As the drum is struck in rhythm at exactly 12pm, Fernando Ó and several members of the A-Ma Temple Charity Association gather at the inner shrine of Zhengjue Hall. With incense sticks in his hands, Ó solemnly prays to the Taoist goddess Mazu, a ritual he has observed on a daily basis since he became director of the association more than ten years ago.
“A-ma Temple is a villa for Mazu. If we pray to her and call upon her, she will come here more often and give us her blessings,” smiles the 77-year-old, whose family was among the founders of the association in the 1920s.
Ó is not alone in this religious belief. Dating from the early 16th century, before the arrival of the Portuguese, A-Ma Temple, otherwise known as Ma Kok Miu, is the oldest temple in Macao. Each year, it is visited by a large number of worshippers from around the world. Some seek blessings of health and fortune; others pray for the granting of specific wishes such as relationships and children.
But when the belief in Mazu began in the 10th century in Fujian, China, worshippers prayed to the goddess to invoke a specific blessing that concerned their survival.
“Mazu was originally a mortal woman called Lin Mo. She was born on Meizhou Island, close to the shore of Fujian. During her lifetime, she used her spiritual power and weather forecasting ability to save the lives of many fishermen from the menace of typhoons,” Ó explains. “The local people respected her enormously and after she died at the age of 28, she was remembered as Mazu (mother-ancester) or Tian Hou (the queen of heaven).”
The first temple dedicated to Mazu was built on the island in 987BC, where she was revered as a powerful and benevolent goddess that roamed the seas to protect sailors and fishermen. Centuries later, the worship of Mazu spread to a small fishing village nestled on the southern coast of China, which would later become one of the most prosperous cities in the world.
According to Annals of Macao, the first chorography about Macao, finished during Qianglong’s Reign of the Qing Dynasty, legend has it that during the period of Mingli’s Reign (1573 to 1620) a big ship of a Fujianese merchant encountered a monstrous storm and lost its way. Panicked, the sailors and passengers prayed to Mazu for help. Soon, the glowing goddess was seen standing on a hillside amidst the huge waves, guiding them the way to safety.
In gratitude of Mazu’s miraculous intervention, a temple dedicated to Mazu was built at the spot where she appeared. This is believed to be where the history of A-Ma Temple began, and attests to the popular saying that “A-Ma Temple existed before Macao”.
“It was a time when Macao was just a fishing village, and Barra Square (in front of A-Ma Temple) was just a sea of water,” says Dr. Sharif Shams Imon, the Academic Coordinator for Heritage Management and Tourism Management programmes at the Institute for Tourism Studies. “Because people’s livelihoods had such a big connection with the ocean, Mazu, as a goddess of the sea, quickly gained popularity among the local community. Fishermen would visit the temple to ask for Mazu’s blessing and protection, before they set out to brave the seas in search of fish,” he adds.
A-Ma Temple might well have witnessed the beginning of Sino-Portuguese exchanges. When the Portuguese landed near the temple in the 16th Century, they asked the locals the name of the land, but the locals answered “Ma Kok” (the Chinese name of A-Ma Temple), thinking that they were asking for the name of the temple. That’s where the name “Macao” is believed to have derived from.
Over the next few centuries, Macao’s cityscape evolved dramatically. Skyscrapers redefined the city’s skyline, and land reclamation expanded its territory. But A-Ma Temple continues to thrive.
“The Taoists often say it is rare for a temple to prosper for more than three centuries; if it does, that means it has a great spiritual influence, and is efficacious in granting wishes. That’s why people keep coming to seek its blessings,” says Ó.
With a growing number of worshippers and devotees, the temple gradually expanded into a religious complex consisting of four main halls: Hongren Hall, Zhansuo Hall, Zhengjue Hall and Kun Iam Hall. Connected by a spiral staircase winding up the hillside, they form a series of Chinese architectural wonders.
The temple also absorbed elements of Buddhism and Confucianism, Dr. Imon says, making it a representation of Macao’s complex mix of religious influences. Bodhisattva Wei Tuo, Dicangwang and Kun Iam are worshipped in Zhengjue Hall and Kun Iam Hall. Stone inscriptions that imply a Confucius origin are found in different corners of the temple.
Being home to a great wealth of religious and architectural heritage, A-Ma Temple remains highly susceptible to natural or human-caused events such as storms and fire. For the A-Ma Temple Charity Association, which is responsible for the overall management of the temple, the task of preserving the historic landmark is a challenging one.
“A lot of money has been spent on this aspect,” Ó admits. “We have to retain the originality by using the same materials that were used hundreds of years ago, such as bricks and paints.”
As A-Ma Temple is an important component of Macao’s historic centre, renovations that take place inside the temple come under the direct supervision of the Cultural Affairs Bureau. Meanwhile, to keep the Mazu belief alive in Macao, during Mazu’s birthday, which takes place on the 23rd day of the 3rd month of the lunar calendar, celebration parades and lion dances, charity activities such as blessing rituals and rice distribution are organized at the temple by various local associations, including the A-Ma Temple Charity Association. Chinese operas are performed in a purpose-built bamboo hall in the area in front of the temple, not only to reward the mercy of Mazu, but also to entertain the public.
As an incredible treasure trove of history and culture, A-Ma Temple surely has lots of surprises for curious visitors. But when asked what is the must-see part of the temple for first time visitors, Ó’s reply is perhaps what you would expect from a Taoist devotee.
“Everybody comes here with a different purpose, from admiring the architecture and inscriptions, through to seeking blessings from the deities or an old tree,” he says while pointing at a wishing tree in front of Zhengjue Hall, with small prayer charms suspended from its surrounding red frame. “Just pay a visit. Fate will lead the way.”
Keeping the goddess happy, and thus the people. When it comes to the celebration of Mazu, the A-Ma Temple becomes a blissful venue that brings the goddess and the people together.
Chinese New Year
During the Chinese New Year’s Eve, a large number of worshippers visit A-Ma Temple to offer prayers, hoping to be blessed by the goddess in the year to come. The drumming and bell-ringing ceremony is held in the temple to pray for Macao’s prosperity.
On the fourth day of Chinese New Year, local fishermen sail their boats to the entrance of the Inner Harbor, in front of A-Ma Temple. With the boats’ bows facing the temple, they hold a paddling ceremony to honour Mazu.
During Mazu’s birthday, which takes place on the 23rd day of the 3rd month of the lunar calendar, rituals are held at the temple for worshippers to pray for blessings and offer sacrifices. Fishermen sail their boats to A-Ma Temple to show their respect to Mazu. 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.
Anniversary of Mazu Ascending into Heaven
Chung Yeung Festival also marks the anniversary of Mazu ascending into heaven. In celebration of this important event, the parade of worship with Mazu starts at the front of A-Ma Temple to pray for harmony and prosperity in Macao.
Text and photos In Macao Closer, Mar/Apr. 2018