Rishi Majumder spends an afternoon at the Chinese temple in Mazagaon, where an ancient general is god
Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

General Kwan Tai Kon's altar

General Kwan Tai Kon's altar

Woh? Woh?” poses the 86-year-old Cantonese man who lives below the city’s only Chinese temple, at Mazgaon – and consequently manages it. “I have towd people from newspapers not to publish my name. But they keep publishing it. If you publish, I will take you to coh!” ‘Woh’ means ‘what’. ‘Towd’ means told’. And ‘coh’ means ‘court’. He then proceeds to show us the shrine of… not a Taoist god, but a historic general. “I can’t explain these complicated things. Because people can’t understand my English,” he mourns. We did understand much from this caretaker’s English however, as we did from his personal history. Maharashtra Chinese Association Chairman Tutun Chen acted as interpreter.
“I came here in 1943 as part of the navy, and have since stayed here as a dock mechanic,” the caretaker tells us, softening a little. The temple was set up in 1919 by a group of Cantonese Hong Kong sailors who worked for the East India Company. “General Kwan Tai Kon is the god of justice and a great guider. And fair guidance is what the sailors needed the most for their new adventure – India,” enlightens Chen. Within a gold-painted altar, the general stands holding one hand in a mudra symbolising perfection, two fierce lieutenants behind him. He was delicately embroidered on silk (“long time ago,” the caretaker informs) and encased in glass and metal. Long before this “long time ago” even, the general was a great warrior, known for being un-corruptible. Once, while leading his armies against a vicious attack on his town, according to Chen, “a great supernatural power caused the army to be defeated… but the general disappeared.” The town’s people found the general’s statue, however, and the worship began.
So how does the general guide today? “You see these sticks?” the caretaker holds up many chopstick-like bamboo sticks in a cylindrical holder. “You shake them like this…” he shakes the box and throws one stick on to the floor. Then he leads next to the shrine, where five long rows of old Chinese paper slips lie bunched up and pegged. “Each stick has a number with a corresponding ‘fortune card’ among those slips,” Chen elucidates. Those fortune cards hold hints to future decision making.
Bamboo sticks that are used with corresponding fortune cards at the temple

Bamboo sticks that are used with corresponding fortune cards at the temple

But there is a quicker way. “Take this Yin and Yan.” The caretaker holds up two wooden pieces carved from the mystical shapes… then throws them onto the floor. A believer is supposed to pose a question to the great general before doing this. “If one falls upwards and the other oppositely… that means ‘great choice! Go ahead’,” he starts. If they fall with the same sides up, then one side indicates a “no”, while another signifies “Okay, but you could do better than that”.
Below the general’s image, is laid out three popular Chinese figurines standing for wisdom, long life and wealth. Also present are more statues of the General done in different designs. “When people leave Mumbai, they don’t want to risk damaging their statues while travelling. And this is according to them ‘the best place’ to leave them,” the caretaker who threatens us with ‘coh’ lets in. Many Chinese have left post the 1962 Indo-China victory – when members of the Chinese community were targetted for questioning and imprisonment, leading to widespread mistrust. Maybe they don’t need the general as much in ‘safer’ lands.
The 2000-odd Chinese population in the city flock to their only pilgrim spot on the Chinese New Year, and the Moon Festival. “During the New Year – which comes in around mid-night – candles and fireworks light up the temple till morning. And during the Moon festival, people light candles and incense all day.” New Year resolutions would be better kept, we suppose, when made via divine guidance.

This article appeared originally in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:


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