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A-MA TEMPLE: Tracing the Roots of Macau

I've traveled my whole life. Macau is the Las Vegas of Asia, but I chose to write about a temple that tells of Macau's beginnings instead.


When one goes to Macau it is presumed they are there to gamble. But that wasn’t the case for us. We were just there to see the sites and to go shopping. We were also interested in the food.

But once we were there, a surprising thing stood out for me -- the A-Ma Taoist Temple, (also called Ma Kok Miu). I wish I knew more about it before we visited Macau, because when you go into something “ignorant,” you find yourself grasping at a mere sense of things.


For example, I marveled at A-Ma’s unique architecture, the strangeness of its giant incense coils that resembled hats, a plain structure of many levels designed specifically to hang red envelopes and tickets all around, with not a space unfilled, the flowers, lanterns, and Chinese characters carved in a giant boulder, the joss sticks which, when lit, emanated the smell of incense, the giant urn receptacle where you could place your joss stick along with a silent prayer.


Goddess of Sea Travelers

I know better now. A-Ma’s architecture is unique because it blends taoist architecture with elements of the architecture of different Chinese faiths. This temple was built in different stages, to honor different gods from different Chinese faiths.

The first temple, built in 1488, was constructed in honor of the goddess Mazu, whom travelers and seafarers prayed to during harsh typhoons. The entrance is guarded by two stone, open-mouthed lions, and the lintel portrays a dragon boat. On the sides and below the dragon boat are picturesque Chinese characters.

Mazu was actually a young girl named Lin Mo, who was born during the Song dynasty (AD960-1279) and who came from Fukien, southern China. In fact, most of Macau’s original inhabitants reached the island by sea from the south, and settled there.

Lin Mo had a knack for forecasting the weather, especially typhoons. She is believed to have saved the lives of many locals and fishermen. She died when she was 28 years old, and was deified as “Mazu: Goddess of the Empty Sea”.

Mazu, goddess of the empty sea

Mazu, goddess of the empty sea

A Temple of Many Faiths

The temple that was built to Mazu is situated in São Lourenço. Its architecture blends elements of Taoism with other Buddhist faiths. Freedom of religion is permitted in Macau, and the leading faiths are Chinese folk religions and Buddhism.

The A-Ma Temple as we see it today very closely resembles its original structure in the 15th century. What’s more, this temple preceded the time when the city of Macau came into being. This would explain why it’s a UNESCO Heritage site.

Aside from the A-Ma temple, there are several other pavilions of different Chinese faiths that were built in addition to the original structure. This is because in Fukien, where most of Macau’s inhabitants originated, there were three different belief systems, namely: Chinese folk religions, Chinese Buddhism, and Taoist traditions. Each has its expression in this temple. In sum, one could say that the total complex that is A-Ma was built from 1488 to 1828.


"An Empty Bowl"

Chinese folk religion imbibes different Chinese practices from different parts of the world, including those who reside in SARs, (Macau and Hongkong), and those who have traveled and now live in other parts of the world. Anthropologist Vivienne Wee compares this aggrupation to "an empty bowl”. Within, it is filled with elements of Buddhism, Chinese syncretic religions, Christianity (Catholic), Confucianism, Hinduism, and Taoism.

Chinese folk religion venerates ancestors, nature, and the belief that nature follows a rational order that falls in line with the universe. Their creed states that gods, humans, rulers, and spirits can influence what is natural, and they practice the exorcism of evil spirits.

Buddhism. This is the predominant religion in Macau. However, while most of the region’s inhabitants strongly believe in Buddhism, only a few of them practice it occasionally. Nonetheless, both Buddhism and folk religions comprise 92% of the region’s total population.

A Buddhist Shrine

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Harmony, Order, and Humanity

Taoism Celestial Master, Zhang Daoling founded the Way of the Celestial Masters in 142 AD, a sect of Taoism. Some sects call Zhang, Ge Xuan, Sa Shoujian, and Xu Xun, the "Four Celestial Masters". Taoism blends several different ancient Chinese religious traditions and shamanism. Its rituals are focused on harmony and order in humanity, one’s inner world, and nature. They also practice meditation and rituals to 16 different deities. The current Celestial Master lives in Taiwan.

Taoist monks (called daoshi) perform extremely complex rites, and a single ritual may sometimes imbibe several other rituals, too. The ceremony may include chants, dances, and playing wind and percussion instruments.

These three faiths find their expression in the A-Ma Temple.

Tao in Chinese

This is the Chinese character for Tao. The word is translated as "doctrine", "path", "route", "road" or "way".

This is the Chinese character for Tao. The word is translated as "doctrine", "path", "route", "road" or "way".

A UNESCO World Heritage Site

As the oldest temple in Macau, A-Ma remains, to this day, almost untouched from the time when it was first built by fishermen in 1488 (under the Ming Dynasty). Depending on which side you entered it, A-Ma weaves its way upward to the top of a knoll named Barra Hill.

