Tiantan (Altar of Heaven)

the old ceiling inside the main hall of Tiantan

the old ceiling inside the main hall of Tiantan

Tiantan (Tiāntán 天壇)

Tiantan roof decorations

Tiantan roof decorations

Tiantan is usually translated as the Altar of Heaven. It is the altar to the god that rules over all the mortal realms. He is commonly known as the Jade Emperor (Yù Huáng 玉 皇). His worship in Taiwan goes back to the early days of Chinese settlement when Zheng Chenggong made sacrifices on the grounds in which this temple was later built. Tainan’s Tiantan, or Tiangong Temple,  is the oldest temple on the island serving this deity. Today it is at the center of Tainan’s spiritual community.

doorway to rear hall

doorway to rear hall

The Jade Emperor, or Tiāngōng (天公),  is one of the most important deities in the Taoist faith. Although ruling the mortal realms is considered lower in rank than, for example the Three Pure Ones, he is still the ruler of this realm and all that goes on in it. He is part of the creation myth of this world, and in some accounts he created the first humans from clay. He is also at the center of the myth about the origin of the twelve animals in the Chinese zodiac. The Jade Emperor is a central deity in Chinese fatalism, and so many people bring straw dolls to his temples with a hope that they can transfer their bad luck to the doll. Prayers for good fortune or a divine fate are also common. The Jade Emperor is heavily worshipped during Chinese New Year, particularly on New Years Eve and the ninth day of the lunar year. On New Years Eve, he does his annual inspection of mortal deeds and most families make offerings to him from their homes. The ninth day of the lunar year is the Jade Emperor’s birthday. On this day Tiantan temple, as well as other Taoist temples, is absolutely packed with people celebrating the Jade Emperor Ritual (bài tiāngōng 拜天公) with prayers and offerings.

Tiantan is the most popular temple in Tainan, yet I had never even been to it until I stumbled upon it this last Chinese New Years. Even though it’s hidden down a small lane and can be hard to find, it is the spiritual center of Tainan for many reasons. In addition to having the most worshippers, it also boasts the most number of deities and the most number of organized fairs. With its abundance of deities and celebrations, it’s easy to see why the altar is considered a direct link to heaven.

offering incense in the rear hall

offering incense in the rear hall

In the early days of Chinese settlement, the spot where the temple now resides was used as the outdoor sacrificial grounds for honoring the Jade Emperor. There was no temple built there until 1854 when the current one was built. The temple went through restorations in 1899, 1949, 1979 and 1984. The two-story south wing, known as Wusheng Hall, was constructed in 1979. The roof ornaments were the main focus of the 1984 restoration. The temple exterior now bares little resemblance to the original, but many of the wood and stone carvings of the interior are original. There’s quite a diversity of worship idols throughout the temple, but there is not one of the Jade Emperor. A stele inscribed with his name is placed at the center of the main hall. This temple also has one of the most famous “一” (, meaning “one”) tablets in the country.

With its big metal awning and its spacious parking lot in-front, Tiantan is hardly the most attractive temple in Tainan. Still, its bright gold and red colors, its many historical treasures, and its bustling atmosphere make this one of the must-see temples in the city. It is a place where you can really feel the spiritual vibe and both the building and the atmosphere of the temple are rife with character. Also, if anyone gives you the evil eye, this is the place to go to have a hex removed.

crowds offering incense during Chinese New Years

crowds offering incense during Chinese New Years

Location: No. 16, Lane 84, Zhongyi Road (Jhongyi Rd. 忠義路) Section 2, Tainan City.

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