Nine Emperor Gods festival
Although I have been traveling for many years, few times I have been so impressed with people and religion as here in Penang. It's early October and we have just celebrated the Moon Festival. The Ramandan has just ended and the Muslims in Malaysia are going back to normal life. For the Chinese population another great event is about to start: the Nine Emperor Gods festival.
I was guest of Mrs. Pearly and Mr. Chandra who brought me to a new build Nine Emperor Gods temple in Butterworth, located at Jalan Raja Uda, on the northern site of Butterworth. The temple is a formidable example of the Chinese culture in Penang. Thus it is not surprising a major Chinese Festival, to be more specific, a Taoist festival is held here.
The building of the temple, started in 2000 and is finished. It took several years to finish it but the result is a magnificent temple that is worth the visit even if it is not during the Nine Emperor Gods Festival.
The festival is usually held in October. It starts with bringing the gods from the sea to the temple. This is one of the tasks for the managing trustee.
The managing trustee is annually chosen and although the task brings many heavy responsibilities, it also is supposed to bring a lot of fortune and prosperity. Obviously many want to be the trustee. This year (2007, I have visited the festival almost every year since 2007) the choice of the gods was Mrs. Girlie.
The first day, which I had to skip, the managing trustee brought the Urn to the beach were the gods descended from the Big Dipper Star constellation. From the beach they were brought to the temple. Mrs. Girlie is not seen during the ceremony as she is under a huge umbrella and with her the Urn she has to take care of.
I had met Mrs. Girlie in the temple some weeks earlier. She had explained me a lot of the temple and her responsibilities as a managing trustee. Mrs. Girlie also urged me to join as many days in the Nine Emperor Gods festival as possible because there were many spectacular things to see.
Mrs. Girlie explained that the Urn stands in the inner sanctuary in the temple but for the rest of the year the trustee takes the Urn back home and keeps it in a special room where even the other family members are not allowed to come.
She couldn't even tell me what the Urn looked like, or what exactly was held in the inner sanctuary. It was simply not allowed to explain more.
The Third Day
I arrived at the temple on the third day. This day would see a phenomenon I would never have believe if I had no seen it with my own eyes. 9 mediums go in trace. During their trance it seemed they become complete different people. With their eyes closed, even their faces look completely different from earlier that day.
The believe is that in trance they are taken over by deities and they are protected from any harm. In the evening of the third day oil was heated on a fire.
The mediums, now in deep trance pour oil over their bodies, put their hands in the boiling oil and put it on their faces, even in their mount.
After a while, they spit out the oil on the fire, which creates spectacular outburst of flames. The oil is hot enough to create several wounds, do not harm the mediums who seem to play with the oil as if it is just cool water.
There was no sign of blood or injuries. Please don't ask me to explain as I can't. The believe is that the Gods protect the medium.
After the ceremony, one of the older mediums went in trance inside the temple (the playing with the oil all happened in front of the temple). In trance, he became another deity. Many people had questions for the deity and with help, the deity answers questions for good health and prosperity.
The Fifth Day
The fourth day was mostly spend in prayers and nothing much spectacular was supposed to happen so I skipped it. Mrs. Girlie urged me to come on the Fifth Day.
To me the Fifth Day was one of the scariest things I have ever witnessed. It all started with one of the mediums who would get an huge amounts of iron hooks attached to his body. Do I say attached? I mean, those hooks went in the flesh of his back. No blood was spoiled.
Then 4.5 meter spears (9 feet) would go through the cheeks of 8 other mediums. The mediums are again high in trance. One of them later explained they feel nothing and apart of a small scar (see the picture of one of them) there is nothing harmful happening.
When the first medium with a spear is ready he was walking to the main street. Mrs. Girlie and a few of her associates join a medium who is possessed as a young deity.
This deity will walk and dance along a 10 km long road planting green bamboo sticks along the road. The first hit on the bamboo when planted has to be done by the managing trustee, this year it was Mrs. Girlie.
At a certain moment, the associates of the Mrs. Girlie were not attentive enough and the deity, with high pitched voice (and totally different from the normal voice he has) scolded the associates, blaming them to be not attentive enough when he needed them with joss ticks, candles and other things.
It was during this parade I saw something I could not believe. One of the mediums, who all would pay tribute to the planted bamboo stick (representing a temporary temple) started spinning. Only because his helpers slowed him down he was able to continue his journey on the parade.
After the nine mediums a long procession with dragon dances, beautiful decorated vans and Chinese lions were passing.
Around midnight the procession was back at the temple. Now the mediums would be released from their spears and got out of trance. Apart of a little scar on the cheek nothing would remind of the spear and no blood was spilt.
The Sixth Day
The Sixth Day was supposed to be least spectacular so far. It was the day a new managing trustee, Lor Chu, the successor of Mrs. Girlie would be chosen. As you can expect, there would be many candidates. Despite the massive responsibilities, it's an honour to be chosen. There were 164 candidates.
At the entrance of the temple another very traditional event took place. 9 people in traditional Chinese costumes would perform a ceremony. Although maybe less spectacular as the spear or oil ceremony this was nonetheless another exciting thing to witness.
I took another advantage to explore the temple again and found many examples of excellent craftsmanship and architecture.
The Seventh Day
The Seventh Day of the Nine Emperor Gods festival was held in front of the temple. A huge fire was already burning. This fire would be the base of the Firewalking ceremony. This ceremony represents the purification of the mind. Again the 9 mediums were present and all went several times over the steaming hot path that the fire had created.
After the mediums, Mrs. Girlie, carrying a statue performed the Firewalk and then other trustee associates and people working in the temple followed.
Although I was quite a few meters away from the steaming hot path, I could feel the heat sometimes taking my air away.
How these people cross the path without being injured I can not understand.
I was told that when you keep the vegetarian diet which is necessary to be actively involved in this festival and keep praying when crossing the gods will let you float over the ashes.
It was that night too I took the opportunity to join many people in the kitchen of the temple to eat some of the prepared vegetarian food.
The 8th Day
On the 8th day of the festival there was not much special to do in the temple. At midnight there would be prayers to the Mother of the Nine Emperor God as it would be her birthday. Thus Mrs. Pearly, Mr. Chandra and I took the advantage to have a lengthy chat with the managing trustee Mrs. Girlie. Below is an excerpt of the interview we did with her.
The 9th Day
The 9th day of the festival would be the closure. When we arrived some of the mediums went in trance and were possessed by what was explained to me as baby gods.
The baby gods were collecting money from the devotees when they wanted to purify their souls by stepping over an urn with ashes. Mrs. Girlie told me I could do this too so I gave the baby gods some money and stepped over the urn. Some of the devotees feel something but I felt nothing special.
Later the mediums would go in trance again and this was the sign to start the procession to the sea. As the Gods were invited the first day from the sea, now they would return to the beach and send away, back to the stars.
At the beach the boat, symbolizing the boat the Gods came with, would be burned and the Gods are send back to the stars.
The only left is then to dismantle the temporary shrines around the temple area after which the Lor Chu and the devotees will eat meat to end the Nine Emperor Gods festival.