Monday marked the first day of the Taoist Nine Emperor Gods Festival. The festival, which is designed to worship 9 emperors who are thought to be 9 stars around the Big Dipper and children of female deity, Dou Mu, is celebrated at Taoist temples in Malaysia, Singapore, Myanmar and Thailand. Oddly enough, it is not celebrated in China, where it originated in the province of Fujian.
In 2010 I met by chance an elder of Tow Bo Temple on Cheong Fatt Tze Street (formerly Hong Kong St) in George Town, Penang. He invited me to attend ceremonies held on the ninth day of the festival, which culminate in a fantastic procession throughthe streets of George Town that ends at one of the Hokkien clan jetties on Weld Quay Road.
Tow Bo Temple is thought to be the oldest 9 Emperor Gods temple in Malaysia; scriptures at the temple date back to 1842. Families living in homes on either side of the temple, which have occupied them for five generations now, keep and maintain the float that the temple deploys in the procession.
Nine Emperor god worshippers are known by their white clothing and yellow sashes.
On the ninth day of the festival the 9 Emperor Gods are called to the temple and sent off in a boat. The ceremony begins with the raising of nine lanterns on a high bamboo pole outside of the temple. Inside the temple worshippers offer incense and food and pray. Then the temple's priest/medium calls in the Emperor Gods. Then the ceremony moves out onto the street, where arches are set up for worshippers to walk under.
While all this is going on members are beating drums outside; the atmosphere is electric and you can feel the spriritual fervor build. This helps worshippers who will be pierced though their cheeks enter a trance-like state which enables them to take the injury to their bodies dealt by quite large rods without bleeding. On the night I attended the ceremony about 6 or so devotees accepted the piercing. There's no wincing, there's no evidence of pain when the rod is driven through the cheeks of these men. It is, frankly, a little surreal to watch.
After the piercing the men are led down a sort of human chute of devotees, encouraged by clapping and drumming, and then they take their places on the temple's float. Lots of firecrackers are set off at the base of the street where it joins Carnavon, a major thoroughfare along which the procession, which includes floats from many other Nine Emperor God temples on Penang, will pass.
The procession is long and intense. Devotees follow along banging drums and in addition to their wheeled floats each temple has numerous male members carrying a sort of palanquin upon which a heavy boat rests. This boat figures in at the end of the ceremony. As the procession moves past other non-9 Emperor Gods temples (there are a LOT of temples in George Town, large and miniscule) the palanquin carriers do a sort of back-and-forth movement towards their entrances 3 times, symbolizing bows of respect.At the pier, Tow Bo elders boarded a boat with the temples boat, which was loaded with paper offerings, joss sticks and sandlewood. They motored out to sea and set the boat ablaze. I boarded another boat with Tow Bo devotees and from that we watched the fire. We could see boats from other temples, also ablaze, floating in the distance. If the craft returns to land it is considered unlucky.
I have attended many religious events in Asia over the years. This was by far one of the most intense and exhausting.And rewarding. I hope this multimedia captures some of the intensity and raw emotion of that night.
A technical note:
I shot with 3 cameras - Canon EOS 1 Mark II fitted with a 70-200mm 2.8 IS, Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a 35mm 1.4 and Ricoh GRD3 which proved to be especially adept at capturing close in shots in a tightly packed crowd. I generally shot at ISO 800-1600 on the Canons and 400-800 on the Ricoh. I also had 2 OP/TECH USA Rainsleeves in my bag which came in handy when we had an hour-long deluge towards the end of the procession. When I met up with my contact at the temple he told me that big rain happens "every year at about the same time in the procession" -- so if you plan to attend this year, be forewarned.
Thank you to elders and members of Tow Bo Temple for their warm hospitality.