9 Emperor Gods Festival – Pt 4

A medium cracks the serpent whip to begin the ceremony.

A medium cracks the serpent whip to begin the ceremony.

This is the last in a four-part series on the 9 Emperor Gods Festival that took place at the Tow Boo Kong Temple in Butterworth, Penang, Malaysia.  You might find it helpful if you read the FIRST,  SECOND and THIRD parts of this story before continuing.

On this the final night of the nine-day festival Taoists gather to pay homage to the nine gods and send them back to heaven. More people gather on this one night than any of the previous nights. This is special. The evening started with my crew arriving at an already packed temple. Everyone was standing in the courtyard holding three or four long joss sticks. If you don’t know what a joss stick is, think large incense sticks. These are usually lit and then placed in a sand laden urn as a prayer offering. But tonight they will be carried in the procession of the gods to the sea.

After we had waited for some time, the mediums, who by now we know by sight, come out and sit on their stools to ready themselves to be possessed by the spirits of the children and the monkeys.

I want to pause here. I have heard people criticize other reports of this and other festivals for being inaccurate. Let me say; this information is straight from the participant’s mouths. Every night I would ask questions of devotees and record their answers when I could. These are stories that these followers have lived with for their whole life, yet everyone I asked seems to give me a different response. So to be clear, these are not my words, but theirs.

Back to the mediums. They sit and readied themselves and then the leader again, cracks the serpent whip. Each of the nine mediums starts to sway and move and then eventually stand up and take on the attributes of a child or often a monkey.

  • Each of the nine mediums starts to sway and move and then eventually stand up and take on the attributes of a child or often a monkey.
  • Cracking the whip to start the ceremony.
  • All the mediums seem to be energized by the cracking of the whip.
  • Another medium cracks the whip. Note the pacifier in the mediums mouth.

They ready themselves and the crowd to meet the veiled gods. Each god is removed from the inner sanctum of the temple and brought ceremoniously to a waiting float in the shape of a boat. After they are loaded onto the boat no time is wasted, the floats proceed out the temple and onto the route of the procession. A huge crowd follows each float always holding up the burning joss sticks. The route wanders around and then ends at the ocean side.

The boat/float that contains the gods is met by a huge crane that is quickly attached to it.  The crane then lifts the boat from the transport and slowly swings it over to the shoreline. Here after some effort, the boat is eventually disconnected from the crane and attached to another boat by a cable.

 

  • A medium makes a pathway for the gods.
  • Note the pacifier.
  • The gods are removed from the temple under a cover. Here a flag is used to create a barrier.
  • The gods are moved through the crowds.
  • The under cover the gods make their way to the boat where they will ride to the sea.
  • The dragon figurehead of float as it leave with the gods to the sea.
  • The crowds of devotee following the floats.
  • The crowds of devotee following the floats.
  • Alway eager to have their photos made.
  • Even the mediums want their photo made by Simon Bond.
  • This medium blessing a devotee whiel waiting for the boat/float to arrive.
  • Riding atop the float.

 

At this point we were told the ship with the gods would be pulled out to sea and set on fire and that would be the end of the festival. But to our surprise, they lit the vessel on fire right there on the beach. It went up in flames in a matter of seconds. The gods were released back to where they came from as the crowd prayed and worshiped.

  • The boat waits to be hoisted to the beach.
  • A crane hoists the boat with the gods to the seaside.
  • Floating through the air like something out of Peter Pan.
  • Easing the boat to the shoreline.
  • One of the lead mediums giving direction.
  • Securing the boat.
  • Last minute blessings.
  • Fighting the surf while trying to tie the two boats together. The motorboat will pull the other out to sea.
  • The fire being lit.
  • It only takes seconds for the boat to be consumed in flames.
  • It only takes seconds for the boat to be consumed in flames.
  • Clearing he debris so the boat can leave.
  • Saying farewell to the 9 Emperors.

 

After some time the flames had died down, and the smoldering craft was pulled out to the open sea. The festival ended, and we were left to walk back to the temple and our car sandy and wet.

In closing, this festival was one of the most spectacular festivals of the year. We covered the events from one temple. But there were dozens if not more temples in the area that were doing all of the same events but on different nights.

 

9 Emperor Gods Festival – Pt 3

As if walking through hell, these devotees walk over burning coals and paper.

As if walking through hell, these devotees walk over burning coals and paper.

 

Just a suggestion, but you might want to read the the first two parts of this series before continuing. You can read the first part HERE and second part HERE.

Click on the photos to see them at full size.

At this point in my saga, I am just over half way, day seven of the 9 Emperor Gods Festival. On this evening participants walk on live coals and fire. I say coals and fire because in some ways it is like two different events.

