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Mazu (妈祖)

Chinese. ‘Mother-ancestor’. Name for the goddess of the sea, who is believed to protect fishermen and sailors. She is widely worshipped in the coastal areas of southeastern China, particularly in Hainan, as well as in many countries of Southeast Asia, especially those with a strong maritime tradition. According to legend, she was the daughter of a fishermen's family and an excellent swimmer, who wore red garments while standing on the shore to guide fishing boats home (fig.), regardless of weather conditions. One day, she saved her father and brothers from drowning at sea during a fierce storm, by praying for them. Hence, she in now revered and invoked by many sailors before they set out to sea. Her name is also spelled Matsu, which is reminiscent of the Thai word matcha (มัจฉา) and the Sanskrit word matsya, which both mean fish’, but also refers to the first important avatar of Vishnu. In Thai-Chinese temples, she is referred to by the Tae Chew name Ma Jow, but she is also known as Tiang How (เทียงโหว), a designation that derives from the Chinese title given to her, i.e. Tian Hou or Thien Hau, which means ‘Heavenly Empress’. In temples, she is usually depicted together with Shun Feng Er (fig.) and his brother Chien Li Yen (fig.), two demons that fought with Mazu, but whom she conquered and subdued, turning them into her own loyal guardian-generals. She is sometimes portrayed holding either a ceremonial tablet or a jewelled staff, and wearing a flat-topped imperial headdress with beads hanging from the front and back. Mazu has many other names and titles, and in Thailand she is known as Chao Mae Thabthim (fig.), i.e. ‘Ruby Majesty’, after the red colour of her dress (fig.). See also Shin U Pagok. See also TRAVEL PICTURES.