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Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Ma-Cho Temple, San Fernando,
La Union, The Philippines

[Don't miss our stop at the Pindangan Ruins on the way to this temple.]

Main Hall of the Ma-Cho Temple, note Drum (L) and Bell (R) Towers

On July 20, 2019, in celebration of my 64th birthday, Lila and I hired a car and driver to take us (with the boy) 3-1/2 hours north, to the capital city of San Fernando Province, La Union. There we visited two sites: First, the ancient ruins of the Pindangan Church (to be posted later), and then the main focus of the trip: the immense and beautiful Ma-Cho Temple on a hill overlooking the West Philippine Sea.

A plaque at the temple tells the story (note that "Ma-Cho" is the local, Hokkienese [Fujianese] pronunciation of the well-known sea goddess Mazu, also called Tianhou in Mandarin):

Nestled atop a hill overlooking the beautiful San Fernando Bay of the town of San Fernando, La Union, the Ma-Cho Temple was constructed in honor of Ma-Cho, a Chinese deity of the Sung Dynasty. Ma-Cho hailed from the scenic island of Mo'chow [Meizhou], province of Fukien [Fujian] in Southeastern China. In the Philippines, among Christians Ma-Cho is known as the Virgin of Caysasay. The image of the Virgin of Caysasay first appeared in Taal, Batangas, 1603. Presently it is enshrined in the town's Basilica of St. Martin.

The image of Ma-Cho in this temple was a parting gift of love in 1968 [the temple brochure says "1972"] of Taiwanese fishermen to devotees of Ma-Cho in La Union. The distinctive features of the temple were inspirations of Ma-Cho through "buyong" sessions; construction of the temples was spearheaded by Dy Keh Hio, supported by Minister Jose D. Aspiras of the Ministry of Tourism, Representative Liu Tsung Han of the Pacific Economic & Cultural Center of the Republic of China for his successful efforts in the solicitation of imported decorative materials and many other devotees from all walks of life belonging to various nationalities residing in the Philippines and abroad.

Architect Thomas S. Diokno executed the designs of the temple complex and engineer Victor B. H. Dy assisted in the execution of electrical designs.

Ground breaking took place September 11, 1975 and actual construction work commenced on December 2, 1976; the image of Ma-Cho was enshrined in the temple on July 3, 1978 and the temple was inaugurated on December 6, 1978 with Minister Jose D. Aspiras and Mrs. Amparo M. Aspiras as Guest of Honor and principal sponsors.

[There follow two lists of names: The Board of Trustees, and the Construction Committee. Dy Keh Hio was President of the first and Chairman of the second.]
Main Hall from the Guantin Terrace (see below), with utility
building beyond and the Drum Tower in the foreground

There's lots to unpack in this description. For one thing, the unexplained statement, "among Christians Ma-Cho is known as the Virgin of Caysasay." This alludes to an unusual example of syncretism. The temple brochure says, "many devotees both Taoist and Catholic believe that Ma-Cho and Our Lady of Caysasay, enshrined in Labac, Taal, Batangas, are one and the same, a unique relationship found only in the Philippines. Both shared close affinity to water and special affection for seafarers and people residing by the sea."

Later, it says, "Every year, during the 5th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar, the image of Ma-Cho travels to Taal for a pilgrimage, and a special mass is performed in the Shrine of Our Lady of Caysasay. The image returns to La Union the following day to start the five-day festivities."

I have no idea how this association between two statues "living" 391 kilometers (243 miles) apart by road got started, but I suspect it had something to do with someone--a priest? a Daoist devotee?--migrating from one place to the other. (A page on the temple's website tells more about the Virgin's legend, but nothing about how the two places became linked.)

Anyway, cool!

San Fernando Bay seen through the temple's front gate

Another interesting point is these "Taiwanese fisherman." The brochure explains they gave the statue "in thanks-giving for the hospitality extended to them when their boat was driven off-course and they sought shelter by the shores of San Fernando bay during a powerful typhoon..." It should be noted that San Fernando Bay lies around 600 kilometers (a little over 370 miles) from the southern tip of Taiwan. So, they just happened to have this statue on their boat? Or one of them was a carver? Or did they send it later? Intriguing...

See the yellow patch above the "T" in "Temple"? That's the image!

