Living in Penang is sometimes like living in Epcot Center. Many different cultures, and parties and festivals all the time. Seriously, it seems every month there is a festival or a holiday. Many of these are visually spectacular like Thaipusam or Chinese New Year. No other festival in Penang is more visual and varied than the Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods.
The Nine Emperor Festival is complicated, to say the least. I love to get as much info about what I am shooting from the local community when possible. It seems everyone, even folks that are associated with the festival are unclear of the details. It is at this point when I lean heavy on Wikipedia.
In short, what the festival is about is disputed by more traditional Taoist. In popular belief, according to Wikipedia it goes something like this:
“On the eve of the ninth moon, temples of the deities hold a ceremony to invoke and welcome the nine emperors. Since the arrival of the gods is believed to be through the waterways, processions are held from temples to the sea shore or river to symbolize this belief. Devotees dressed in traditional white, carrying incense and candles, await the arrival of their excellencies.
A carnival-like atmosphere pervades the temple throughout the nine day festival. During this period of time, the constant tinkling of a prayer bell and chants from the temple priests are heard. Most devotees stay at the temple, eat vegetarian meals and recite continuous chanting of prayer. It is believed that there will be rain throughout the nine days of celebration.
The ninth day of the festival is its climax. A procession which draws scores of devotees sends the deities back home.” Wikipedia
As a photographer, the important part of all this is knowing the schedule. There is no point in showing up after an hour’s drive to find that the only things happening are speeches by dignitaries. Fortunately, I found this schedule at the Tow Boo Kong Temple website. Tow Boo Kong is the largest Nine Emperor Gods Temple in the area.
- 1st Day Deity Nan Dou Birthday Celebration
- 3rd Day Deity Bei Dou Birthday Celebration
- Playing with Hot Oil Ceremony
- 5th Day Spear Skewing Celebration
- Float Procession
- 6th Day Selection of new Urn Trustee
- 7th Day Fire Walking Ceremony
- 8th Day Fort Crossing Ceremony
- 9th Day Deity Dou Mu Birthday Celebration
- Sending-Off Ceremony
My first day to visit this year was on the third day. Having only read about the “playing with hot oil” I was intrigued.
When we arrived ( I was photographing with two other photographers from Penang, Simon Bond and Pete DeMarco) things looked rather tame. There was some drama being performed in the temple under, of all things, yellow lights. I had packed light. I brought my Cactus RF-60 flash, but that was completely manual. I also had my very tiny Nissin i-40. The Nissin is almost half the flash the Cactus is, but it is TTL and allows for rear curtain sync. If you read my blog you know I love to use rear curtain sync at events like this. But, I soon realized the limitations of the Nissin. 1. The flash just could not overpower the yellow lights from where I was forced to be. 2. The recycle speed seems to be very slow. I am not sure how much of that is the flash or how much the batteries.
After awhile it was time for the hot oil ceremony. The men from the temple organizing committee started to build small brick like ovens, but more like a chimney. They placed a huge wok on top of each oven and made fires under them. They had it barricaded off. However, I noticed several photographers with the local press inside the barricades so we joined them. No one said anything.
It was good that we did. The makeshift ovens had an opening that faced away from the crowd, and this is the opening where the spiritual mediums would eventually spit the hot oil and make massive fireballs.
After the fire was roaring, the men poured oil into each wok. Then after about 20 minutes of being heated by the fire the mediums arrived. They were hooting and squeaking like monkeys. When I asked about this, I was told that most of them receive the spirit of a child or a baby. But some get the spirit of a monkey.
The mediums went right away to the oil and began reaching into the hot oil with their hands and then putting a handful into their mouths. They would walk around and then spew it into the fire resulting in a fireball.
This dancing and spitting went on for about 15 to 20 minutes and then ended quite quickly. Just as soon as the mediums left the committee members added large branches of herbs into the oil to cook them.
The whole purpose of the playing/dancing and spitting of the oil is to bless the oil. The oil will then be sold to locals over the next few days as medicinal and the funds raised will help the temple.
All this and it was only our first night. Next visit will be on day 5, the spear skewing celebration and float procession.
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