Folklore,  Heritage,  History,  Travelogues

The Legends of Macau’s A-Ma Temple and Tai Ut Rock

We were in Macau and casinos didn’t interest us. So off we went to explore the heritage and history of this former Portuguese colony. One of our first stops was the A-Ma temple. Built before 1488, A-Ma Temple is Macau’s oldest temple. In 2005, the temple became one of the designated sites of the Historic Centre of Macau, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We were told that it gets very crowded later in the day, so we chose to get here immediately after we had breakfast.

The temple is situated on the western slope of Barra Hill and in Largo da Barra (also called Barra Square). Just across the road is the beautiful bay. Barra Square was originally part of the river in front of A-Ma temple today. Two stone lions guard the entrance to the temple.

How did Macau get its name?

As fishing and trade developed along the coast of Southern China, several fishing villages sprang up. This peninsula was then known as Haojing (Oyster Mirror) or Jinghai (Mirror Sea). One of the fishing villages was built in the sheltered bay of this peninsula and it soon gained importance as a trade centre. Sometime before 1488 during the days of the Ming dynasty a temple was built in honour of the patron goddess of the fisherfolk, A-Ma.

Portuguese navigators first arrived here, on this side of the bay, in the middle of the 16th century. As the story goes, the Portuguese asked the locals the name of the place. The locals thought they were being asked the name of the bay and answered Ama-Gao (A-Ma Bay). Another version says they thought they were being asked the name of the temple and they answered Maa-gok or A-maa-gok (meaning “The Pavilion of the Mother”). Whatever the correct story is, this error in interpretation resulted in this peninsula getting its name— Macau.

The most striking feature as we entered the temple were these giant coils. First we couldn’t figure out what they were, but as we got closer we noticed that they were giant coils of incense, and each of them was slowly burning disseminating fragrance. We hadn’t seen such forms of incense sticks ever before and it was rather unique.

As we walked ahead, we noticed several people praying and lighting giant incense sticks. Incense was being sold in different sizes (some really giant sticks taller than us), as were candles shaped like lotuses.

Further ahead were several fluttering red coloured cards hung to a fence. These were prayer charms. People had inscribed their wishes on these cards. Several small idols were located in the courtyard.

The Legend of A-Ma temple

A-Ma (meaning ‘mother’ or ‘grandmother’) is the patron Goddess of sea-farers and fishermen in the coastal regions of China. She is also known as Tian Hou (Heavenly Empress) or Māzǔ .

As the legend goes, A-Ma is the name given to a girl named Lin Mo or Lin Moniang who was born in the year 960 in a small fishing village on Meizhou Island in Putian city in the Fujian province during the times of the Song dynasty. It is said that since she did not cry at the time of her birth, or during the first month afterwards. She remained a quiet and pensive child as late as four. She was called the “silent girl” (Moniang).

It claimed that while still a girl, she was visited by a Taoist master named Xuantong who recognized her spiritual powers. By 13, she had mastered the book of lore he had left her and gained clairvoyant abilities and visit places in spirit without travel. She was able to manifest herself at a distance. She was also said to be a rainmaker during times of drought.

She was an excellent swimmer and was often found on the shore, dressed in red and guiding fishing boats home during bad weather. When she was 16, her father and brother were out at sea, and caught offshore when a terrible typhoon arose. She prayed for them, trying to rescue them during the crisis. As she concentrated she fell into a trance. Thinking it was a seizure, her mother tried to wake her up from the trance. This distraction caused her to lose her brother, but she managed to ensure that her father reached the shore safely and tell the other villagers of the miracle that had occurred.

Lin Moniang lived up to 987. The earliest record about her is from two centuries later, from an 1150 inscription that mentions that “she could foretell a man’s good and ill luck” and, “after her death, the people erected a temple for her on her home island.” After her death, A-Ma was worshipped as a young lady wearing red dress. In religious depictions, she is usually clothed in the attire of an empress, and decorated with accessories such as a ceremonial hu tablet and a flat-topped imperial cap (mian’guan) with rows of beads (liu) hanging from the front and back.