This temple is more of a religious and cultural village with many adjoining, separate sections, including a Memorial Arch. The five sections are:

  1. The Gate Pavilion. Guarded by two stone lions, this Gate has a roof parapet that resembles a dragon boat. Its facade is marked with artisanal works of animals and displays of historical allegories. Inside, you pass through a footpath with writing on the walls, all in Chinese characters, telling stories and poems. You wish there would be a hidden sound system so that you could listen to the calm chants of the words on the stone.
  2. The Hall of Benevolence. This hall, built in 1488, is the oldest of A-Ma’s six pavilions. It was dedicated to Tin-Hau, Empress of the Heavens, who is believed to be the most adulated goddess in the world. Everywhere her followers went, they built temples in her name. There is even a temple dedicated to her in California. The real Tin Hau was Lín Mòniáng (Silent Girl). She was born in 960 A.D. to the Lín family. As a baby, she rarely cried. Her family was fisherfolk, and she studied Taoism, practiced Buddhism, and worked as a weaver.

One day her father and brothers were at sea when a tempestuous typhoon struck. Mòniáng while weaving, suddenly she fell into a trance. She is believed to have astral traveled to rescue her family, one by one, at sea. In the midst of such a state her mother awoke her, whereupon she dropped one of her brothers. The next day, her father and all her brothers returned, except for one -- the one she had dropped in her trance. All the other fishermen who were also out at sea at the time never returned either. At age 27, Mòniáng ascended into heaven.

Stories and Poems in Stone

  1. Prayer Hall. Also called the First Palace of the Holy Mountain, this hall stands in front of the Hall of Benevolence. It was built in 1605 to also honor Tin hou, Goddess of seafarers. It has lovely lattice windows and roof ridges curled upwards at the ends, resembling a dragon boat.
  2. Zhengjiao Chanlin Pavilion. This Buddhist pavilion is usually considered to be the most striking pavilion of all, in beauty and design. It includes a shrine dedicated to Tin Hou, plus a retreat home. Its ornate facade gate has complex sculptures carved on its wall. In the temple yard, a boat is engraved on a rock, symbolizing a Fukien embarkation scene. The Fukienese are believed to be the first-ever inhabitants of Macau, and most of them were fishermen by profession. This is why Tin Hau was their goddess.
  3. The Hall of Guanyin. This Buddhist pavilion enshrines Saint Guanyin, the attendant of Amithaba, and one of three Western saints. Guanyin, known for his mercy and sympathy, is often prayed to by people when they are in danger. This western saint has many manifestations in many different countries, including one with 1,000 arms, and another with 1,000 eyes. There are also huge boulders with Chinese inscriptions of poems that depict the history and culture of Macau.

In this hall, the Three Western Gods are venerated. First, Guanyin, who is the attendant of Buddha Amitabha. Guanyin is a celestial Buddha according to Mahayana scriptures. The other two western saints are worshiped as bodhisattvas. In Mahayana Buddhism, bodhisattvas were known to have reached Nirvana, but delayed entering this final stage of being so that they could save other suffering beings first.

Guanyin is the Buddhist bodhisattva associated with compassion.

Guanyin is the Buddhist bodhisattva associated with compassion.

What you can do here:

  1. Enjoy the mysterious yet spectacular views.
  2. Discover the pleasant noise of silence.
  3. Walk slowly and meditatively, observing China’s rich and scholarly culture.
  4. Light joss sticks as you would a candle in a Christian church, and walk through A-Ma’s pavilions with its scent as your companion, knowing that as the smoke rises, so too does your prayer, up to the heavens.
  5. Stop and smell the incense from spiral coils that are beautiful, large, saffron hued, and resemble hats. These hanging incense coils take two months before they are completely burned through.
  6. By the time you reach Largo do Pagode da Barra, stop on the curve-designed cobblestones and turn around to take one last look at the A-Ma temple. Long goodbyes are acceptable when you’re traveling.

Joss sticks


© 2021 Mona Sabalones Gonzalez


Mona Sabalones Gonzalez (author) from Philippines on February 04, 2021:

Devika, it is a very rare and special cultural experience. I only came to appreciate it fully, however, when I read about it afterward. I thought it was so amazing that one structure could accommodate three different faiths.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on February 02, 2021:

A unique hub about an interesting place. Sounds a great idea to visit. This is educational and informative

Mona Sabalones Gonzalez (author) from Philippines on January 28, 2021:

Mr. Bill, thank you so much for your kind words. I wonder if I can ask your advice? I tried to make a comment on two of your articles, but I can't do it. I think it's because of Maven. I tried to log in, but when I do I always end up back to my profile. I also thought maybe I have to make another ID for Maven, but there's no signup. I would be very grateful if you could tell me how to make a comment on your articles in Hub.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on January 28, 2021:

All very interesting, Mona! I knew nothing about any of this, so I found it fascinating. Wonderful article! Thank you for the information!

Sp Greaney from Ireland on January 28, 2021:

It's great that you have a temple like this that you can visit. The background story about this was very interesting. Its seems like one of those places that will still be around in many years to come.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on January 28, 2021:

Thanks for sharing the mystique, the richness, the history and spirituality of this A-Ma Temple. I imagine that being there is like visiting an entirely different world. Even reading about it is a great experience

FlourishAnyway from USA on January 27, 2021:

This was different and I enjoyed its cultural influences. I’d love to be able to travel to such a place. At least there is your article to entertain and educate.

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