Holy Hong Kong

Last Updated 21 May 2016, 18:48 IST

On my recent visit to Hong Kong, I found that, with a colourful history behind its towering skyline, the city has more to offer as religious and cultural experiences. My itinerary included religious monuments, ancient shrines and monasteries. As I trod on the divine trail, my impressions of Hong Kong blurred and sharpened with the revelation that divinity permeates all walks of life.

I perceived that religion and rituals play an important role in the society. Even the name Hong Kong comes from the Cantonese heung-geung, meaning ‘fragrant harbour’ or ‘incense harbour’, inspired by the scent of sandalwood incense piled at what is now Aberdeen, an area at the western edge of the island.

Devout fragrance
The locals burned huge quantities of incense sticks during worship. Hidden amidst lush green and canopied hills, and wedged between innumerable skyscrapers, I found Hong Kong’s many places of worship where many Buddhist and Taoist devotees performe their rituals, engulfed in aromatic wafts of incense. There are more than 600 shrines in Hong Kong, each dedicated to a deity.

The temples differed from ours in many ways. There was no pujari. The exterior did not display much architectural details, but the sanctum was decorated with colourful silk wall-hangings and lit up with 100s of lamps. The variety of incense coils increased as each worshipper added a few.

My first stopover was at the Man Mo Temple located on Hollywood Road in Central. This is reckoned as the oldest and one of the most famous Confucian shrines in the city, dedicated to the gods King Man and Holy King Kwan Mo. Man represents Civil god (also god of literature) and Mo represents Martial god (god of war). Man holds a writing brush in his right hand, while Mo holds a sword. Situated amidst skyscrapers, the temple is said to have been built in 1847 AD, during the era of Qing Dynasty.

Unmindful of tourists, locals visit the temple to pray for success in their academic or literary endeavours, and also to settle disputes. At the entrance was an inscription that urged the visitors to get rid of their selfish interests and prejudices.

From the road the shrine looked a bit decrepit. But, after stepping in, I was ushered into a colourful world studded with lamps, festoons and incense coils suspended from the roof. Whiffs of sandalwood incense thickened the air. I was engulfed in a haze of red-and-gold festoons, curtains and wall-hangings, as the colours are Chinese lucky colours for good fortune and happiness, respectively. There were small idols on the numerous small altars all around; and the deities of Man and Mo seated on majestic golden thrones on the huge central altar.

Two 19th-century sedan chairs shaped like horses were placed in a corner. They are used to carry the main idols during festivals.

Next, I headed to Lantau, Hong Kong’s largest island, to behold the Tian Tan Buddha, also called the Big Buddha, considered one of the largest Buddha statues in the world. Located on a hill on the Ngong Ping Plateau, it can be reached by road and by cable car. I opted for the latter and enjoyed every bit of the 25-minute ride, till halfway up the hill, and then walked to the Po Lin Monastery.

The Buddhist monastery and the temple complex, said to have been built in 1924, is maintained well, and feature gardens and traditional Chinese-style buildings. Now it seems more like a tourist attraction than a religious retreat, with visitors brandishing selfie sticks. The latest addition to it is the Hall of 10,000 Buddhas, all golden in colour.

The Big Buddha, made of bronze, is about 34 m high and weighs 202 ton. The pathway of 260 steps leading to it is flanked on both sides by ‘divine generals’ symbolising animals from the Chinese Zodiac.

In a peaceful countenance and in the Sakhyamuni posture, the idol sits on a throne of lotuses, a symbol of purity. There are also 6 statues of bodhisattva on a podium below it.

Shrines galore
Hopping in and out of a few other temples, I became aware that there’s a deity for everything in this spiritual melting pot of Hong Kong. In Kennedy Town, there is Lo Pan Temple dedicated to the patron saint of Chinese builders and carpenters. Built in 1884, it’s decorated with murals. The 1,000-year-old Tam Kung Temple is dedicated to Tam Kung, a patron of fishermen. The Wong Tai Sin Temple claims to fulfil all wishes. Another noteworthy shrine is the Peng Chau, dedicated to goddess Golden Flower, believed to be the granter of children.

Due to paucity of time, I only glimpsed at other places of worship — Happy Valley Hindu Temple, Jamia Mosque, Khalsa Diwan Gurudwara, Ohel Leah Synagogue, St Andrew’s Church and St John’s Cathedral, which is considered as the oldest surviving church in Hong Kong.

(Published 21 May 2016, 14:49 IST)

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