Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Round and Round - Ampang Nine Emperor Gods Festival

There are three events that occur after the fire-walking ceremony, two of which gets missed by the casual ,uninformed visitor to the festival. The first is the final 'round-and-round' prayers, which most people would notice as it happens almost immediately after the fire walking ceremony. This is followed by a prayer session where the opera performs at the platform of the altar and lastly, a small prayer where they ask for confirmation of the time to send the Nine Emperor Gods off.
Candlelight supper anyone?? Mrs Bucket (pronounced Bouquet) would have been proud. Setting up the altar for the round-and-round ceremony.

Immediately after the fire-walking ceremony, the altar and the surrounding area gets reorganised quickly for the 'round-and-round' ceremony; where offerings are passed by male devotees from one altar to another until all have been passed through the main altar at the front of the temple.
Tea...set, rice bowls...set, cakes...done, tummy...Oops! Need my robe to cover it up. The priest getting ready for the round and round prayers.
Here comes the bride, all dressed in white...Oh my what an ugly bride...Oh wait, this is Nine Emperor Gods temple, not a church. The men lining up for the round-and-round ceremony.

The lines of devotees are formed and broken down as the ceremony progresses to cover all the altars on the temple, be it the North and South Star pagoda, or the altar at the foot of the flagpole lantern. The line is unbelievably long, and runs from the inside of the Nine Emperor Gods altar to the altars outside. All sorts of offerings were passed along, from rice cakes to bowls of fruits, and even the patron deity of the opera troupe.
He looks as if like he is carrying a priceless crystal in his hands. They must be careful not to drop the offerings.
A long line all around. Round and round the offering goes...
Here's the pagoda cake again...

During this ceremony, the offerings passed along should must not be dropped, as that forebodes something bad for those involved. However, I did see a stalk of tuberose that got progressively mangled as it was passed from one person to another.
Whoa, gentle guys...you are making me dizzy. The patron deity being passed round and round in his little carry tray.

When all of the offerings had been passed along and returned back to their respective altars, the ceremony is concluded with a quick rush for the dried fruits and sweet cakes by those involved. Most visitors would have dispersed by now, but for those who stay on, they will get to witness another prayer/offering session where the opera troupe will perform at the altar.
Offerings gone is a flash! They must be really hungry.

Preparation for this session goes on as the altar gets cleared from the previous prayers, and rather quickly, another set of offerings were up and ready on the same altar. Dried longans, persimmons and vegetarian stuff fill the altar table together with bowls of rice and fruits. Not to be missed are the piles of prosperity cakes and longevity turtles.
Shit! I can't see a thing as I forgot my glasses. Nevermind, I will just mumble something - The altar table being set with a new set of cakes and fruits. The priest conducts the prayer session before the opera comes on-stage and perform.
No. 1: Have you seen his ahh...that long you know!!! Can poke you in the eye, man!
No. 2: Aiyah, what for, long one where got fun. Can be painful lor if your eyes get poked!
No. 3: Huh, what are you guys talking about? Joss stick long no use one.
The performers gossiping while waiting for the show to start.
A hundred million miracles, a hundred million....Hah, we are not doing Flower Drum Song tonight?? Then what are we performing?? Strutting and showing off his stuff at the altar platform.
Take her now...Your child will want for nothing... Oi, wrong play lah...
Halt! Who goes there? The performers each take a turn to perform in front of the Nine Emperor Gods.

There was a little confusion as where the troupe will perform, but that didn't mattered as all were entertained with the dancing and twirling that was even more challenging for the performers as they had to do so within the small confines of the platform. When the ceremony ended with the revealing of the Heavenly Officer Bestow Blessings sign, another rush for the offerings occurred and those involved left with all sorts of offered items, including the bowls of cooked rice.
I feel pretty, oh so pretty...I feel pretty and witty and...Whad'ya mean this is not West Side Story??
Hai yah! You have offended my family and now you shall taste my fist of fury....
Lot 665, a jeweled scepter, starting bid is at RM10, anyone for RM20...Yupp!  
Moments before the performer reveals the banner with the words Heavenly Officer Bestows Blessings to the altar.
So hard to fight with these youngsters. Luckily I got a bowl of rice. An old lady manages to get a bowl of rice that was offered during the ceremony.
Picking off the offerings. At the back are a pile of prosperity cakes coloured pink and yellow.

After this performance, the atmosphere is more relaxed and the number of onlookers and devotees dwindled. I was hanging around the altar as I was waiting for the confirmation of the time for the send-off. This  secret, bewitching hour would not be announced until much later, that is after prayers to obtain confirmation of the send-off time has been conducted. This prayer was held about 30mins after the previous session had ended, and would go unnoticed as only a small group of people are involved.
Things get serious as they try again to get confirmation of the send-off time. This is when the opera performers and the patron deity gets recalled back to the main altar.

This year, this prayer drew a little attention, as they could not get a positive answer with the divination block for the send-off time even after many tries. As impatient voices grew louder and louder, one of the priest, who was obviously frustrated, pulled off the string that tied the divination block together.
Another round of eating the offerings. No wonder most of them are a little rotund... A great relief for those involved when the confirmation of the send-off time was obtained, which means that finally some of them can smile instead of having faces that can sink a thousand ships.

