The Nine Emperor Gods Festival in Penang
How far would you go for your belief – undergo a nine-day vegetarian diet, walk on fire or even pierce a long spear through your cheeks? Or are you an armchair devotee who prefers to remain in your comfort zone and observe from afar? Would the younger generation know what the festival is all about and would youths pause to find out more?
The Nine Emperor Gods Festival is a popular annual Taoist celebration held on a grand scale in Penang especially in Butterworth. Festivities begin from the first day to the ninth day of the nine moon of the lunar calendar.
Popular folk culture has it that the nine Emperor Gods were actually sea pirates of the Ming dynasty who plotted to overthrow the Qing dynasty. However according to some historians, this deduction is inaccurate and considered derogatory to the actual teachings of Taoism. The festival ushers in the nine sons who were high-ranking Star Lords of Tou Mu, Goddess of the North Star. She was believed to have presided over the movements of the planets and coordinate mortal life and death issues.
For nine days, devotees will observe a strict vegetarian diet to cleanse their body and soul. It is easy to find a variety of vegetarian stalls throughout Penang offering delicious and creative vegetarian cuisines. Most of the stalls, if not all, would don yellow attire indicating that they serve vegetarian food. Such stalls mushroom along sidewalks all over the island and mainland. When it comes to feasting, Penangites are all ready to support and indulge. Some of the dishes look and taste like roasted duck, chicken drumsticks, mutton curry, prawn rolls, char siew (barbeque pork), satay and salted fish, to name a few. The level of creativity is simply spell-binding.
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 symbolise this belief. Devotees dressed in traditional white, carrying incense and candles, await the arrival of their excellencies.
The Tow Boo Kong Temple in Butterworth is one of the biggest temples in Penang devoted to the Nine Emperor Gods and it usually hosts many activities during the nine days of the festival. A carnival-like atmosphere pervades the temple throughout the nine-day festival.
On the eve of the festival, a procession is usually held to welcome the nine Emperor Gods at Pantai Bersih Beach. On the first and third day, birthday celebrations and prayers would be held for the deities Nan Dou, Bei Dou and the nine Emperor Gods. The celebration held the following days would include medication oil cooking, a spear skewering ceremony and a colourful and vibrant float procession. On the seventh day, a fire walking ceremony would usually take place. The eighth day would see a "Fort Crossing" ceremony. The last day of the festival which draws scores of devotees would mark the grand birthday celebration of the deity Dou Mu with a final send-off of the nine Emperor Gods at Pantai Bersih Beach.
With the current availability of technology and science, information is easily obtained and in modem day societies, belief in ancient practices and customs is quickly eroding. Having said that, the long-lasting annual observance of the Nine Emperor Gods festival goes against this trend and is celebrated on a grand scale in Penang at opulent temples by hundreds and thousands of devotees. If you are a tourist in Penang, you might stop to ponder, "why?". Well, here in Penang, we would reply, "why not?".
Such festivals could be the binding force that brings societies together to foster closer ties and unity. It is undeniably the colourful thread that is woven in the beautiful social tapestry of Penang.
For more information on the temple activities, contact Tow Boo Kong Temple, Butterworth at +604 331 8717 or visit www.towbookong.org.my.
Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah.
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