This Chinese Buddhist temple is dedicated to the goddess Thean Hou, protectress of fishermen, sailors and others whose lives are dependent on the ocean. She is the deified form of the purported historical Lin Mo or Lin Moniang, a Hokkien shamaness whose life span is traditionally dated from 960 to 987. Revered after her death as a tutelary deity of seafarers, including fishermen and sailors, her worship spread throughout China’s coastal regions and overseas Chinese communities throughout Southeast Asia. She was thought to roam the seas, protecting her believers through miraculous interventions. She may be the most worshipped Chinese deity with more than 1500 temples dedicated to her across 26 countries.
Thean Hou goes by many different names depending on culture and aspect being called upon – Tianhou (Empress of Heaven),Huguo Bimin Miaoling Zhaoying Hongren Puji Tianfei (Heavenly Princess who Protects the Nation and Shelters the People, of Marvelous Numen, Brilliant Resonance, Magnanimous Kindness, and Universal Salvation), Linghui Fei (Princess of Numinous Grace), Tianfei (Princess of Heaven), Mazu or Mat-su (Maternal Ancestor, Granny, Mother), Huguo Mingzhu Tianfei (Illuminating Princess of Heaven who Protects the Nation), Tianshang Shengmu (Holy Heavenly Mother). Although many of Mazu’s temples honor her titles Tianhou and Tianfei, it became customary to never pray to her under those names during an emergency since it was believed that, hearing one of her formal titles, Mazu might feel obligated to groom and dress herself as properly befitting her station before receiving the petition. Prayers invoking her as Mazu were thought to be answered more quickly.
Very little is known of the historical Lin Moniang but legends around her life were broadly established by the 13th century. The early sources speak of her as “Miss Lin”; her given name Mo (“Silent One”) or Moniang (“the Silent Girl”) appeared later. It was said to have been chosen when she did not cry during birth or during the first month afterwards, that she remained a quiet and pensive child as late as four and was the sixth or seventh daughter of a well regarded family in their village. Late legends intended to justify Mazu’s presence in Buddhist temples held that her parents had prayed to Guan Yin for a son but received yet another daughter. In one version, her mother dreamt of Guan Yin giving her a magical pill to induce pregnancy and woke to find the pill still in her hand. Guan Yin was said to have been especially devoted to Mazu or even to have been incarnated as Mazu; for her part, Mazu was said to have been entranced by a statue of Guan Yin at a temple she visited as a child, after which she became an ardent Buddhist.
She is now often said to have studied religious literature, mastering Confucius by 8 and the principal Buddhist sutras by 11. By 13, she had mastered the book of lore a Buddhist (some say Taoist) monk had left her and gained the abilities to see the future and visit places in spirit without travel. Able to manifest herself at a distance, she used this power to visit gardens in the surrounding countryside, courteously asking owners’ permission before gathering any flowers to take home. Although she only started swimming at the relatively late age of 15, she soon excelled at it. She was said to have stood on the shore in red garments to guide fishing boats home, regardless of harsh or dangerous weather. Most legends say she met a Taoist immortal at a fountain at sixteen and received an amulet (or two bronze tablets) which she translated or used to exorcize demons, to heal the sick and to avert disasters. She was also said to be a rainmaker during times of drought.
Mazu’s principal legend concerns her saving one or more family members when they were caught offshore during a typhoon, usually around age 16. As with other aspects of her legend, there are several versions. In one, the women at home feared her father and his sons were lost but Mazu fell into a trance while weaving at her loom. Her spiritual power began to save the men from drowning but her mother roused her, causing her to drop her brother into the sea. The father returned and told the other villagers of the miracle and this version of the story is preserved in murals. Another variant is that her brothers were saved but her father was lost; she then spent three days and nights searching for his body before finding it. Yet another version is that all the men returned safely. In some stories, Mazu was praying to Guan Yin rather than weaving at her loom; another that she was sleeping and assisting her family through her dream. Still another is that the boats were crewed by her four brothers and that she saved three of them, securing their boats together, with the eldest lost owing to the interference of her parents who mistook her trance for a seizure and woke her. The common thread among all versions of the legend is that Mazu had foresight of the peril, came to rescue family members in a supernatural way but failed to save a final person due to other’s interference in her process.
Her death has as many legends around it as her life but the date of her passing eventually became the specific date of the Double Ninth Festival (Chrysanthemum Festival) in 987. In some early records, Mazu died unmarried at 27 or 28 (her celibacy was sometimes ascribed to a vow she took after losing her brother at sea). Some say she died in meditation, others that she did not die but climbed a mountain alone and ascended into heaven as a goddess in a beam of bright light. Other versions indicate she died protesting an unwanted betrothal. Still another places her death at age 16, saying she drowned after exhausting herself in a failed attempt to find her lost father, thus underlining her filial piety. In this version, her corpse washed ashore on Nangan Island, which preserves a gravesite said to be hers. In some Chinese versions, the demons Qianliyan (“Thousand-Mile Eye”) and Shunfeng’er (“Wind-Following Ear”) both fell in love with her and she conceded that she would marry the one who defeated her in combat. Using her martial arts skills, however, she subdued them both which obligated them to serve as her guardian generals. Statues depicting these two loyal guardians are still often found in Mazu’s temples.
These many, varied tales showing spiritual aptitude, filial piety, selflessness and supernatural intercessory powers account for her widespread popularity and many titles – there’s almost nothing she cannot do!
The original Thean Hour temple in Kuala Lumpur was built in 1894 (current form completed in 1989) and also has shrines to Guan Yin, goddess of mercy (who was said by some to have incarnated as Mazu), and Shui Wei Sheng Niang, a goddess of waterfront who protects sea travelers and ensures bountiful catch.
Despite the dedication to Thean Hou, worship of Guan Yin is a recurrent theme at this particular location. In addition to her altar in the prayer hall, there is also a smaller statue of Guan Yin to the right of the hall, set amongst bright red leaved foliage, rocks and falling water. Here one can kneel and receive a blessing of water from the statue. Outside the temple at the entrance to the grounds, there is a larger statue, similarly set amongst rocks and falling water with tortoise and lotus ponds. Finally there is a large statue of the goddess opposite the temple, along with a collection of other large statues that include representations of the twelve animals of Chinese astrology (most with surprisingly well-formed and “correct” anatomy).
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