Tuesday, 7 June 2016

The Strange Temple on Monkey Hill

Three figures. The Three Pure Ones. Supreme deities of the Taoist pantheon. White, red, black. 

Monkey Hill - also called Telegraph Hill - on the outskirts of Phuket Old Town is so named because the forests on the slopes are infested with vicious, invasive, rabid monkeys. Lest tourists find them cute, signs along the steep three kilometer track to the summit warn walkers that the monkeys are dangerous and not to feed or go near to them. The present author – getting into shape for a forthcoming tour of the Wudang mountains in China – made the trek up the hill recently, dodging marauding packs of monkeys (and stray dogs) all the way.

At one of the stopping points on the journey up the hill is one of the strangest and most eclectic temples the author has yet witnessed. Its official name is Po Ta To Sae. It defies categorization. It is clearly a Chinese shrine in its structure and organization, and in that, it is Taoist (or Chinese folkish) rather than Boodhist since it contains few images of the Boodha or other signs typical of Boodhism. There are the usual altars and the usual offerings, along with large supplies of joss for devotees. But rather than the usual cult images such as one finds in other Chinese temples throughout Phuket Town, Po Ta To Sae features unusual images and strange iconography which, incongruously, seems to have Mohammadan associations. The temple itself is guarded by an excessive array of tiger figures, and small shrines are dotted throughout the forest on one side of the main building. One of these shrines features an image of Christ, but this again is in a Mohammadan context or with Mohammadan associations. What, exactly, is going on here? one wonders. Who is being venerated, and as what, and why? There are few guiding clues, no useful signs, and the attending staff only speak Thai. 

Most Chinese temples are guarded by tiger figures. In this case there is a profusion of tigers all throughout the temple and lined up along the road. 

Examples of the very eclectic iconography found in the various side shrines. 

The figures on the main altar are the strangest. Upon inquiry, and some subsequent research, one is informed that they are – apparently – personfications of the three colours red, white and black. They are marked such in Thai, but each of them is also marked with a Mohammadan hilal, which is to say the Islamic symbol of crescent and star. Or so it seems. See thus:

The three figures on the main altar: Red, White and Black. Each marked with the Mohammadan crescent and star. 

All the same, they are worshipped as gods in the usual Chinese manner, as we see in the picture below, with a young woman offering prayers with joss sticks:

This Mohammadan symbolism is also found in the accompanying shrines. In this small shrine near the road, for instance:

Here we seem to have a Chinese deity - one of the Three Pure Ones? -, flecked with gold, wearing, it seems, a Muslim prayer hat and again marked with the Muslim symbol of crescent and star. 

The colour symbolism, however, is distracting. In fact, the three figures are - or so the present author is led to surmise - the Three Pure Ones of the Taoist pantheon - the supreme gods of Taoism. In previous posts we noted the popularity of the Eight Immortals in Chinese iconography and spiritual symbolism. Here we find the Three Pure Ones - the Primordial Heavenly Worthy, the spiritual Treasure Heavenly Worthy and the supreme Way Heavenly Worthy. They are celestial (heavenly) figures who have a higher status than the Eight Immortals. The full significance of the colour symbolism is unclear to this author, although he notes that the three colours - red, white and black - feature in the European alchemical tradition and are likely to have an alchemical significance here too. In other renderings, the Three Pure Ones are associated with the three primary colours, red, blue and yellow. Why each figure is marked with the star and crescent - and whether this is intended to have a Mohammadan association or not - is unclear. 

As noted, one of the shrines, far from the road, includes an image of Christ. As attentive readers will notice, the image of Christ is accompanied by a calligraphy bearing the name ‘Mohammad’ in Arabic, along with an image of an unidentified Muslim sage - or is it the Sihk's Guru Nanak? The latter possibility would make some sort of sense, in which case we have: 1. Jesus, 2. Mohammad, 3. Guru Nanak, representing the three religions Christianity, Islam, Sihkism. (The author, by the way, was obliged by the rules to take off his shoes to access this shrine, and then had to walk across an area strewn with broken glass. He literally walked over broken glass for these pictures!)

It is, frankly, most strange. It is worth noting, though, that the main temple in Phuket Town – also the oldest – includes some Mohammadan calligraphies in the context of far more orthodox Taoist symbolism, so it would appear that some elements of Taoist/Islamic syncretism are a feature of the Phuket Chinese tradition. Even so, the temple on Monkey Hill offers an extremely unusual blend of iconography and calls for a fuller explanation. The most likely explanation would seem to be that the shrine is sacred to the Three Pure Ones of Taoism, and that since these three are supremely lofty they are above, and therefore subsume under them, all other divine figures. Accordingly, the accompanying shrines include figures from all other religions, each of them subservient to the Three Pure Ones. 

The Tao produced One; One produced Two; Two produced Three; Three produced All things. 

- Tao Te Ching


Harper McAlpine Black

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