Tag Archives: 9 Emperor Gods Festival

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All the posts about the Nine Emperor Gods Festival can be found on my website.

All the posts about the Nine Emperor Gods Festival can be found on my website.


New Nine (5) The Culmination – Balance in Fire and Water

The send off for the Emperor has long been one of my favourite parts of the Nine Emperor Gods festival.  I am used to the Ampang style of send off and the Hong Kong St rituals were very different.  I really enjoyed experiencing the Penang tradition of taking the Emperor back to the sea.

The Yeoh jetty was gracious in undertaking some repairs, so we did not have to slog through the muck, or wade through water.  I was grateful.  (I certainly prayed for personal balance as I walked down the ramp of the jetty!)  The photography conditions were challenging but the aura was good.  Balance.  That is what this is all about.  Yin and Yang, hanging in the balance.

1. Here is the Emperor’s Urn being respectfully and carefully brought down the jetty.2. The yellow boat arrived from the procession route and was set on the dock.
3. Then the urn was placed gently in the boat and was covered with sandalwood powder, joss sticks, candles and joss papers.Careful attention was paid to ensuring that the contents of the boat were evenly distributed.  The boat maker “guarantees” that the little boat is sea worthy so it is up to the temple to ensure that it isn’t lopsided when it is lowered in to the water.

4. With the boat secured by human strength to the side of our fishing boat, off we headed to the open channel.  On the jetty well-wishers watched and took photos as we headed out.  I would have thought that they would have been on their knees, heads bowed, but only a few showed that level of reverence.5. No post here would be complete without something a bit more esoteric to reflect my state of mind.  In fact, due to the fact that we were tossing about on the seas, this effect was a bit too prevalent in my photos!6. Once we had reached open water, at some place out there in the darkness that was known only to the seafarers in our group, the small boat was set alight.7. Slowly it was released to its own devices.  We held our communal breaths as it listed a bit, then settled in to the waves.8. We circled the boat three times. It was a protective act to ensure that the fire burned well in the cradle of the sea.  This is the last shot that I took of the boat. The buildings of the port at Butterworth can be seen in the distance.I was surprised that we didn’t stay until the boat became one with the water.   I was looking for that finish, the moment of “poof” when Fire and Water merged and balanced.  But perhaps I need a little more wu wei – knowing when to act and not to act and allowing things to happen.  My motherly instincts wanted us to stay with the boat until it was gone, until the Emperor was in the heavens again.  But, of course, tradition prevailed and the rest lit a cigarette, left the Emperor to do what Emperors do at sea in a small burning yellow boat, and we headed quietly back to shore. 9. Nary a glance back, minds already on something else. Next year isn’t too far off, is it?

New Nine (4) Trances and Pierces Penang-Style

As one moves north in Malaysia, the Nine Emperor Gods Festival becomes synonymous with the antics of mediums possessed by the Chinese gods.  Many of you will think of Phuket, Thailand, where the Nine Emperor Gods Festival is known as the Vegetarian Festival, famous for the bicycle-through-the-cheek stunt.  It’s all quite sensational and although I respect its traditional roots, it is not my favourite part of the festival.  However, a blog about the Nine Emperor Gods Festival in Penang would not be complete without showing the experience of this ritual.  At Tow Boh Keong, Hong Kong St., the 12 ft long skewers hang on the wall of the temple throughout the year and are taken down on the Ninth Day and readied for who ever might show up that night. 1. A volunteer sharpens the point of the skewer in preparation for the ritual piercings.  The temple is very careful to ensure that the instruments are sharp and clean so as not to hurt the mediums.  After sharpening, the skewers are cleansed with oranges and Chinese tea.2. A medium arrived at the front of the temple and went into trance with an uplift motion that actually made his hair stand on end!  At this point on the Ninth Night, the crowds outside the temple were huge – thousands of onlookers, hundreds with cameras, and the press of people was concerning.  I had a good spot, thanks to my friends at the temple, but almost too close for comfort!3. There is one man in the family who has the job of piercing.  He learned from his father, who was a skilled piercer, and is passing the tradition on to his son.  Very intense work.  There were about 12 piercings on the ninth night.  He blows water on to the cheek of the medium at the exact moment that he pushes the skewer through.  The water is the only lubricant used.  It’s a matter of community spirit, as you can see from the faces of the men behind.4. There is no blood involved when the skewer goes through. That’s part of the mystique.  I sense some discomfort, but the mediums tell me that they feel no pain, just revelation.5. When the 12 ft skewer is properly placed, the mediums bow three times to the Emperor in the temple and then walk carefully sideways through the crowd out to the procession route.6. The mediums seem to be fine, despite the appendages, and most manage to perform for the crowds by scraping the ends of the skewers on the pavement while they spin.  Some can produce sparks.7. Here are the gods looking very regal and keeping very still as they move along the procession route while seated on the chair of swords – well one is seated and the medium on top stands on the swords.  This float is the highlight of the procession to the jetty.
8. When the procession reaches the jetty, the skewers are removed, again with the help of water.  A piece of joss paper is used to cover the hole in the cheek.  Little or no bleeding.  I’ve heard that they are protected by their vegetarian fast and “clean” living during the festival. 9. It may be hard for some of you to believe, but these acts of self mutilation are not repulsive.  They are a way of worship (not one that I would embrace!) and show respect for the Emperor within the pantheon of Chinese Gods.  As this photo shows, there are, within this ritual, moments of peaceful reflection amidst the chaos.

