The famous five

Although I’d managed to figure out the shortest walks between the various temples in this neighbourhood of Guangzhou, I hadn’t factored in the time that it would take us to see each of them. So, by the time we arrived at the impressive gate of the Temple of the Five Immortals (Wu Xian Guan), we were pretty far behind our schedule. Still we paused to admire the two stone qilin flanking the entrance. The qilin are described in the West as unicorn, but these had no horns. They are shown with the head of a dragon, but with an animal body with four hoofed legs. These had a body which looked scaled, but probably represent flames. Qilin are shown in flames. Their use as doorkeepers in this Taoist temple probably has the symbolic meaning that only good people can pass between them.

It seems that the five immortals arrived in this place during the 9th century CE riding goats of five different colours, and gave a present of rice to the people of this place. This said to be the origin of the name of the city; according to this etymology, Guangzhou means the city of goats. We never got to see the five goats statue in nearby Yuexiu park, so it was good that I’d taken photos of the stone goats in this temple. These are apparently the petrified remains of the goats that the immortals rode. According to plaques inside, the temple was founded in 1377 CE, in the spot where a shrine stood earlier. The main wooden structure is said to have survived since the founding of the temple. Given the many disasters which the city passed through, I wonder how accurate this claim is. However the woodwork is certainly admirable.

An important thing to see here is the stone with a couple of depressions. These are called the footprints of the immortals. The bit of water which has collected in the depression and the large number of turtles basking on the stone make it an obviously lucky and powerful spot. We joined the few other people who were busy taking photos of this site. North of the stone is a small garden, which looked inviting. We walked along it and saw the famous bell tower called the First Tower of Lingnan (below).

The tower holds the bell cast during the founding of the temple, and therefore dating back to the foundational years of the Mings, and the early years of the Hongwu emperor. Since China was still in an unsettled state at this time, I wonder whether the idea was to use this bell partly as a military warning system. The founding of the temple carried the symbolism of a China reunified under an emperor who claimed that he was the Son of Heaven. The bell is massive, and the tower apparently serves as a resonating chamber for it. As we left I wished we’d had the time to explore this place more slowly.

Door with Goats

Walking through Jodhpur, I saw this striking doorway with two goats tied up outside it. The door brought to my mind the story that V. S. Naipaul reports about his father, Seepersad. The father was the first journalist of Indian origin who worked for the Trinidad Guardian. As a confirmed rationalist, in one of his articles he questioned his compatriots’ belief in animal sacrifice. This incensed members of his community who forced him to sacrifice a goat. According to Vidia Naipaul, his father did not recover from this humiliation.

What form did my father’s madness take?
He looked in the mirror one day and he couldn’t see himself.
–Conversation between V. S. Naipaul and his mother
(in Finding the Center)

I’m sure that a clever writer like Naipaul meant something more with this reported conversation than just what one reads. I’m pretty certain that Naipaul the son presents this conversation as a metaphor for Seepersad’s inability to comprehend those in his island who believed in animal sacrifice. I wondered as I took this photo what I did not see here. How strange to find a resonance with Naipaul’s Trinidad in this distant town!