Tag Archives: religion

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!

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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.

 

 

 

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.

 

The Emperor Has Been Received and No Opera Until Friday, Oct 8th

Taking the Gods for a Stroll!

Two very busy days and no time to post.  First thing to note is that there are no opera performances until Friday, Oct 8th.  Sorry about the misinformation.  The temple has substituted Hokkien Puppets at 2pm and 8pm on Tuesday (just finished) and Wednesday.  I was there today and the puppets had an audience and they were paying attention and laughing.  Charming troupe performing.  Try to catch it.

I expect that the festival will be very quiet until Friday.  That’s Ninth Month, First Day so it should gear up.  The buses will start arriving with the Singaporeans, and there is a procession on Saturday evening at 7pm to receive the Emperor’s Finance Minister.  When the word gets out about how beautiful the temple is and how the deities have been given a fresh sparkle, I expect that lots and lots of people will want to see it.  Think about how smokey it will be!

In the last couple of days, I have walked kilometers, chasing processions, camera on tripod.  I have a room in the dormitory at the temple so I’ve been sitting with my new roommates and listening to their stories, as well as taking some fun photos with them.  They are beginning to realize that I am around for awhile and that I probably won’t stop asking questions!  I have also met a lot of photographers at the festival.  It has been good getting reacquainted with people and also making some new photographer friends- even some who have read the blog!

I was wearing a white scarf yesterday, at my new roommates’ suggestion, and out of respect for the festival.  Also, the committee gave me an official T-shirt to help me along the procession route with the RELA guys.  So, apologies if I looked liked a crazy expat.  Don’t worry – I won’t be doing the trance/piercings at Thaipusam!

Lots of stories to tell and information to share.  Keep visiting!  More posts to come.  And if anyone is reading this, could you please let me know what the red looks like in the photos.  I desaturate it but looks bad on my monitor and I can’t tell what everyone else is seeing.  Thanks!

Guarding the temple Guardians

Here’s a look at the new doors on the main sanctuary of the Nine Emperor Gods Temple in Ampang.  The Taoist flags have been arranged there to indicate that it isn’t yet time to open the doors.   That is for the Emperor to decide.   Hopefully, he stays with the plan and the doors will be ceremoniously opened on Monday (Oct4) night/early Tuesday (Oct5) morning when the Emperor and the other gods are returned to the temple.

Festival Starts October 3rd!

Late afternoon at the Nine Emperor Gods Temple today was a flurry of last minute preparations.  The “Masters” were there, a few devotees were arriving, and there were quite a number of curious onlookers.  The flagpole goes up tomorrow, October 3rd and the procession to receive the Emperor starts at 7pm from the temple.

The three chariots being readied for the procession

Each chariot is adorned with 10 windings of strong, white ribbon on both sides.  I was told that this pattern has a secret significance that was apparently not going to be shared with the curious crowd gathered around.  I expect that its significance is mired in myth and it is likely, as well, that it provides much needed extra support to the chariot during the procession.  In fact, the chariots go in to a real shake, rattle and roll when the Gods are placed in them – a real crowd pleaser.  (Photos of that to come later)

The protective and secretive X pattern

Over at the opera house, the yellow curtains have been hung so that the Emperor can be placed there for one night.

The new statue of Tua Pek Gong has now been empowered and boasts the tiny red dots that indicate that it has been “opened”/blessed by a ceremonial act of a Taoist priest.  This statue was made in China and flown to KL in its own seat on the airplane – you can’t put a god in the cargo hold!

Dusk fell quickly and the workers were still preparing the chariots as I left the grounds.  You can see the flagpole on the left, in the photo below, ready for tomorrow’s raising ceremony.

The quiet of the scene tonight is like the calm before the storm.  I’ll try to take a photo from in front of the gate tomorrow to show you the difference 24 hrs makes.

Nine Emperors, Nine Days in the Ninth Lunar Month, Nine Facts

It dawned on me that I have jumped ahead in this blog, trying to talk about some of my own personal revelations, when I really should go back to basics.  The Nine Emperor Gods Festival celebrates the balance of yin and yang.  It is a complicated ritual, complete with the presence of unseen deities, eye-smarting incense, trances and Chinese opera.  It is a time of spiritual strengthening, personal sacrifice and the power of shared beliefs.  Add to that a colorful and noisy street party atmosphere and it is easy to understand the attraction.

Here are some embellished facts x NINE:

1) The Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods is celebrated on the first nine days of the ninth lunar month in the Chinese calendar.  In 2010 the dates are October 8 to October 16 in the western calendar.  Don’t forget though, that in Ampang the festival in 2010 begins on October 3rd to celebrate the renovations at the temple.

2) The Nine Emperor Gods are shrouded in myth and wherever you go, you will hear a variation on the story.  In general the Nine Emperor Gods are believed to be the nine sons of the Taoist Goddess of Heaven (Duomo) – the lovely one with nine arms, because what mother doesn’t need nine arms! 

