gate of the garden and saw Baoan Temple bang opposite.
Baoan Temple is dedicated to Emperor Baosheng Dadi: God of Medicine. The temple was believed to be first constructed in 1742 by settlers from Tong-an County. Baoan loosely means to protect people from Tongan. The temple went through multiple renovations over the years and has received the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Award in 2003.
The temple is divided into an entrance hall, main hall, and back hall. Baoan temple was buzzing with people in the evening. Few tourists had come along with their guides and listened with rapt attention. An usher prodded us to discover the back — the newer part of the temple.
View from the Terrace
We took the elevator to the topmost floor of the concrete building. Each floor has an altar with a presiding deity. But its the view that took our breath away. Cascading red-tiled rooftops spread before us, and occasionally, we’d hear a plane break the silence.
We were just in time for sunset and I find it hard to write in words what we felt. It was a surreal experience. The calm, the quiet, and the overwhelming fumes of incense created an ethereal setting. It was a great way to end a long day of sightseeing.
All Lit Up
The temple was deserted after sunset. The lights, painted murals, and intricate carvings created an aura of mysticism. Baoan Temple’s true beauty lies in its nighttime view.
We retraced our path backwards from the last hall to the entrance. Everything looked spectacular in the pale yellow lighting.
I found a quiet corner and closed my eyes. It was a rare moment in which my mind was empty. It wasn’t cluttered with useless thoughts or meaningless fears. I felt a sense of calm and peace. It wasn’t about faith; just getting in tune with an inner compass.
Dalongdang is a gem to walk through at night. Cobbled streets, sleeping temples, and inviting night markets are perfect to explore. We had to call it a night though and we walked back to the nearest metro.
We visited Ciyou Temple on our last day in Taipei. We had taken the TRA from Hualien to Taipei and barely had half a day to look around. Basil wanted to visit a temple and try to recreate the experience of the earlier temples. Raohe Night Market is besides Ciyou Temple. But it was too early to explore it.
Ciyou Temple is dedicated to the Mazu: Goddess of the Sea. It was completed in 1757 and took 4 years to build. Other deities include the Earth God and the Goddess of Birth.
The last part of the temple also has a modern construction of 3 or 4 floors. We climbed to the topmost floor to get a look of the view.
Each altar has a presiding deity and is surrounded by intricate gold carvings. It was different from the other temples. On the weekend, the temple was buzzing with local devotees.
The rooftop view wasn’t as spectacular as Baoan Temple. It was a sunny day and we couldn’t stay outside. Some experiences cannot be replicated no matter how hard you try.
Taipei Tianhou Temple
We accidentally stumbled upon this temple. It’s tucked in Ximending’s busy shopping street. I wasn’t sure if we could enter, but Basil stepped inside to explore. A group of monks chanted prayers in unison. This temple is very small and I chose to stand at one of the corners. I didn’t want to disturb their prayer or the delicate balance inside.
Tianhou Temple is dedicated to Goddess Mazu — the Empress of Heaven. Basil seemed to be captivated by every sight and kept clicking pictures. A lady walked up to him and signalled that he should take in those sights through his eyes (and mind) instead of his camera. I couldn’t agree more.