Thursday, October 6, 2011

Taking Down the Lantern Pole Part 2 - The day after The Nine Emperor Gods Festival 2011(九皇大帝) at Ampang (Day 10 - Part 2)

This is the second part of the taking down the lantern pole ceremony that takes place the day after the end of the Nine Emperor Gods Festival at Ampang Nan Tian Gong Temple in 2011. If you came directly to this post, do look back at the first part [Taking Down the Lantern Pole Part 1] to get a complete sense of the whole ceremony. So here's Part 2 (the actual lowering of the lantern pole):

The priest, who was garbed in his black robes, and the medium, who was ready for a trance session appeared from the temple and headed to the Five Directional General's altar. Accompanied by the clanging of cymbals and the usual musical instruments, the medium enters into a trance and proceeded to the lantern pole. With instructions from the medium, and after an offering of joss sticks and candles, the horizontal bamboo pole was untied and lowered.
The priest and the medium getting ready for the trance session to lower the lantern pole.
Lighting of joss sticks and lowering the horizontal bamboo pole. The medium oversees the entire process.
Slowly...slowly...the lantern being lowered.
And...touchdown. The lantern (oil lamps) were set aside and then...

As the bamboo branch was lowered and came to rest by the fencing surrounding the lantern pole, a strange scene unfolded. Suddenly, the locals whom had earlier gathered around rushed forth to the bamboo branch and began stripping and pulling the dried leaves and smaller branches off the bamboo branch.
The leaves of that bamboo branch was stripped and taken away by the folks waiting around. I am very sure it was just dried leaves and not gold.
Yippee! I got a big bunch...
His toothless grin tells it all. Notice the bamboo has been stripped bare of its leaves. The crowd of uncles and aunties are more 'vicious' than hawks or eagles or vultures. Perhaps they can be called 'leaf vultures'.

Many tried to collect as much leaves or small twigs as possible, as if the leaves were made of gold! Those who managed to get a substantial amount were grinning from ear to ear. They believe that the leaves confer some kind of protection and blessing to the bearer, hence the rush to obtain some for their family members and themselves. They must have thought that this guy with the camera must be pretty daft, for he did not attempt to take any despite being in a strategic position to get some good bunches of leaves, but instead just laughed and kept on taking photos. In a short while, the bamboo branch was stripped bare, like a carcass stripped clean of flesh by a flock of vultures!
The lantern (oil lamps) that was taken down. Many of the folks around were looking at it with that strange look, as if desiring something from it. I thought it was the wick or the light from the lamp that they wanted, but I was wrong.

After some rice and salt throwing and prayers, one of the temple staff got onto the crane basket and wnet up to attach the pole to the crane. Once that was done, blocks of wood at the base of the pole that was used to wedge the pole steady was knocked out. When the green light was given by the medium in trance, one of them flashed a thumbs up sign to the crane operator and the pole was lifted off the hole and then placed onto stands that were already in place in the temple compound.
Up, up and away.
Here, let the phoenix give you a push.
The wooden blocks (green arrows) were knocked off the base of the pole. Only one block of wood is left in place (blue arrow).
Work in progress under divine watchful eyes. There were some tense moments as some of the guide ropes were caught on the zinc roofing or the pagoda.

As the pole was laid onto the metal stands that were spaced out on the courtyard of the temple, the people who had earlier gathered the dried leaves were at it again. This time, there were two different kinds of leaves that they were collecting. One is from a bamboo pole and another from a tree that I suspect was one of the local fig trees. The temple staff had to reserve the part of the bamboo pole from the highest point which carried a yellow flag emblazoned with 天官賜福/天官赐福 (meaning heavenly officer who confers blessing) so that the temple workers and volunteers can take home some blessed leaves. They even had to station one guy to guard that to prevent it from being 'pilfered' by the devotees! After that, some of them very busy collecting oil from the Nine Emperor lamps. So it was the oil that they wanted when they were eyeing the lamps earlier on! I overheard one lady saying that she rubbed the oil on her head to get a luscious crown of hair. Hmm, perhaps I can market it as libido enhancing oil...Wait, that wouldn't work as devout devotees remain celibate for the entire nine days...Damn. Jokes aside, the ceremony isn't yet over, as the medium in trance was busy going around the temple.
The pole laid onto metal stands strategically spaced out. Notice the 'leaf vultures' had begun attacking the leaves of this pole.
The top most section of the pole had bamboo leaves that were reserved for the temple staff and volunteers. They had to post a man to stand guard to prevent the leaves from being carted off by the rest.
The uncles and aunties aka 'leaf vultures' filling their bags full with the leaves from the main pole.
Workers untying the ropes that were used to secure the pole to the crane.
They wanted the oil from the lamps. There is another similar lamp in the background, but I have no idea where was that lamp located or whether the two lamps were used in rotation.