After some discussion, they called the opera troupe and the patron deity back to the main altar to join in the ceremony. After the opera troupe members arrived and placed their patron deity on the altar table, and efforts like covering the divination process with their robes, the priest and the urn-master finally got a positive answer for 3.15am, which was immediately followed by shouts of prosperity. I left after texting a few people regarding the send-off time and headed back to to freshen up for the send-off. It was way past 11.45pm when I got home, and it hit me that it had been a long night for me, with a full day coming up soon!

My links for the 2012 Nine Emperor Gods Festival @ Ampang Nan Tian Gong

Fire Crossing - Ninth Day of the Nine Emperor Gods Festival 2012 @ Ampang

The ninth day of the Nine Emperor Gods Festival is the busiest day for the Ampang Nan Tian Gong Temple. The entire day and night is packed with events and preparation. Firstly, the midday will see another feeding of the heavenly soldiers’ session. Next is the bed preparation for the fire walking/crossing later tonight. After that, they will have the round and round prayers and then prayers to confirm the time for the send-off. As the fire-walking also involves a large number of devotees from within the temple as well as those from other temples, it adds up to the huge logistics that needs to sorted out.
A storm threatened to wash out the fire walking ceremony. Luckily, the clouds just rolled by and all we got was a rumble of thunder here and there.

Mdm. Ho and some of the temple committee staff were busy getting the number tags for the devotees ready when I went into the office to collect my press pass. After getting my press pass (it felt like I could walk on fire), I went for a quick vegetarian lunch. The area for the fire-walking had been cleared of stalls and fences that keep spectators out had already been set up around this area.
This is what you need to DIY a fire walking ceremony - sand, charcoal and lots of manpower. Sprinkle in some kerosene and lots of foolhardiness.
As the sun sets, the charcoal bed slowly rises...It takes a lot of effort to ensure that the charcoal bed is properly compacted.

Inside this area, a bed of sand serves as the base of the charcoal walkway that would be slowly built up for the fire walking. Later in the afternoon, a group of men would take bags of charcoal and lay it on top of this sand bed. The charcoal would be pounded and compacted before even more charcoal was added to the existing layer. This process is repeated until a compact bed of charcoal is formed.
Adding more charcoal to the charcoal bed - the process is done under the watchful eyes of an expert.
Hah! You missed a spot. His sharp eyes ensures that the bed is well-compacted and easy on the feet of the fire-walkers during the fire crossing ceremony.
Up yours... Actually he is telling the guy in charge that he will pull the bags of charcoal up to empty its contents onto the bed. This is the last batch of charcoal and they have been building up the bed since 5.30pm in the afternoon.
After the fingers up in the previous photo, he seems to be saying "And f@#k you too!" He was checking to  see if there were anymore bags of charcoal left.

As darkness falls, four altars were set up within the fence area at four cardinal locations. The charcoal bed is then covered with joss-sticks, joss papers and doused liberally with kerosene. At 8pm sharp, the signal for the pit to be set ablaze was given. The flames from the pit leapt and danced, especially when more kerosene was poured onto the fire, fuelling the fiery flames.
Adding fuel to the fire. Joss paper, joss-sticks and a liberal dose of kerosene for the charcoal bed.
We didn't start the fire...it was him with the kerosene in the watering can.
The charcoal bed burning off the kerosene and joss-paper. The idea is to get a bed of hot charcoal embers. Bring out the marshmallows...
Fire, fire burning bright...Kerosene is added intermittently to sustain the flames.
Call the police, I caught the arsonist on camera running away from the scene of the crime. Oh, you mean you wanted him to set it on fire??

Once the charcoals were glowing hot, the central portion was tempered with a mixture of salt, tea leaves and rice. This allows for the safe passage of devotees during the ‘fire walking’ ceremony. The first to go through the pit are the temple priests, followed by the mediums and the sedan chairs. After that, devotees in white go through, carrying with them all sorts of personal items as well as deities from the temple.
Hmm, can I say that this scene reminds me of She-Ra, with the pagoda being Crystal Palace. The medium has a sword in his hand and wears a mini skirt like-robe, which is totally so She-Ra. The medium in trance crossing the fire pit after the Taoist priest had done so.
After the initial crossing of the fire by the mediums in trance, the sedan chair and their bearers cross the fire several times.
Mind over matter, mind over pain - devotees crossing the fire, protected by faith.
Look ma, no hands...A devotee having an epiphany of sorts whilst crossing the fire pit. Perhaps he just realised that the charcoal is hot!
Move aside South Park and the Asses of Fire trilogy, here's Kow Ong Yea  with Feet of Flames... It looks like their feet are on fire, when they are actually walking on the cooler parts of the bed.
One two take off shoes, three four walk the pit, five six burn my feet... Those embers look angry.

When all who should cross the fire had done so, more joss-sticks, joss paper and kerosene were added to the glowing charcoal bed, causing flames to leap and dance to the delight of spectators for the second time.
The fiery tongue of flames from the charcoal pit. You can see the burning joss-sticks and boxes of joss paper that were added to the pit after the crossing was over.

If you are going to watch this ceremony next year, it pays to be an early bird and pick a good location for yourself. Specifically, the two sides parallel to the charcoal bed offer better view. The end section only provides you with either people’s bum walking into the fire bed or people’s crotch front coming out of the fire walk. 

The Round and Round ceremony is posted in a following post (see links below) as this post is already too picture heavy.

My links for the 2012 Nine Emperor Gods Festival @ Ampang Nan Tian Gong