The Heavenly Queen of the Maribyrnong
Overlooking a river in Footscray, in Melbourne's west, is something unexpected; an ancient Chinese goddess. Meet the Heavenly Queen of the Maribyrnong.
Lin Niang (also known as Lin Moniang) was born in 960 CE, on the island of Meizhou, off the east coast of China. Her deeply religious father was a fisherman, and her family lived a simple, pious existence.
When Lin was 4 years old, an extraordinary event occurred, which would change her life; while she was visiting a Buddhist temple with her family, she experienced a vision of the Goddess Guanyin.
Guanyin is a venerated deity in some Buddhist sects, known as the 'Goddess of Mercy', who sometimes grants wishes to those who worship her. In Lin's case, the vision of the Goddess left her with a special gift; that of 'second sight', or the ability to predict the future.
Inheriting her father's piety, and highly intelligent, Lin began to study Buddhist texts. When she was 10, she was accepted as an apprentice to the village priest, and began a period of formal religious training.
Rumours of her childhood vision, and second sight, circulated in the surrounding area. By her teens, Lin Niang was a well known local religious figure, and had developed a reputation as a healer. People would come to her village to pray with her, to ask for her blessing, and to seek treatment for their ailments.
When Lin was 15, her father and eldest brother were out at sea when a fierce storm blew up. Their fishing boat was overturned, and they were cast out into the swollen ocean.
Working on a tapestry at home, Lin was suddenly overcome by a powerful vision, and fell into a trance. She was able to project her consciousness out to sea (some versions of the story say she was actually transported physically, on a cloud), and was able to drag her brother back to safety.
When she returned to rescue her father, however, her startled mother woke her from her trance and returned her spirit to her body.
Lin's father was drowned.
When she was 27, Lin answered the call of another powerful vision.
She said goodbye to her family and climbed a mountain that overlooked her village. Clouds covered the peak and, when they cleared, Lin had vanished. It was said that she had ascended to heaven.
Such is the legend of Lin Niang, later known as Mazu, Goddess of the Sea.
The story of Mazu - her piety, her supernatural powers, and the rescue of her brother at sea - is one of the most popular in Chinese mythology.
She has a legion of followers, and temples and statues have been erected to her around the world. It is estimated that she may have as many as 100 million active disciples, who celebrate her birthday each year, on March 23.
So, it is perhaps no surprise to find that multicultural Melbourne, with its high number of Chinese residents, also contains a number of Mazu devotees.
In the early 1990's, local Chinese business figures started a committee to construct a temple for Mazu.
Fundraising activities were undertaken, and enough money raised to purchase a site on the banks of the Maribyrnong River, in the Western Suburbs. The riverside location was important due to Mazu's mythical connection to water, and the land, a former industrial site, was disused and available at a reasonable price.
The head of the fund raising committee, local businessman William Tsang, had ambitious goals for their purchase; a 16 metre statue of Mazu, flanked by two temples (modelled after the Forbidden City, in Beijing), and surrounded by gardens.
The statue was constructed by traditional artisans in Nanjing, China. Made of stainless steel, and painted gold, it was completed in 2008 and installed on its own island in a small, man made lake, at a cost of $450 000.
Progress on the rest of the complex was slow. Some local commentators joked that the temple buildings were constructed at a rate of 'one brick a day', and for a long period the site was largely taken up with scaffolding, and large piles of building materials.
Eventually, in 2016, the brick and red terracotta buildings were completed. Work is now continuing on the gardens.
But the statue of Mazu already has a commanding presence.
Clearly visible from the main road, and especially from the nearby train line, her calm, inscrutable countenance overlooks the waters of the Maribyrnong, much as it is said she did the waters of the China Sea, a thousand years ago.