Nine Reasons For Loving The Nine Emperor Gods Festival
I’m sure I’m not the only one who gets a little rush of adrenalin when the flags go up along Jln Ampang to mark the route to the Kow Ong Yah temple. The ninth lunar month is here and at Kow Ong Yah temples around Malaysia, people are happily going about the business of bringing their worlds in to balance. They greet each other with big smiles, and share a contagious joy and anticipation for the 9 days ahead. I started thinking about why we love this festival so much and came up with (of course) Nine reasons. So, using some photos, old and new, here are Nine Reasons for Loving the Nine Emperor Gods Festival.
The festival is a wonder to a child’s eyes – bright lights, colors, tempting sweets – and the reassuring hand of a grandparent guiding the way to prayers. That hasn’t changed much at all, over the generations. I hear stories that so often begin with “When I was young I came here with my grandmother.” or “My family has been coming here since before I was born.” or “Meet my son/daughter!” I see people giving each other big hugs and firm handshakes when they arrive at the temple, friends from years of sharing the festival together. The traditions of the festival are strong and the rituals repeat themselves year after year. You can count on the Emperor coming down from the heavens to sit behind the yellow curtain. You can count on prayers three times a day. You can count on smoking joss sticks. You can count on the sparkle of the Chinese opera and lollipops and stinky tofu. All this, and more, makes the festival so memorable, something we want to continue to share with family and friends for years to come.
It’s hard to feel alone at the Nine Emperor Gods Festival. Everywhere there is a celebration of common belief. Whether it is in the ritual prayers, the white clothing, the sea of hands placing joss sticks in urns of rice, belief in the power of the festival unites us. We are supported by family and friends, who share places to eat and sleep. We are supported by a working committee that strives diligently to maintain tradition and routine. At the festival, we feel part of something bigger.
There are many variations to the story about the Nine Emperors, who they were and how and why they became gods. During the festival no one questions their existence. They remain the recognized power. We call the gods from the heavens and direct them back under the cover of night, at a secret, watery location deep in the forest. For nine days, the Emperor holds court from behind the yellow curtain, unseen, but ever present. It is the idea of the Emperor that we love.
This is my personal favourite. I love the grandness of yellow. I love how it looks with white. Two years ago, I posted about the significance of Yellow here.
Okay – it’s a Chinese festival. So what we love about it has to have something to do with money. Did you know that you can borrow money from the temple and pay it back (double) the next year? Did you know that there are special prayers for prosperity? And there are even more special prayers of Thanksgiving – that you can pay for! It’s all about money in the end. Everyone pays and gets paid. See my post on the beggars who also do well during the festival. When the rain comes to the festival it is said that it brings the money. Just ask Annie who sells lottery tickets at the door to the temple. Which brings us right to reason 6.
Speaking of money – these guys really know how to interpret the cards you have been dealt. There are all different kinds of fortune tellers at the festival, with various means of predicting your future. Give them your fortune poem for interpretation. Ask them to help you decide who to marry and when. Come to them with an open heart and they will advise you how to proceed. We all love a little guidance now and then and at the Nine Emperor Gods Festival, guidance is in abundance.
We love the mediums who are willing to absorb the awe inspiring and sometimes unpleasant power of the gods for us. We love how they create talismans to protect us. We love when they share with us and answer our questions in the language of the gods. And I love the way they transform themselves from ordinary human beings into conduits to the heavens and perform feats of strength and sacrifice. All on behalf of the community – and of course the ang pow.
We love the way we are asked to sacrifice our cravings for flesh. And when the food offerings show up looking sumptuous, we do it glady. The kitchen staff and the food vendors at the festival fill our souls with mouth watering vegetarian delights – from rich and chewy black mushrooms to Stinky Taiwanese tofu to sugary bits on sticks.
Every day of the festival the opera troupe performs twice – at 2pm and 8pm. On the ninth day they dance at the altar of the Jade Emperor, asking for the blessings of the gods of the heavens and the underworld. We love the colours and the clangy, dissonnent tones of instruments and voices, and the way the pavement in front of the stage lights up when it rains. We love how the older devotees sit for hours to watch and laugh and sing along sometimes. And photographers love to be welcomed back stage!
The positive energy that comes from time at the festival is something that we look forward to each year. People come from all over Malaysia to Ampang for the power that is evoked there. The Nine Emperor Gods Festival is designed to balance Yin and Yang. Everything that happens that has the ultimate goal of asking the gods to bring balance to the forces of good and evil in our lives. Opera singers perform, fortunes are predicted, devotees cross the bridge, protectors walk on fire, old women pray and the children smile. It’s all part of a day at the festival. And we do love it… So, come one, come all. Let’s enjoy the next 9 days.