By the time we arrive (I photographed this with Pete DeMarco and Simon Bond) the bricks in the Tow Boo Kong Temple courtyard have been pulled up and a shallow fire pit has been made. The fire has been burning for some time by now. It is mostly coals with only a few burning embers.

Two men take a long flat plank between the two of them and start smacking the coal bed.

Two men take a long flat plank between the two of them and start smacking the coal bed.

 

Two men take a long flat plank between the two of them and start smacking the coal bed. This action effectively readies the bed by compacting the coals and stamping out any flames. After they get it looking they way they want temple officials start throwing salt on the red hot coals. For some reason, this changes the surface to black with the red embers under it. My thoughts are it also drops the temperature of the surface or insulates it.

 

The first to cross the coals where the mediums. This was while the coals seemed to still be very red.

The first to cross the coals where the mediums. This was while the coals seemed to still be very red.

 

However, with that said, while the coals are still very red a whip is cracked and one of the lead mediums takes off running over the coals. He does this two or three time as if to test it for the rest of the soon-to-be walkers.

Then without any warning, the group of mediums, the same ones from the oil ceremony and the spear piercing all start walking rapidly across the live coals.

Then without any warning, the group of mediums, the same ones from the oil ceremony and the spear piercing all start walking rapidly across the live coals.

 

One of the mediums casually walking across the coals.

One of the mediums casually walking across the coals.

Then without any warning, the group of mediums, the same ones from the oil ceremony and the spear piercing all start walking rapidly across the live coals. Quickly following them are anyone else who wants to walk the coals. I was even encouraged to walk the coal by one of the “baby” mediums.

 

 Quickly following them are anyone else who wants to walk the coals. I was even encouraged to walk.

Quickly following them are anyone else who wants to walk the coals. I was even encouraged to walk.

 

By this time any red coals on the surface were long gone. If one ever did appear someone would stop the procession and toss salt on it and then let it continue. The line of participants seemed to be endless. Some did it two or even three times. Many brought clothing, idols even young children in their arms as they walked over the coal. I was told the purpose for this was an attempt to clean them of bad karma.

 

Many brought clothing, idols even young children in their arms as they walked over the coal. I was told the purpose for this was an attempt to clean them of bad karma.

Many brought clothing, idols even young children in their arms as they walked over the coal. I was told the purpose for this was an attempt to clean them of bad karma.

 

Then without any notice, several members of the festival committee started tossing folded paper money onto the coals. The paper was not real currency, but money printed for the spirits. The money, of course, smoldered and soon burst into flames.  While the raging fire burned people continued to cross the coals. Watching these people pass through a raging fire was the most visual and impressive part of the evening.

 

While the raging fire burned people continued to cross the coals. Watching these people pass through a raging fire was the most visual and impressive part of the evening.

While the raging fire burned people continued to cross the coals. Watching these people pass through a raging fire was the most visual and impressive part of the evening.

 

The last bow to the fire before it was all over.

The last bow to the fire before it was all over.

 

Soon it was over. The fire burned itself out, and people wandered away. Already thinking about Sunday evening, the last night. The night they send the emperors back to heaven.

 

9 Emperor Gods Festival – Pt 2

The medium must now walk the long distance of the parade route.

The medium must now walk the long distance of the parade route.

If you are reading this before reading the first part HERE, then you might be at a slight loss as to what this festival is about. Do yourself a favor and go back and catch up before reading on.

The Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods is at its core a Taoist festival that focuses on nine emperor gods that are now celestial stars. On this, the 5th night of the festival, spiritual mediums skewer their cheeks with long sharp stainless steel poles. The poles look to be 4 to 4.5 meters (around 15 ft) in length.

  • A guest performers from Taiwan.
  • Guest performers rest before the show starts.
  • Prayers are offered at the temple alter.
  • A dragon sculpture and fountain at the Tow Boo Kong Temple.
  • Prayer are offered non-stop throughout the night.

 

I asked Philip, one of the festival organizers at the Two Boo Kong Temple, who are these mediums? He said they had been born for this as if it is a unique gifting.

As the long poles are lined up in readiness for the event, oranges are stuck on the end of each pole’s point. Partly to keep people from playing with them as well as to act as a type of disinfectant.

  • The mediums begin to shake after the serpent whip is cracked.
  • Then one by one they start to get up and move and sway.
  • They start to squawk like monkeys or talk like babies.
  • They start to squawk like monkeys or talk like babies.

 

The mediums need to get ready for the piercing by allowing a spirit to enter their body. They sit and pray. Then as soon as another medium cracks a serpent shaped whip the group starts to convulse and the spirits enter their bodies. They take on different personalities, mostly of children or babies. These are obvious by the baby talk and pacifiers (or dummies) they start sucking on. Other turn into monkeys with whooping, and squealing.