The medium went around collecting back the five coloured flags representing the soldiers of the five directional generals that were station on guard throughout the festival. You can see in the picture below that the white, black, green and yellow flag were placed onto the buckets of food in front of the temple. After all, the pole lowering ceremony is to recall the heavenly soldiers from their stations and send them off after the festival. The red flag (South Camp) was missing, and apparently someone must have liked Er Lang deity's army so much that the person must have taken them back home! At the end of the ceremony, the pile of joss paper was ignited and the joss sticks lit at the lantern pole were thrown in the pile to be burned away. The food was then a free for all buffet for the folks whom had been busy collecting leaves. One person actually carted an entire bucket off to a corner so that he could pick the best parts before returning it to the bench. At this point I was really hungry and if I had some form of food container plus fork and spoon, I wouldn't mind helping myself to some lunch courtesy of the temple. Then again there is no rest food for crazed.
Calling back all the heavenly soldiers who were on guard around the temple during the festival. Notice that the red flag is missing and the spirit medium just came back with the central camp yellow flag.
The joss paper pile being set on fire, marking the end of the pole lowering ceremony.
Perhaps I should take a little of that too over there.
Divine banquet becomes poor man's buffet.

Seeing that people were helping themselves freely to the food, someone took out the roasted head of the pig used in the prayer ceremony earlier and asked if anyone wanted to eat it. There were no Anthony Bourdain nor Andrew Zimmern wannabes over there, so poor little piggy got left out.
Oh look, someone took the little piggy out for a walk...

As for the lantern pole, after all the binding ropes were undone, it was carted away into storage, to be kept until the next Nine Emperor Gods Festival. So bidding adieu to the pole and the temple, I walked back, feeling hungry and mixed with a little sadness. There's always next year...
Heave ho...Pushing the lantern pole into the store.
The billowing flags with the nine dragon emblem - bidding farewell to the visitors of the temple.

On the walk back home in the humid midday, the only reminder left of the festival are the nine dragon flags lining the roads leading to the temple. When I got back home from work that day, I was exhausted and fell asleep, but was quickly awakened by the sounds of the Amoy opera. The stage was still lit, but the roads were empty. Perhaps the gods were enjoying a relaxing show after all the hard work attending to their devotees needs and prayers. The opera went on until midnight, and tonight, I was somewhat glad that it was all over.
An empty road leading to the temple - a far cry from the traffic congested road in past nine days.However, the opera stage is still lit and a performance was ongoing at 7.40pm on the night of the tenth day (yellow arrow).

So what is next? Hopefully next year I get to see the festival at other temples, though I will still visit the Ampang Nan Tian Gong Temple and I have also promised to show the temple to my friends and family. The reason for highlighting this celebration was that it represented a cultural heritage of the Chinese Malaysians who has a rich, amalgamated mixture of religion and folk beliefs that one day might be forgotten.

[Previous - Part 1] [ Back to first post] [Nine Emperor Gods Festival 2012]

Taking Down the Lantern Pole Part 1 - The day after The Nine Emperor Gods Festival 2011(九皇大帝) at Ampang (Day 10 - Part 1)

I realised that I would need to split the ceremony of taking down the lantern pole on the tenth day of the lunar 9th month (the day after sending the Nine Emperor Gods off) into at least two parts and even possibly 3 parts to keep each post manageable. A word of caution - since the vegetarian part of the celebration is over, this post and the next one contains pictures of animal offerings including pigs that may be disturbing to some. So here goes Part 1 (Prayers before Taking the Lantern Pole Down):
Dawn over the Ampang Nan Tian Gong Temple on the 6th of October 2011.

The ceremony was originally scheduled for 9am on the 6th of October 2011, but just like the sending off ceremony, it was brought forward to a later time. About half past ten, a crane backed into the temple's compound. Taking on that cue that it was about time, I headed towards the temple. Along the road leading to the temple, gone were the stalls that used to line the front of the Ampang Old Folks Home. What is left are only the zinc roofing sheds that used to house them.
All quiet again - the Ampang Old Folks Home.

