Tag Archives: Taoism

Awesome Johor Send Off for the Emperor

Nine has always been my number… In Johor, the Emperor who came to the temple this year was brother number Nine, You Bi Da Dao Xing Jun. He is the ninth star of the Big Dipper and one of the two stars invisible to the naked eye.  According to the Sifu, this is the first visit ever for this brother to Sam Siang Keng. So that was the pull for me to be there, I suspect.  The lure of the Invisible Nine.

See my earlier post on visiting Sam Siang Keng on the 2nd day of the festival for background on the festival as celebrated at this Johor Bahru temple.

Day Nine at Sam Siang Keng in Johor was an awesome experience for me.  The place is gentle. The Emperor is revered patiently and lovingly, the way a mother loves a son. I couldn’t help but compare it to the exhilarating chaos of Ampang, and the high-spirited way the Emperor is sent off with noisy, crowded ceremony and thousands of burning joss sticks.  At Sam Siang Keng it was calm in comparison, like someone said OMmmm over the proceedings before they happened.  There was time for reflection, both personal and communal and that was what made it so enjoyable.  Must be the Goddess of Mercy influence.

To say it was calm does not mean that the day lacked colour and action.  Not at all.  I have photos galore. With this post, I will give you an overview of the day, highlighting the important moments. Notice that all of these activities took place in the daylight.  It is interesting to be able to see what is happening and to be openly invited to join in each and every activity.

Upon arriving at about 10am, I joined the procession of devotees to cross the bridge. I know it looks like an all men activity from this photo but everyone was invited to cross the water and be cleansed.  Each person crossing is waved at 7 times with joss paper.  Here is my view as I was crossing with the temple member waving at me and the photographers documenting the moment.  The tall foreign lady was a novelty at first, but it didn’t take long until the photographers were more concerned with keeping me out of their photos!

The lovely and kind Sifu, Wee Ah Moi, was there overseeing the proceedings and she gave me a warm welcome when I returned.  Later on she gave me two lollipops – but we can save that story for another post!  What a charming woman and so loved by her community.

When the opera troupe came to the altar to perform, it was quite dramatic!  Actors from China, I understand.  I’ll try to find out more about this.

After the opera, there was an hour in which the public was invited to share in the temple talismans.  The talismans were removed from the mediums chair where they had been for 9 days under the protection of the Duomo.  Devotees were invited to take their turns (in very orderly fashion) asking the god for a talisman. If their toss of the pui-pui came up as a positive (yin/yang), they were given a talisman, said to be very powerful in curing sickness.

During this time, the altar of the Emperor was very peaceful.  Here one man found time and space to have a conversation.

At about 2:30, the boat was taken out into the courtyard in front to the temple. There was time for a photo or two before the serious business of sending off the Emperor began.

When the urn was removed from behind the curtain, the sifu, in trance, sang a beautiful lament as farewell to her Emperor son. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.  It was for me, the ultimate in romanticization of the Nine Emperor Gods festival.

As I commented in my earlier post, this Sifu is in her 80’s and is still guiding the temple through the Nine Emperor Gods festival, as she has for decades.  The small microphone is used now so that all the devotees, inside and outside the temple, can hear the words of the goddess Duomo as she says good bye and thanks her son for visiting.  To the banging of firecrackers to ward off any danger, the Duomo followed the urn outside where it was placed in the chariot and the procession began its journey to the sea.

We rode buses to Danga Bay.  I presume that is modern technology at its convenient best, just as Ampang Kow Ong Yah now uses the truck to go to the river. Everyone used to walk.  In this case, devotees are invited to the sea for the send off, many riding buses provided by the temple.  When we arrived, the yellow boat was in the sea, and the dragon, the lions and hundreds of devotees were there to pay their respects.  The urn was removed from its chariot and placed in the boat.

Once away from shore, the boat was set alight. Unlike in Penang where the yellow boat is circled three times and then left on its own, the boat here is watched carefully until it is completely submerged and no debris is left floating in the water.  I suppose there is fear of setting fire to Singapore and causing an international incident!

As the sun got lower in the sky, we watched the Emperor’s boat slowing burn away in to the water.  Yin and Yang, Water and Fire, the world in balance once again.  I have a lot more stories.  In closing – one more photo.  I am humbled by this woman’s wisdom, vision and guidance.  Thank you and God bless you too!

Of course, I can’t wait for next year already!!  So I will keep posting to make the time go faster.  Check in now and then for updates.  I’ve got stories of lollipops and more…  Cheryl

Advertisements

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!

Tow Boh Keong, Hong Kong St, Georgetown, Penang

20110926-103040.jpg
Welcome to Hong Kong St. I met the team last night and we have a great festival planned. Tonight we invite the god. And for the next nine days there will be prayers and processions and good vegetarian food (we are in Penang after all!).
Here are some shots taken yesterday.

20110926-103523.jpg
I arrived to see them putting up the bamboo pole of invitation.
This next shot actually says it all about this place – they are a team!!!

20110926-103642.jpg
And up it goes at the end of Hong Kong St, marking the location of the festival. I understand that the place where they erected the pole has been exactly the same spot for more than 100 years.

20110926-103830.jpg
Because the temple is small, they can use their beautiful, old ornamentations without fear of them being damaged. If you visit you can see these handmade artifacts – painted glass, silk embroidery and more.

20110926-104250.jpg

20110926-104157.jpg

Tonight we welcome the Emperor God! Stay tuned.

20110926-104941.jpg BTW, I’m trying these posts from my iPad. Excuse me while I sort it out. It is rather fun though!

A Day of Preparations at the Nine Emperor Gods Festival

20110926-095204.jpg

Saturday was the day that devotees could come to the Ampang temple and get their rooms and beds for this year’s festival dates. It was great to see some friends, observe the temple cleaned up and ready to go, and feel the energy as we get ready to invite the Emperor and his entourage on Monday night.

20110926-095415.jpg

20110926-095520.jpg
There was quite a crowd gathered as the organizing committee worked hard to get the devotees their preferred spaces.

20110926-095736.jpg

20110926-095837.jpg

Meanwhile, the vendors’ supplies were arriving and the mood was jovial.

20110926-100050.jpg
Here are members of the organizing committee and some volunteers discussing how it all happens, a little politics, and the value of a good cup of Chinese tea.

See you from the Hong Kong St Temple in Penang!

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.

 

 

 

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.