Next to Macau’s most iconic landmark, the facade of the Sao Paulo Cathedral, we find a little temple dedicated to a peculiar god of the Chinese pantheon : The Third Prince Na Cha (哪咤三太子). Listed as UNESCO world heritage in 2005, the Na Cha Temple (哪咤廟) embodies a rich religious heritage in the heart of the historical Macau (澳門).
The focus will not be on the temple itself, but on the multi-faceted god who resides in it.
Na Cha the Hindu
The name and its pronunciation point to the foreign origins of Na Cha. ‘Na’ means ‘here’ and ‘cha’ means ‘loud noise’. Scholars eventually identified Na Cha as the Hindu god of thunder, Visrapani, who was probably imported from India when Buddhism started to spread in China during the Tang dynasty. It was later assimilated into Taoism and folk religion, and legends were created to show Chinese roots.
Na Cha the Warrior
According a Chinese legend, he was born at the end of the legendary Zhou dynasty, which ruled over parts of China. Since he was the third son of the ruler of a king, he was thus nicknamed the ‘Third Prince’.
His parents were both humans, but his conception was other-worldly: his mother was visited in dream by a Taoist priest who told her she would give birth to a child. Soon after, Na Cha was born. When he was 7 years old, he was already six feet tall and, as he went to swim in the sea, the water started to boil, shaking the temple of the Sea Dragon King. Following this event, Na Cha fought the sons of the Sea Dragon King and the Sea Dragon King himself. Later, he also fought his brothers, father and partake into an epic battle that let to the demise of the Zhou dynasty in favour of the Shang dynasty.
Na Cha the Healer
In the myth of his life, Na Cha appears as a war-waging god, going against the basic Chinese principle of filial piety. Yet, with his incorporation within the Taoist pantheon and following the meander of Chinese folklore, Na Cha became the “Marshal of the Central Altar” (中壇元帥), a Taoist god of protection.
This new position is confirmed in the late 19th century when a severe influenza plagued Macau. One night, Na Cha appeared in dream to a man and told him that citizens of Macau should get their water from Mount Hill and mix it with Chinese herbal medicine. After the epidemic stopped, the temple was erected in 1888 as an expression of gratitude.
A few years later in 1894, in Sham Shui Po, a district of Kowloon in Hong-Kong, an epidemic of plague broke out. An image of Na Cha (called Sam Tai Tze – the Third Prince – in Cantonese) was carried in the streets and the plague disappeared. In 1898, a temple dedicated to Na Cha was built in Sham Shui Po. This story is very similar to Pak Tai (北帝) getting rid of the plague on Cheung Chau Island (長洲島).
Na Cha in popular culture
During the Ming dynasty, we find Na Cha into the novel ‘Journey to the West’ (西游记), a classic of Chinese literature, where he is seen with the Monkey King Sun Wukong (孙悟空), and in the Fengshen Yanyi (封神演义), another major Ming-era novel of fantasy and mythology. Today, in the 21st century, we can still find the warring side of Na Cha in Chinese online games similar to the World of Warcraft.
Na Cha is a very fluid and so is Macau. We can come to the former Portuguese territory to gamble in casinos or delve in the historical heritage of the city. It might be a good idea to come and visit the Na Cha Temple next to the facade of the Sao Paulo Cathedral. Who knows, he may bestow protection or a war-like spirit to casino-goers.