At the temple, the crane was parked just by the side of the charcoal pit that was still smouldering and had the look of a missile hit zone. Closer to the temple, a large circular mound of joss paper had already been set up for the pole lowering ceremony. Workers were busy clearing away the baskets full of trash by loading them onto a small lorry to be carted off presumably to their 'dump' site for open burning. Female workers were also carting the fencing that was used yesterday for the fire crossing.
The pole, the lantern and the crane.
Basketful of refuse waiting to be carted off to the dump site. A pile of joss paper has been set up for the lowering of the lantern pole ceremony.
Female workers clearing the fencing that was used for the fire crossing ceremony last night.

Whilst standing about and waiting for the action to start, I noticed two ladies armed with a small plastic bag and an empty paper box of prayer candles arriving and inspecting the charcoal pit. Ah yes, they were there to collect some charcoal to take back, as some believe that the charcoal used for the fire crossing brings good luck. In fact I did see someone taking away some still glowing charcoal back last night, wrapped in thick wads of joss paper that were smoldering away! Moments later, another two ladies appeared. They were armed with a large milk tin and another with a Milo tin...Hmm, containers are getting bigger, perhaps they are collecting for their family too. Maybe those are not just pieces of charcoal that they were collecting, for the Nine Emperor Gods might have turned them into diamonds for those who are in his favour, and I am not blessed enough to see it (yeah right!).
Diamonds are a girl's best friend...Picking up 'lucky' charcoal.
Everyone needs...some charcoal to rely on.

Thinking that this 'lucky charcoal' collection cannot go any 'worst' than that, I was immediately proven wrong when a man and a lady appeared with this large soup stock pot! This pot is big enough to hold stock for at least 30-40 bowls of soup. He wasted no time in using the rake left there to rake some of the hotter charcoals in the middle of the pit to the side and then scooped those charcoal into his pot. My mind immediately reflected on the nature of human greed, but I quickly brush that thought aside and convinced myself that perhaps he was collecting the charcoal on behalf of his entire neighbourhood. My heart skipped a beat when the thought of what might come next - a large truck backing into the temple (with the reverse sensor bleeping away) and then workers popping out and proceeded to shovel all of the charcoal off the ground!
She got 'diamond' on the soles of her shoes - Hmm, waiting for a truck to appear and scoop all of the charcoal off.

Luckily that did not happen but instead, the head priest arrived with his bag of 'tools' (and he came in a nice shiny ride too). This signaled that it was time for the action to start so I quickly headed towards the temple.
The priest who had just arrived...the wait is over!

There was a table set in the outer chamber of the temple, directly facing the altar of Dou Mu, the Mother of the Dipper Stars. Outside, two rows of food placed in buckets were set on wooden benches. The priest was decked in a bright red robe with a picture of a Manchurian crane on the back. The offerings on the table included pork, roasted duck, chicken and fish if I am not mistaken. There was also the customary Chinese rice wine paired to go with the greasy food offered, besides the usual smoky aroma from incense and candles.
Getting ready for prayers.
Today's menu...all meat and heart stopping. Notice the different robe that the priest is wearing as compared to the previous days.

When the prayer was over, I spied something on the offering table that was not cleared off. It can't be...but then a closer look confirmed what I saw. Aww, there was a roasted pig's head, placed on a wicker pan. I guess if you can't offer an entire animal, you prepare the meat and put the head on the table and pretend that it is whole, lol. Looks like one little piggy didn't make it home from the market or the temple. Perhaps this little piggy found a place to call home in Dou Mu's paradise.
Oh dear, this little piggy didn't come home from the market.
And it didn't make it home from the temple either.

There was a short break, before the priest came back, dressed in black for the next part of the ceremony [Part 2 - Taking the Lantern Pole Down].

[Previous - Sending off] [Back to first post] [Part 2]

Sending off the Nine Emperor Gods - The finale to the Nine Emperor Gods Festival (morning of Day 10)

Unlike in Penang, where the Nine Emperor Gods are sent off in a grand procession that usually involves mediums and a certain amount of body piercing plus the use of boats, the Nine Emperor Gods in Ampang go off with less grandeur and sans the boat. After all, Ampang is miles away from the sea. This year, the sending off of the Nine Emperor Gods was supposedly scheduled at 3am on the 6th of October 2011. However, at the end of the fire crossing and the passing round the offering ceremony, an announcement was made that the sending off will commence at 3.30am! Had it not been for Andrea, whom I've just met and chatted earlier, I would probably had slept off and not make any effort to take photos of this procession. Tired and literally 'burnt up' by the heat from the fire crossing pit, I fell asleep in front of my computer until the din of cymbals clanging and the announcements from the temple got me up. I could see from my window that the devotees in white were just about to leave the temple. It was a record for me, for I had never ran so fast as if my dear life depended on it. I managed to catch the procession as they passed by the junction of Jalan Merdeka and Jalan Wawasan Ampang 4/2.
The sending off procession heading down Jalan Besar Pekan Ampang. This was around 4am in the morning! The yellow arrow indicates the yellow parasol in which the urn of the Nine Emperor Gods is being carried by the Urn Master.
The medium, the Or Leng Ki and the urn hidden from view under the yellow parasol.