The scars from the piercing are real and last a lifetime.

The scars from the piercing are real and last a lifetime.

They are then lead to a stool and very quickly but carefully the skewers are pushed through one side of their cheek. Here in Penang, they don’t seem to put anything other than the pole through their cheeks, unlike in Phuket where mediums push large objects through their cheeks.

9_emperor_gods-10-05-07-07-53

Some of the mediums had their left cheek pierced, others their right.

The mediums then carefully rise and bow before the temple and it’s gods.   Then slowly move to the front of the parade. This ritual is done nine times with each of the nine mediums.

  • Oranges are uses to both protect the public from the pear tips as well as a way to disinfect the spear.
  • The orange is removed and the spear is pass down to the men who will be placing it through the medium's cheek.
  • A medium himself, this man hold one of the younger men as he get ready to have the spear placed through his cheek.
  • The right spot is carefully found.
  • The sharp spear brought carefully up to the correct spot.
  • Then the spear is pushed through to the middle.
  • Once completed...
  • the medium rises...
  • bows to the temple and then leaves to join the parade.

 

The parade itself is unremarkable. It is like any other parade in the U.S or around the world. It is made up of everything from  pom-pom dance teams to floats and dignitaries. The only difference between this parade and the Belton, Texas 4th of July parade, is Belton doesn’t have men with 15 ft  steel poles running through their cheeks.

  • As if it were obligatory, the parade like so many others around the world has it's own pom-pom team.
  • Floats with local dignitaries and clubs made up the parade.
  • The mediums with their spears through their cheeks walked the long route of the parade with help.
  • Every so often a medium would stand on a stool and encourage the crowd to cheer.
  • Every so often a medium would stand on a stool and encourage the crowd to cheer.
  • The parade route was long and slow. The mediums needed to rest frequently.

 

The parade does a huge loop and ends back at the temple where it started from. Those people who didn’t want to walk the many miles in the parade were left at the temple grounds with a live theatrical production to watch and plenty of food to eat.

The next big event happens on the 7th night: Fire Walking.

Chinese New Year in 15 Photos

The Kek Lok Si temple in Penang, Malaysia all lit up for Chinese New Year.

The Kek Lok Si temple in Penang, Malaysia all lit up for Chinese New Year.

Chinese New Year in Penang

My wife and I have been back in Malaysia 10 days now. In that time we have been working frantically on our new visa to allow us to reside here. Without going into details – let’s just say it is complicated.  Our visit has coincided with Chinese New Year. Since arriving the shops and public offices have been close for Chinese New Year. It was the worst possible time to come to work on something like a visa. Especially when you have a small window to work in. I leave Sunday to host a 10 day workshop in India. But the upside is with the offices all closed it has given me ample opportunity to get back into the city and photograph this amazing place. Oh how I have missed Penang.

I hope you enjoy some of these images.

A Buddha in the upper floor of the pagoda at the Kek Lok Si Temple, in Penang.

A Buddha in the upper floor of the pagoda at the Kek Lok Si Temple, in Penang.

I found this arched door way on the first level of the pagoda at Kek Lok Si to be a true blend of Malay (read Muslim) and Chinese architecture.

I found this arched doorway on the first level of the pagoda at Kek Lok Si to be a true blend of Malay (read Muslim) and Chinese architecture.

The same group of arches, but facing a different direction and thus with a different backdrop. Not as symmetrical but more colorful.

The same group of arches, but facing a different direction and thus with a different backdrop. Not as symmetrical but more colorful.

Chinese lanterns at Kek Lok Si Temple, in Penang.

Chinese lanterns at Kek Lok Si Temple, in Penang.

More Chinese lanterns. These were hanging at Kek Lok Si, in Penang.

More Chinese lanterns. These were hanging at Kek Lok Si, in Penang.

Kuan Yin Teng Temple or Temple of Mercy in Georgetown, Penang.

Kuan Yin Teng Temple or Temple of Mercy in Georgetown, Penang.

Kuan Yin Teng Temple or Temple of Mercy in Georgetown, Penang.

Kuan Yin Teng Temple or Temple of Mercy in Georgetown, Penang.

A view back over the city from Kuan Yin Teng Temple at sunrise.

A view back over the city from Kuan Yin Teng Temple at sunrise.

A temple volunteer pick up the older josh sticks. He needs to leave room for the hundreds more that will be left by the worshipers to come. Early morning at Kuan Im Teng (廣福宮/觀音亭).

A temple volunteer picks up the older josh sticks. He needs to leave room for the hundreds more that will be left by the worshipers to come. Early morning at Kuan Yin Teng (廣福宮/觀音亭).

