Tag Archives: Chinese Temple

Day 6 Rocks Ampang

From Kow Ong Yah swinging his sword about on the Opera stage to rituals of thanksgiving and dormitories full of loving friends, Day 6 at Kow Ong Yah temple in Ampang was a real feast for the senses.  There were gongs and fires and whistles and smoke.  There were traffic jams and lines for food.  A friend asked me the other day what I do in Ampang when I visit.  Well, yesterday was a great example of just how enriched my life is by this festival.  I chased the mediums through the temple grounds and tried to photograph birds being released to the heavens.  I talked to devotees and shot some portraits. I was inspired and challenged and exhausted and loved every minute of it.  I also liaised with many photographers and encouraged them to send me links to their photos.  We know that there are many ways to shoot this festival and all of you are welcome to post links to your own work here.  We can use this as a community portal – a digital version of the festival lantern pole that reaches to the skies.

So here are a few photos from yesterday.  There are many more I could share but will save them for a quieter day.

Let’s start with food.  Not only did the ladies in the kitchen prepare 3 meals for the hundreds of devotees at the temple, they also prepared 100 buckets of food to ceremonially feed the armies of the generals that protect the festival grounds.  The woks were full all day.

Members of the committee also chipped in.  Here my good friend Koh Ping and Mr Low Ching Poh help to serve food to devotees in the early morning.

Later in the day, I was treated to a delicious bowl of noodles mixed with some yummy black vinegar.

Is that enough about food?  But let’s not forget that other Malaysian passion – shopping!  

There was all that and more, including some important rituals throughout the day.  The mediums got started at the main altar with a show of strength and control.  The gods had arrived to inspect and protect the festival.

Kow Ong Yah made his way throughout the whole grounds, visiting the four corners, the altars, the kitchens and the dormitories.

 

This is an exciting time for the devotees who get to pay their personal respects to the Emperor and also receive his blessing. 

It didn’t rain all day in Ampang although we could hear the thunder booming.  The evening sky was as glorious as the colours of the festival. 

In one particularly joyous moment, members of the opera troupe brought their baby god to the main altar so that it could be part of the ritual ceremony of the evening.  

On the evenings of  days 3, 6 and 9, special prayer items are passed, person to person, from altar to altar in a ceremony that I like to call “the round and round”.  

As the crowds came back in to the temple after the ceremony, joss sticks and smoke filled the space, bringing tears to our eyes.  Meanwhile, the medium offered believers the advice of the god.

Late in to the night, crowds gathered to watch the opera performance.

It was quite a show of glitz and glamour!

And with that, I headed out in to the massive traffic jam, and drove the wrong way along the road marked “laluan sehala” just for the fun of it.  I could barely pull myself away.  Headed back up there now for more!

Advertisements

Kau Ong Yah pays a visit to Ampang last May!


A few months ago the Kau Ong Yah Lam Thian Kiong Temple of Ampang held a 20 Km radius Ancestor and Thanksgiving ritual. It was a beautiful ceremony over several days in which the temple fulfilled its obligations to the Lost Souls roaming about the Ampang area. The festivities were complete with a special visit by Kau Ong Yah, resplendent paper mansions and a huge burning. Here are some of my photos.  This was just one way that the temple is preparing for this year’s Nine Emperor Gods Festival.

Goddess of Mercy

Homes for the Lost Souls – with all the luxuries!

The heavens participated one evening with a great lighting show.

Koh Ong Yah was in residence during the ceremonies

Paper Gods carried to the open lot for burning

Some familiar faces around to help out

It all made for a huge symbolic fire.

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!

Yellow

Yellow is the colour of sunshine.  And, more importantly for us here, it is the colour of the Nine Emperor Gods Festival.  Yellow is the oldest sacred colour of China and therefore appropriate for a ritual festival, steeped in secrets and mystery, to have a colour so associated with ancient traditions and beliefs.

The first Emperor of China was known as the Yellow Emperor and it is
said that a yellow dragon appeared on this death to guide him to
heaven.  There are yellow dragons in the most wonderful locations in the
Nine Emperor Gods temple in Ampang, placed to guard the worshipers.