Balancing in the Final Two Days of Nine Emperor Gods Festival

The week has gone by so quickly!  Here we are with only two days remaining in the festival.  It’s an interesting time to be at the temple – the energy is high and there’s a lot to do, but a sense of peacefulness has settled over the grounds.  The days have a rhythm, prayers are humble and commerce is good.  Tradition has been upheld and is strong in its past and hopeful in its future.  I was there last night and it felt balanced – just as it is supposed to.  Shadow and Light, Yin and Yang…

We are waiting for the usual rain, adding an element of expectancy to the atmosphere and the photographers are enjoying the special light that comes with clear skies.Tonight – Oct 15th 7pm – Bridge Crossing.  Tomorrow – Oct 16th evening – Firewalking.  Yin and Yang coming in to balance as we send off the Emperor.  Much will happen in the balancing act. Come and enjoy the energy and be open to the possibilities.

Firewalking Ceremony at the Nine Emperor Gods Festival Ampang

The firewalking ceremony at the Nine Emperor Gods Temple in Ampang is the culmination of the festival and brings the world into balance.  Huge crowds turn out to witness hundreds of men cross the firepit as this is the most mystical of the festival rituals. This year (2010) the firewalking will take place on the evening of October 16th and marks the ninth day of the ninth moon and the end of the festival.  Firewalking symbolizes the acceptance of Yang and is closely associated with the bridge crossing ceremony (Yin) of the eighth day.  It has been explained to me that this ritual signifies “sending off the bad luck and ushering in the good luck”.  The power of Fire keeps away evil and helps us to overcome our impurities.

The men (Note: no women allowed) have kept a strict vegetarian diet for the nine days of the festival, wear white clothing (no metal or leather) and yellow head scarves, and each carries a pennant of the Nine Emperor Gods to protect him from harm.  The men walk barefoot across the pit, carrying the temple deities and other ritual paraphernalia, as well as bundles of garments, dried tea leaves, and other precious objects that will benefit from the uplifting power of Yang.  The men act on behalf of all worshipers of the Nine Emperor Gods to bring Yin and Yang into balance.

The bed of coals is prepared beginning in the afternoon of the ninth day and is lit at dusk.  As the flames burn down to coals, the men pray individually to the Emperor and then form an orderly line between the altar and the firepit to await the order to begin walking quickly across the coals.  The procession across the firepit is led by the Taoist priests.  The spirit mediums, in trance, follow to open the way for the others. The crowd seems to get most excited when the chariots are carried quickly across the fire.

When all of the men have crossed the fire pit, the coals are doused with water and then bits of coal are passed out to worshipers.  Believers understand that this coal has been blessed by the emperor and has power to bring luck when taken home.

It is a real honor for these temple workers to represent the wider community.  It takes years of volunteering to be chosen to do this.  Below is a fun photo taken in the office at the temple.  The photo, which was shown to me, is of two organizing committee members crossing the firepit some years ago.  There was much story telling and camaraderie as the men anticipated this year’s ceremony.

If you plan to watch the event you must get there early to get a place along the fence from where you can see.  If you want to photograph the event, you must go earlier than early.  There are a limited number of press passes this year which can be obtained from the office for entry inside the fence.  Sorry ladies – it brings ill-luck to have our fertile “yin” presence inside the sacred area.

If you are early you can watch the spirit mediums bless the area of the firepit before the fire is lit.  As well, there are special ceremonies after the firewalking, including a special tribute to the Nine Emperor Gods by the opera troupe in front of the main altar. The temple is cleared out just before midnight and a final ceremony that I call the “Round and Round” is enacted by the male temple volunteers in which they pass ritual objects from person to person along lines formed between the main altars of the temple.

If you are still full of energy after a night of rejuvenating ritual, you can watch the procession to send off the Emperor.  It leaves the temple about 3AM on the morning of the tenth day – October 17, 2010.  See you there!