A worshiper at the worshiperKuan Yin Teng (廣福宮/觀音亭) rases his josh stick in prayer.

A worshiper at the Kuan Yin Teng (廣福宮/觀音亭) raises his josh stick in prayer.

Lanterns in a Taoist temple neat Tanjung Bungah, Penang, Malaysia.

Lanterns in a Taoist temple near Tanjung Bungah, Penang, Malaysia.

 Meet Mr Lim. A retired factory worker who now volunteers at the temple to stay busy.

Meet Mr Lim. A retired factory worker who now volunteers at the temple to stay busy.

One of the fun events of Chinese New Year are the Lion Dances that happen all over the city. A troop of dancers and musicians dance to give a prosperity blessing to a shopkeeper in return for Aung Pow or a offering or gift.

One of the fun events of Chinese New Year are the Lion Dances that happen all over the city. A troop of dancers and musicians dance to give a prosperity blessing to shopkeepers in return for Aung Pow or a offering or gift.

Albert, the Chee Cheong Fun hawker, sneaks a peak at the man behind the lion mask.

Albert, the Chee Cheong Fun hawker, sneaks a peak at the man behind the lion mask.

Eid-ul Adha, Kapitan Keling Masjid

warningI woke up today thinking I would go out and shoot some rain photos. It has been raining here for the past two to three weeks. I was getting stir-crazy and needed to get out. As I was getting dressed I kept hearing the speakers of the local mosque in the background talking about something. Then it occurred to me, today is Eid-ul Adha! Holy cow..well, holy cow, goat and any other halal animal. Continue reading

Swayambhunath: The Monkey Temple

The Swayambhunath Stupa aka The Monkey Temple. Remember me complaining yesterday about not having an Equivalent 16mm lens. This is what happens when you don't have a wide enough plants, you cut off the top of a stupa!f/2.8, 1/25 sec, at 14mm, 800 ISO, on a X-Pro1

The Swayambhunath Stupa or The Monkey Temple. Remember me complaining yesterday about not having an equivalent 16mm lens?
This is what happens when you don’t have a wide enough lens, you cut off the top of a stupa!
f/2.8, 1/25 sec, at 14mm, 800 ISO, on a X-Pro1

 

You can tell by the past few posts by Jon McCormack and I that we filled out days shooting everything that moved. The Swayambhunath Temple is located near Kathmandu on top of a large hill. It is often referred to as, The Monkey Temple because of the hundreds of rhesus macaques roaming the site. Have I mentioned here before that I hate monkeys and rhesus are the worst – a long story for another time. I digress. We arrived and hour or so before sunset to be sure to get in position to photograph the stupa with the evening sky blue behind it. Fortunately, for us this time the floodlights on the stupa worked. Unlike the Boudhanath stupa there were no buildings to climb up to get better views.

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Life, Worship and Sitting around: Bhaktapur, Nepal

Playing the triangle for Puja.f/1.4, 1/80 sec, at 35mm, 200 ISO, on a X-Pro1

Playing the triangle for Puja.
f/1.4, 1/80 sec, at 35mm, 200 ISO, on a X-Pro1

 

Bhaktapur was the capital of Nepal until late in the 15th century. As a result it has many amazing wood and stone temples and statues all around the city. Both days Jon McCormack (Check out Jon’s images here.) and I shot there it was rainy and overcast. Not the kind of rainy skies that give dramatic dark clouds, the other kind of sky, the white and boring washed out kind.  Luckily bland cloudy skies are good for shooting portraits and detail shots of life. This is precisely what we did. We roamed the city looking for culture unfolding before us. Life as it is lived in the 21st century Bhaktapur. The trick is get up early, really early, before the tourists rise. The locals are already up and about by 5:30am. We would arrived around 6. Just in time for morning puja and the vegetable markets. (Note: if you can’t see all of an image due to a small monitor just click on the image and it will popup and fit your screen.)

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Redux: Kathmandu’s Boudhanath Stupa

The classic shot of Boudhanath. Been there done that.  f/10, 1/480 sec, at 14mm, 200 ISO, on a X-Pro1

The classic shot of Boudhanath. Been there done that.
f/10, 1/480 sec, at 14mm, 200 ISO, on a X-Pro1

 

Kathmandu is a strange mix of Hindu and Buddhist culture. With only a few days to explore my friend Jon and I are sticking around Kathmandu. Our hotel is right across the road from Boudhanath – one of the holiest Buddhist sites in Kathmandu, Nepal. It’s also the most photographed spot in the country,  so how do you photograph it in a way completely different than (a) you’ve done before or (b) like no one else has done?

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