Yellow is the center of the 5 directional points.  The temple, at the center of the grounds is therefore yellow, while the corners are represented by White (west), Red (south), Green (east) and Black (north)  In the five colors of the elements, Yellow represents the Earth.  According to Taoist tradition, Yellow generates Yin and Yang and is therefore the color of everything.  For a festival charged with balancing Yin and Yang, the use of Yellow is unquestionably the perfect choice.

There are other factors as well.  Yellow is also the color of status and power and is thought to bring the energy of fire.  In Chinese the concept of the Yellow Earth ties the color Yellow to the practice of farming and agrarian traditions.

In Buddhism, yellow represents freedom from worldly cares and according to Feng Shui principles, yellow is thought to increase self-esteem and strengthen health and well-being.  At the Nine Emperor Gods temple, yellow is used in many shades, from orange-yellow to gold to lemon yellow and everything in between.

 

 

Water and Fire on Oct 15 and 16, 2010

The Nine Emperor Gods Festival in Ampang is well underway – today is the 5th Day of the Ninth Moon.  Last evening the festival seemed quiet, but that is compared to the crowds and chaos of the weekend. It was still plenty smoky and there were special prayers all evening as well as a spirit medium in a state of possession who provided advice and answers to those who approached him to “ask for peace”.

On Day 6 (Wednesday Oct 13) there will be another ritual celebration to feed the soldiers of the Emperor at 2pm.  This was one moment at the scene on Day 3 during the same ceremony.

On Days 8 (Friday) and 9 (Saturday) we come to the community highlights of the festival.  Yin and Yang, Water and Fire, Finding Balance – that’s what these final ceremonies of the festival are about.  There will be a bridge crossing ceremony on Oct 15th that will help those worshiping the Nine Emperor Gods to rid themselves of the Yin forces in their lives.  Then the ultimate ritual of the festival takes place on October 16th when the forces of Yang are reaffirmed by the firewalking devotees carrying the deities, the chariots and other temple paraphenalia.  Being Friday and Saturday events this year, the crowds will be big.

You can read some info about the Yin and the Yang ceremonies on the Nine Facts blog that I did last week or keep reading here…

The Bridge Crossing ceremony symbolizes surmounting the forces of Yin (Water is high yin).  The ceremony takes place in front of the main temple.  The vendors, currently set up there, are moved out to make space for a wooden bridge  that is 6.5 meters long, 1 meter high and 1.2 meters wide.  The bridge is then decorated with flags and bouquets of yellow and white flowers.

Buckets of water and tiny oil lamps are placed under the bridge on top of ritual papers that protect the bridge from evil forces.  The 7 small lamps represent the 7 star deities that protect devotees and are worshiped in the Southern Altar.

The Trance Master, in a state of possession by the Emperor himself, sits at the end of the bridge on the chair of nails and as devotees walk over the bridge he beckons them to come forward and receive a blessing. 

The ceremony is open to everyone.  As devotees cross the bridge they receive a red stamp on their head scarves to indicate that they have crossed the bridge with the blessing of the Nine Emperors.  Some carry clothing and personal belongings of family members, that are also stamped, to bring good fortune for the year ahead to the whole family.

When all devotees have crossed the bridge, the Spirit Mediums cross ceremoniously to block any evil that might be trying to follow.  Here is a shot that I took last year that I just missed.  I’m going to be there again on Friday evening and I will nail it this time!  Remember that if you are trying to photograph this event, it all happens very fast.

Firewalking – That’s enough blogging for now – I will discuss the firewalking ceremony in my blog tomorrow.  I’m looking for links to some good photos so send me a link to what you have and I’ll include them in the post!

The Yellow Curtain

I dreamt last night of yellow and streaks of light in the night sky and so am glad of a day of distraction from the temple to give my imagination a rest!  A couple of things happened yesterday to prompt my thoughts and give rise to this morning’s blog. Someone showed me some photos of the evening sky on October 3rd with clouds reflecting a brilliant light in the low sun.  I was told that the lines across the sky were the heavenly spirits coming to the festival.  Interesting.  It reminded me of the light last week when I was alone at the temple in the rain at sunset.  Here’s the photo I took then.  Now you know why I need a day off!

