Taipei, Taiwan (CNN) — The sweet fragrance of a thousand sticks of burning incense curls into reverent smoke clouds on this lucky night of the new moon.
We are inside Taipei’s oldest temple, Mengjia Longshan Temple, deeply immersed in the history and traditions of this chaotic, modern city in Taiwan.
On the first and 15th night of each lunar month, Buddhists, Taoists and worshipers of the ancient goddess of the sea, Matsu, gather here to pray, bring food and flowers and share the wonders of their faiths. It has been the same here twice a month, almost every month, for almost 300 years.
Immigrants from China’s Fujian province built this ornate temple in 1738 during the Qing Dynasty. It has been damaged by earthquakes, storms and war but restored numerous times. It is exquisite.
Here’s what you can expect when you travel here:
Inside the temple
As with many East Asian temples, it has three decorated gates, one inside the next.
In the first courtyard is a waterfall, a point of ablution that recalls the water wells outside mosques, the baptismal waters of Christianity and even more ancient, the washing spring at the base of Greece’s great Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Carved, richly painted dragons guard the entrances. Inside the main chamber is an explosion of brilliant color.
A waterfall welcomes visitors inside the first gate
Tonight, there are the people — hundreds of them, from every section and class of this society. They hold incense between their clasped hands or with their hands open flat and pressed against one another in front of their chest or against their forehead, facing toward an altar or a richly decorated table, bowing and praying.
When they are finished, they place the incense into huge gold pots, many decorated with religious figurines. Some set bright candles alight on massive candelabra. The ceilings are rich with gold.
On the walls hang signs with ancient poetry. Long tables are filled with food, which those who have brought it later eat to imbibe the blessings the food has absorbed. Everywhere there are flowers, thousands of flowers.
Just outside are the teeming streets of Taipei — the bustle of the Longshan Temple metro station, the chaotic tastes of the Huahsi night market, the strange sights of Snake Alley, and the overwhelming crowds and commercialism of the Ximending shopping district.
Beyond the horizon, the mainland’s missiles — said to number in the hundreds — poised to arrive in just seven minutes.
But inside Mengjia Longshan Temple, all that curls away. For the hundreds of believers who gather here, for these few minutes, on this night of luck and wonder, there is just the Path, reverent peace and a connection with history that stays with the visitor long after the next morning dawns.
How to get there
Location: No. 211 Guangzhou Street, Wanhua District, Taipei City
Hours: 6:00 a.m.-10:20 p.m.
Getting there: Driving the circuitous streets of inner-city Taipei is not for the faint-hearted, and parking can be challenge. Instead, take the MTR (subway) to Longshan Temple Station. The temple is across the street. Alternately, take the MTR to Wanhua Station. The temple is about four blocks north.
This article was originally published in August 2012 and reformatted in December 2017.
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