Saturday, March 23, 2013

A Close Look At Dajia (Travel In Taiwan)

Here’s an an odd fact. Dajia (大甲) was named one of Taiwan’s top ten tourist towns last spring, yet - as far as bureaucrats are concerned - it had ceased to exist more than a year earlier. Ever since Taichung County was merged into Taichung City, the town has been a mere part of one of the municapilty's 29 districts.

The district’s almost 80,000 inhabitants aren’t fazed by these changes. The place called Dajia at the center of the former township is still a "town" in everything but name. It has great character and history, and it retains its preeminent place in Taiwan’s religious culture thanks to Jenn Lann Temple (鎮瀾宮). This house of worship is known throughout Taiwan as the start and end point of the annual pilgrimage honoring Mazu, the Goddess of the Sea who’s perhaps Taiwan’s single most popular deity.

The custom of worshiping Mazu was brought to Dajia and other points on Taiwan’s west coast by 17th- and 18th-century migrants from mainland China’s Fujian province, and Jenn Lann Temple was founded in 1732. However, as our guide explained, people were living in Dajia long before those settlers arrived. In fact, the toponym Dajia derives from the name of the lowland aboriginal tribe that once dominated the area, the Taokas.

Like Taiwan’s other indigenous groups, the Taokas were of Austronesian origin and spoke a language very different to Mandarin or Taiwanese, but somewhat similar to the Maori tongues of New Zealand. As a distinct tribe, the Taokas disappeared long ago, but some of their culture lives on in special local traditions.

That aboriginal beliefs have influenced local religious practices is obvious at the little shrine where childless couples hoping for a baby pray to a 30cm-high rock. At first glance, the Baogong Stone has a crudely phallic appearance. But if you look closely, you’ll notice what could be eyes and other facial feature...

This article appeared in the March-April issue of Travel in Taiwan.

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