And then yesterday again, a young man in the temple asked me if I knew the story of the Festival.  I listened carefully as he told me the tale, according to his mother, of nine special humans (maybe brothers) who did good deeds and were so popular with the people that the jealous Emperor (of a long time ago) had them decapitated.  Their death so upset the people that they began worshiping the nine brothers as if they were Emperors.   When I asked him if he knew what was behind the yellow curtain he told me that he had no idea, but it must be the Emperor Gods.

I have asked a lot of visitors to the temple about the story behind the festival and there are so many variations – from blank stares, shrugs, and “We Pray to the God”, to more elaborate stories of headless heroes, magic musicians, sons of the Mother of Heaven, and of the stars in the sky.  It really doesn’t matter what people believe, just that they believe.  Their purpose in the temple is the pursuit of health, happiness and prosperity and it is personal and with good intentions.

Here is the myth that suits me best, probably because it is based on the geographical dissemination of popular culture.  It comes from research by Cheu Hock Tong at the National University in Singapore.  There is a link to the whole article in the sidebar, left.   According to Cheu, the Ampang mythology  ties in to the existence of a Hong Secret Society formed to overthrow the Qing and restore the Ming. Cheu writes “A Hong member by the name of Wan Yunlong was killed in battle…on the ninth day of the ninth month, 1783.  His followers fled to Thailand, where, rebuffed by the Thai authorities, they moved south to the Penang area.  Some Hong members settled in Ampang where they worked as planters and farmers and organized a clandestine movement to overthrow the Qing…”

I like this interpretation because it helps me understand the connections between the important Nine Emperor Gods Temples in Thailand and Penang and Ampang.  But here’s where it gets really good and ties back to the yellow curtain.  In Ampang, apparently, when the secret society was meeting (must have been in the 1860’s) the police arrived to investigate the gathering.  This is what Cheu writes, “The group replied that it was praying for peace and protection.  Seeing that there was only an incense urn and not image of any sort, the police said, ‘There is not deity here – what are you worshiping?’  One quick-witted soul pointed at the incense urn and replied ‘This is the god we worship!’…This accounts for the use of an incense urn to represent the Nine Emperor Gods during the festival.”   Now, that’s a good story!!

Sooooooo, that MIGHT explain what’s behind the curtain!  It’s all part of the secret and the wonderful aura of mystery that surrounds the Nine Emperor Gods Festival.  Worshipers pray in the direction of the curtain and give joss sticks to the guardians of the altar to place in the urn.  Worshipers never see the Emperor but they believe he is there.  Blind faith and it works for them.

Next blog – let’s think about more yellow at the festival.  Here’s a teaser.

 

 

 

It Begs the Question

The Nine Emperor Gods Festival in Ampang is a cacophony of visual stimuli.  That’s why I enjoy it so much – the combination of the sacred and profane, the commercial and the spiritual, the dark and the light, and, I suppose, the yin and the yang.  There is so much to think about.And that brings me to one element of the festival that must not be ignored – the beggars.  We all understand that beggars are by no means exclusive to the Nine Emperor Gods Festival.  And we know that they are most attracted to religious occasions when their customers can gain “merit” by giving them cash.

Last year I was impressed with the number of beggars that lined every pathway at the festival.    This year, the beggars were in place before the stalls for the vendors were even erected.

I noticed that the early arrivals were the ones with serious physical disabilities.  The others, the women with babies and the orphaned children didn’t arrive until Day 1, today.

In their pleading, there is an alertness to our need to donate at a time of devotion.  For recognizing that and providing us with an opportunity for charity, I give them kudos (and all my small bills and coins!)

Here is a moment that speaks of the need and the generosity that surrounds this aspect of the festival.

The needy are acknowledged and their presence is accepted graciously.