About that "image" they gifted: I couldn't see it in the Main Hall! As you can see in the picture, the altar is big, and busy. So when I was researching this article, I learned from Wikipedia that the statue is only EIGHT INCHES TALL! By enlarging a picture on the Wiki site (click it to zoom in on the statue), I saw what it looked like--and found a hint of it in the yellow clothing seen through the bad reflective glass that covers the altar. (Here's a close-up of the statue, from the Temple's "Gallery." You can see another on the outside of the brochure.)

Let's not denigrate the statue for her size, though: some of the finest old statues I've seen have been tiny.

Gifts to please Ma-Cho on a table in front of the altar

Another thing: what are these "buyong" sessions of which they speak? I can't find the (presumably) Chinese word this is based on, but from my reading I assume these are meetings with a medium. The brochure tells us that "devotees attempt to communicate with the gods and ask questions ranging from 'Will I become rich?' to 'Will my cancer get cured?'" The fact that the plaque says Ma-Cho guided the design tells us she apparently answers at least some of the questions. This is a common Daoist belief.

Now let's take a look at the temple itself.

Arriving by car, we drove up the hill on a driveway to the Main Hall's right, and parked behind it. My description, though, will be as though we started from the front, which can be reached only by a staircase from down below (which we wouldn't have climbed even had we known it was there!)

The first thing one would see from the stairs is the huge "Five Door Gate"--actually a kind of pailou, a gate whose design is derived from Indian originals. And yes, it has five openings (not "doors"), which is pretty extravagant. Behind the gate is a courtyard with a couple of small lotus/koi ponds, and beyond that, the Main Hall, which we'll discuss in a moment.

The pailou with five openings (seen from the courtyard side)

One of the ponds, with a small pagoda in the center

To the left of the Main Hall, along a side wall, are the "18 Arhats" of Buddhism, which have merited a post all their own. Above them, on a terrace, is a statue of Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion (called here "Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy"). The Terrace overlooks the Main Hall, and has a magnificent view of the sea. There is also an Eight-Sided Pavilion here. (One shot in the brochure shows the statue, the Main Hall, and the gate, all in one shot. I wish I had taken that!)

The 18 Arhats (along the Terrace's buttressed retaining wall) have their own post
Not the most beautiful Guanyin I've seen, but acceptable

Guanyin with the Eight-Sided Pavilion behind her and the Main Hall below the Terrace

The Temple's pailou, Guanyin, and the Bay
The Eight-Sided Pavilion

The Main Hall (see photo at the top of this post) is huge: Wikipedia says it's seven stories tall and has 11 tiers. I believe it. It's flanked by a Drum Tower (on the left as you face the front door) and a Bell Tower on the other side. Inside is a large open space, with an altar behind glare-y glass. The best feature, though, is the huge dome with "13 tiers of interlinking wood carvings of saints, a rarity in design and construction..." (per the brochure). There is also a Meditation Hall located below the Main Hall, and a utility (office?) building across the way, to the right of the driveway we drove up.

The pretty little Drum Tower
The astonishing wooden dome in the Main Hall
The Meditation Hall is under the Main Hall

Now here's something you don't see every day: In front of the stairs to the Main Hall are two lions; as usual, the one on the right is male, the one on the left, female. What's NOT so usual is that upon inspection, I noticed the female has... uh... female parts. If you click here, you can see them and their backsides side by side. (Don't click if you're easily offended!)

The male lion is a little unusual, as he has a ribbon strung with coins.
(If you click to see the naughty parts, you'll note
the female is holding a baby; that's more common.)
Click here for the unusual features of the lions, female on the left, male on the right.
(Trigger warning!)

For visitors:

Visitors should note there's a pretty strict dress code: No mini-skirts, no exposed midriffs, no short-shorts, "No dresses or tops with spaghetti straps, with plunging necklines, that expose the bare shoulders or bare-back, or that are see-through," no exposed shoulders, and no tank tops. (Also, no pets allowed.) This list seems pretty squarely aimed at women; interestingly, the only person I saw get scolded by the otherwise-kindly old volunteer in the hall was the kid who tried to walk in with his hat on! Shoes are permitted.

All information was more-or-less current when posted.

Posted September 17, 2019

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