During Māzǔ’s birthday, which takes place on the 23rd day of the 3rd month of the lunar calendar, rituals are held at the temple where believers pray for blessings and offer sacrifices. Fishermen sail their boats to A-Ma Temple to show their respect to Māzǔ. The celebration extends to Barra Square in the afternoon as worshippers gather there for a festive feast, followed by a Chinese opera performed in a bamboo hall nearby.

Although many of Māzǔ’s temples honor her with titles such as Tian Hou and Tian Fei, it is customary never to pray to her under those names. It is believed that during an emergency hearing one of her formal titles, Māzǔ might feel obligated to groom and dress herself to befit her title before receiving the petition. Prayers invoking her as Māzǔ are thought to be answered more quickly. In late imperial China, sailors often carried effigies of Māzǔ to ensure safe crossings. Some boats still carry small shrines on their bows.

The Main Temple Complex

This iconic Macau landmark has a range of pavilions, each of which is dedicated to the worship of different deities inspired by Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism and multiple folk beliefs.

The temple features multiple prayer pavilions set on different levels of the hill overlooking the Inner Harbour. There are six main parts: The Gate Pavilion, the Memorial Arch, the Prayer Hall, the Hall of Benevolence (the oldest part of the temple), the Hall of Guan Yin and Zhengjiao Chanlin – Buddhist Pavilion. Each of the pavilions was constructed at a different time, and the present configuration dates back to 1828.

Guarded by a pair of stone lions, the Gate Pavilion is a granite structure measuring 4.5 metres wide. The sentinel lions are supposed to prevent evil from entering the complex. Ceramic animal decorations such as monstrous fish are seen on exaggerated upturned roof ridges, forming a very distinctive profile.

A succession of pavilions are aligned with the main gate, starting with the Memorial Arch (pai lou), which leads to the Prayer Hall located in front of the Hall of Benevolence. The Prayer Hall dedicated to Tian Hou (Goddess of Seafarers) is a granite structure featuring lattice windows and upturned roof ridges. According to some inscriptions found on the stones at the site, the Prayer Hall, which is also called the Palace of the Holy Mountain, was built in 1605.

In the open courtyard which lies ahead, you can see rocks with scriptures written on them. These rocks have poems and inscriptions which give details about the history of Macau. There is also a relief carving of a lorcha (Chinese ship) on a boulder, drawn in honour of the sea goddess.

On the left is the earliest structure which was constructed in 1488: the Hall of Benevolence (Hóngrén Diàn). This tiny chamber is the smallest on the complex, but is actually the most significant. This spot is the original hall for the worship of A-Ma. The Hall of Benevolence, built in granite and brick and painted red, incorporates the natural slope of the Barra Hill in its construction. Like the Prayer Hall, the roof is covered with green glazed tiles and decorative roof ridges. It is easy to miss this as it is surprisingly quiet compared to the Prayer Hall and the Zhengjiao Chanlin pavilion. But if you poke your head into the small room, you see the illuminated image of A-Ma at the back of the altar.  At her sides, carved into the granite, are her four attendants. The two human members of her retinue are the Book Keeper and the Keeper of the Gold Seal.  She also has her two demonic guardians, Thousand Li Eyes (Qiānlǐ Yǎn) and Favourable Wind Ears (Shùnfēng Ěr). 

A zigzag stairway goes upwards to the Hall of Guan Yin. The Hall of Guan Yin is a plain brick structure, roofed in the yingshan (flush-gable) tradition. In comparison, the Buddhist Zhengjiao Chanlin pavilion has more refined architectural details and is more impressive in scale. It consists of a shrine dedicated to Tian Hou and a retreat area with a roof fashioned in the yingshan style. The shrine is a four-beam structure housed within high gabled walls that were used to protect against the risk of fire.