I sense a level of syndication in the presence of the beggars at the festival and it isn’t just because I watched Slumdog Millionaire.  Last year, there were numerous disadvantaged “foreigners” at the other end of the extended cups.  Please don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying that they aren’t needy and my heart goes out to them in the difficult circumstances they are in.  I’m raising this because it makes me think about the ways that the underprivileged are victimized and that their plight is even more distressing than at first glance.  I suspect that many of the beggars are brought to the site by facilitators who monitor their business and don’t leave too much money in the pockets of those to whom we give it. I spent one evening at last year’s festival observing.  It reminded me of “Oliver” without the musical accompaniment and the fairy tale ending.  A couple of times I tried to help in a way other than throwing coins in a cup and my attempts were met with disdain.  Silly me, I thought a child might like a drink – but her mother brushed it away nervously and asked for money.  It appeared that she was being watched and that makes it all the more disturbing.

One last photo that does beg the question – What is really going on here?

Releasing the Birds

One of my favourite happenings at the Nine Emperor Gods Festival each year (and at Chinese festivals in general) is the releasing of small birds.  I don’t like to see them caged, but the act of releasing them is lovely.  I understand that in accordance with the principles of Feng Shui, releasing birds does two things to smooth your path in life – it gets rid of people and things that cause you trouble and invites the assistance of people who have an ability to save you from hopeless situations.  Your odds of being successful are increased if you release birds.  The birds are better off too.

And besides that the people who release the birds seem very happy to be doing it!  So here are a couple more photos of those dear children.  Their father bought them a second cage of birds to release, just so I could photograph them.  That was pressure!  The girls grabbed the cage and opened it and I was scrabbling!  These were my last shots today and the first ones to share.  There is a nice balance in that.

 

Make plans for Saturday, October 9th and the next procession

Welcome to the Ninth Moon and the Nine Emperor Gods Festival!!  The vendors are set up, the street food is fresh and delicious, the opera troupe is in place and the scene at the temple is smoky, smoky, smoky.  Let’s have fun!

I apologize for the misinformation about the start of the Chinese Opera at the Nine Emperor Gods Festival in Ampang.  I guess that’s why this is the “Almost Official” Guide.  I was told (and reconfirmed) that the opera started on Friday.  It was strange, but my gut was telling me that they would perform on Thursday evening, and they did.  Not to worry, it wasn’t a big special show and they will perform everyday from now until Day 9 (October 16th) at 2pm and 8pm.   October 8th (that’s today right now) at 10AM a few members of the opera troupe will ceremoniously pay their respects to the gods in the temple.  Should be colorful, if nothing else.

The festival has really picked up in the past day.  There should be big crowds there over the weekend, especially in the evening and again on Saturday, October 9th.  The procession leaves at 7pm from the temple.  They will walk out to Jalan Ampang and everyone will stop and take a break.  A truck carrying the mediums and trance masters and a few members of the committee will head off to the river to get the “Finance Minister”.  There is a fun party atmosphere while everyone waits and good photo ops for those always looking for such things.  Upon the return of the truck with the with the Minister, the procession of floats and lions and dragons will turn around and head back through the main street of Pekan Ampang to the temple.  It’s usually a smaller procession than the one to  receive the Emperor but it always creates a good atmosphere.

More later.  Hope to see you there.

Lim of the Lanterns

Mr Lim has been painting lanterns at the Nine Emperor Gods Temple in Ampang since he was 19 years old – more than 50 years!  He has seen a lot of changes and is proud to be part of the team that undertook the renovations and preparations for the 2010 festival.  Lim has been a busy man for the past couple of weeks.  He had extra lanterns to make for the processions this year, as well as helping with the big dragon heads on one of the temple floats. (Why don’t I have a photo of those??)

It takes Lim about 2 days to make a lantern – he starts with the wire frames and adds the canvas in a process that is similar to the way Chinese umbrellas are made.  The paint (probably toxic) is a high gloss, with a shellac that hardens on the canvas.  He then paints Taoist symbols – dragons, tigers and scenes from the “life of the Emperor” on the lanterns.  If you would like to commission a lantern, it will cost you a bit – RM1,000 – negotiable, I’m sure.  Otherwise you can have your name put on a lantern for RM50 and it will hang in the temple for a year.

Stop by and see Lim when you visit the temple. He is stationed behind the lantern altar, towards the dormitories, stage left of the main temple building.