Some even say that the emperors were born on the ninth day of the ninth month.  The number nine has special significance to the Chinese, being the penultimate single digit number and, although it’s not the number 8, it is a homophone to the word “everlasting” and is therefore auspicious. There are nine emperors, but they are worshiped as one.  This is a central tenet of the festival.  The Emperors are the guardians of health, wealth and prosperity and their descent to earth for nine days is a cause for prayer and celebration.

3) When worshiping, devotees should raise their palms three times, kneel three times and prostate three times, making nine movements that together represent the cosmos – Heaven, Earth and Hades

4) Worshipers and visitors at the Nine Emperor Gods Temple should be freshly bathed and wear clean, if not new, clothes.  Devotees who stay at the temple during the festival wear all white when they are praying and/or in the presence of the emperor.  They keep a strict vegetarian diet.  Only vegetarian food is served on the temple grounds.

5) The Bridge crossing ceremony symbolizes water or the concept of Yin.  The ceremony takes place on the eighth day of the festival, in the evening and is presided over by priests and Trance Masters.  All visitors to the temple may participate.  The ceremony allows participants to overcome the watery or Yin forces in their lives which are necessary but sometimes troubling.  In 2010, the Bridge crossing ceremony will take place in Ampang on October 15.

6) The Fire walking ceremony symbolizes just that, fire, or the concept of YangThe ceremony takes place on the final, ninth, evening of the festival.  Only men may participate in the fire walking and, in Ampang, only men who are devotees may walk the fire.  (Women don’t walk in the fire because they are considered  too watery.)  Those who walk accept the forces of Yang for all those attending.  This is the most spectacular event of the festival and attracts huge crowds.  The fire walking in 2010 will take place on October 16th.

7) Thousands of visitors come to the temple in Ampang every day.  It is really smokey from all the burning of joss sticks and paper money.  Worshipers make money donations to the temple as well.  There is a complex communal system forborrowing money from the temple, that can be used to start a new business or marriage or something along those lines.  The money can be borrowed but must be returned the next year from the profits made after the investment.  Serious business!

8: Reservations for spaces to sleep in the men’s and women’s dormitories must be made six months in advance.  For 70RM one gets a space on a long platform and three vegetarian meals a day.  Most of the women attend annually and stay in the same dorms each year, making it a bit like summer camp.  It is common to see mother/daughter/granddaughter combinations.  In 2010, with the extended dates of the festival, your payment gets you a full two weeks of accommodation and meals!

9) Chinese opera, in the Amoy style from Fujian province, is performed on a stage across the road from the main temple.  On the evening that the Emperor arrives, the first opera is performed upon his arrival and then every day at 2pm and 8pm throughout the festival.  The evening performance is more elaborate.  The same Singapore opera troupe has been performing in Ampang for 17 years.  Very few visitors stop to watch – the opera is really being performed for the Emperor.  Here’s a link to an old and beautiful recording of Amoy opera that might help you understand. http://hajimaji.wordpress.com/category/china/amoy-opera/

Heavenly Airport

On October 3, 2010, the Nine Emperor Gods Temple in Ampang will raise the 50 ft pole that will guide the spirits of the heavens to the temple for the Nine Emperor Gods Festival.  This is the official start of the festival.  The pole, known locally as Kor Ting, is erected in a small sanctuary on the right side (stage left) of the main temple.   At the top of the pole is a branch of bamboo and strung from that is a lantern, with nine lamps, and a banner that proclaims the name of the temple festival.  If you care to understand the Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods, visiting this altar is a good place to start.  I have heard this pole described as an airport – the passage way for all of those from heaven to come to the festival.

Nine lamps strung from a tall pole to invite the heavenly spirits

The lanterns have constant attention from temple volunteers.  Each hour for the nine days of the festival, the lamps are brought down, refreshed with new oil and hoisted upwards again, a constant beacon.

Adding oil night and day

All of the lamps must stay lit at all times

All of the lamps must stay lit at all times

Most visitors to the temple during the festival will pray in front of the lamp as a way of asking for the protection of the heavens.  I suspect that it is also a way of honoring ancestors.  At the base of the pole is a fire pit that figures prominently in some of the communal ceremonies as a place to burn paper money.

Money to Burn

A slow smokey burn

The mythology of the Nine Emperor Gods places them in the heavens.  According to some sources, the emperors are represented by the 7 stars of the Big Dipper and two stars more difficult to see.  Wikipedia goes so far as to say that the stars of the Big Dipper form a yin/yang symbol.  One devotee told me that the pole represents the access point for the soldiers of the emperors who reside in the heavens and come down to protect the festival and all those who prayer there.  There are major prayers performed by devotees on day 3,6 and 9 of the festival, in which food is cooked and offered ceremoniously to the army of the emperor.

The ceremony to feed the army is not without its Trance Masters