The front façade of Zhengjiao Chanlin pavilion features a moon gate, elaborately trimmed in granite and is richly decorated with colourful wall sculptures as well as delicate ornaments.  It has colourful reliefs of birds and fantastical lions under the eaves. Below the friezes and a placard reading “ten thousand faction imperial school” (wàn pài cháo zōng) is a fully circular moon gate.  This is not for human passage and is the spirit door of the temple.  During the day, the metal doors remain open, but at night the door is bolted to stop malicious ghosts from entering.

As you enter the open air Buddhist pavilion, the smoke from the incense and the jostling tourists grab your attention. Several people will be found praying. Although this temple is dedicated to A-Ma, the Buddhist section of the temple attracts more tourists. In the centre of the altar, A-Ma looks out between two lit up towers of miniature images of the goddess.  To her right sits the Dharma Protector Skanda in his full armour and to her left, the Bodhisattva Kshitigarbha. 

As we left the main temple and climbed up the stairs we saw a rock with two Chinese characters inscribed on them. These spell Tai Ut. What do these words mean? What is their significance?

The Legend of Tai Ut Rock

While the fishing community demonstrated ardent religious fervour and worshipped A-Ma, a strange thing happened which worried them. One year, all the vessels set sail except for one owned by a fisherman named Mak Kam Tai, who was very busy and failed to arrive in time for the festivities. Near the Nine Islands a black cloud formed, it sucked up the water from the sea, formed a column that surrounded Mak Kam Tai’s boat and tore it to pieces. The disaster occurred in front of the temple, where there were hundreds of other boats, but none of those were harmed. Only two of Mak Kam Tai’s crew members, witnesses to the terrible tragedy, were saved. Such a calamity began to happen every year in front of this temple, around the 23rd day of the third moon, on the day of the festival of the Goddess A-Ma. People believed that on this day, the goddess left the temple to visit her home town in Fujian. And in her absence the protection from the seas was gone.

It was around this time that Lai Pou I, a famous diviner, visited the A-Ma Temple and began to study the site with a compass placed next to the enormous rock beside it. After touching the rock, he told the people that it was exactly in that place that the presence of harmful air was most pronounced. Lai Pou I said the influence of the harmful air must be countered as soon as possible, because “the current of the Big River, on the border with Lapa Island, meets the portion of the river that is opposite the temple, digging the riverbed and shaping it into a wide and deep basin like a fishing net. So Ribeira Grande is like a fisherman who casts his net every year and catches a boat”. Fishermen and traders tried to raise large sums of money to pay Lai Pou I to bring an end to this dangerous influence.

He etched the two large red characters into the rock – Tai Ut – which means ‘root cause’, the Taoist phrase that prevents any kind of tragedy. After that, he buried a sword with its edge facing the Ribeira Grande River under the rock, to cut the strings of the harmful fishing net. Thus the imaginary fisherman created by the diviner was stopped from hauling his terrible net. From then on, no more mysterious shipwrecks occurred in front of the A-Ma temple.

Today, Māzǔism is practiced in about 1500 temples in 26 countries around the world, mostly in the Sinosphere or the overseas Chinese communities. Of these temples, almost 1000 are on Taiwan. Temples dedicated to Ma-Tzu also exist in Japan, Australia, Myanmar, Singapore, Phillipines, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.

How to get here

A-Ma Temple is located near Barra Square, in the southwest part of Macau peninsula. Bus routes 1, 2, 5, 9, 10, 11, 18, 21A, 28B, 55, MT4, and N3 also stop near the temple. Wear comfortable shoes as you will be required to climb several steps.

While the temple is open all year-round, the most festive times to visit are during Lunar New Year celebrations, and during the A-Ma Festival, which honors A-Ma’s birthday on the 23rd of the lunar third month.

(The legend Tai Ut Rock was adapted from “A Rocha Tai Ut do Templo da Barra” by Luis Gonzaga Gomes, published in Macau Factos e Lendas)

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