For the sending off procession, it was a simple and short one. No dragon dances, no lion dances. Just a small lighted sign, one lorry, some temple musicians, the urn being carried underneath the yellow parasol, the mediums in trance and a large number of white clothed devotees. No wonder they can move at such a fast pace. Also, the route is very short. They start off at the temple, go down Jalan Merdeka pass the junction of Jalan Wawasan Ampang 4/2, and continue onto Jalan Besar Pekan Ampang (Ampang Village Centre main road) then turn around back onto Jalan Ampang (heading towards Jalan Bukit Belacan) at the Y-intersection where the police station is located.

Just around the vicinity of Dewan Dato' Ahmad Razali, the medium suddenly instructs everyone to kneel down in the middle of the road. Then the reason for the presence of the lorry became apparent. When everyone has knelt down, the urn was loaded onto the lorry. With a few shakes of the joss sticks that the devotees were carrying and cries of cheers and well wishes, the lorry took off, headed to some 'secret' location where they can send the Nine Emperor Gods off.
Devotees kneeling down in the middle of the road. You can see the living quarters of the police station at the background. The bulk of the devotees at the back had just emerged from the Y-junction.
The urn beneath the parasol is brought right up to the front of the procession, where the lorry had stopped and was waiting for its cargo, the urn.

At this point, all that is left of the procession are the devotees in white, who then rapidly crossed the road (Jalan Ampang) to the other side and proceeded to walk towards Jalan Wawasan Ampang 4/2, past Spectrum Shopping Mall and turn back to Jalan Merdeka to head back to the temple. I was torn on whether to follow them past the Spectrum Shopping Mall and back to the temple or head back to my bed. Curiosity got the better of me and I trudged on, despite blisters on my feet and soggy slushy shoes from stepping on puddles whilst chasing the procession down Jalan Besar Pekan Ampang.
I'm coming home, I'm coming home...Devotees headed back for the temple.

At the temple, the devotees cast the joss sticks and joss paper that they had been carrying into the joss paper burner. A quick look around and I saw that the stalls within the temple compound had cleared off, and the place looked like a huge bomb had gone off in its midst.
We didn't start the fire, it was always... Burning away the joss sticks and joss paper carried through the sending off ceremony.
Fire fire burning bright.
Reflection of the pagoda on the joss paper burner.

After taking some shots of the joss paper burner (and bearing with the intense heat emanating from it), I walked towards the temple. It suddenly hit me that the atmosphere had changed. And I finally got the answer to the nagging question on why some of the devotees were carrying a rather large plastic bag. Gone were the devotees in white. In place of that, they have taken a change of clothes with them and put on the brightest red or floral patterned dress/shirt. Hell, it even looked like Chinese New Year celebration. The white/pale yellow candles are also missing, and the temple reverted back to the use of red candles. This aspect of changing from white coloured clothes (mourning colour) to red (a colour of celebration and joy) is reminiscent of a Chinese funeral; when an old patriarch or matriarch had passed away, the grandchildren and great grandchildren will change to red coloured clothing upon returning from sending the coffin off for burial. I felt a little out of place and stuck out like a sore thumb. Nevertheless, I took some photos before heading for a stall selling non-vegetarian stuff (ahem..real food).
Looks like a bomb went off in here!
A bit like Chinese New Year, don't you think so?
Out with the ghastly whites...Chili red is the colour for the day!
Red, red ...Red candles..checked! Red joss sticks..checked! Red shirt on middle aged men..checked! Red underwear...Huh???

The stalls outside the temple were also in the process of packing up, though one of the feng shui 'auction' stall was still at it, perhaps trying to clear his stock up as much as possible.
A monk deep in contemplation on the mess that the stalls had created. Yes, all things are empty and tomorrow, it will be clean once more.
Buy buy buy....Trying to sell off all the items on display.

Usually at the end of the celebration, devotees will break the vegetarian fast with the consumption of non-vegetarian food, so I decided that I will give it a try just to say that I've done it all. There were a few stalls set up and they were selling stuff like Yong Tau Foo to dim sums and glutinous chicken rice. I went for a rice dumpling that had pork, yolk of a salted duck egg, some shiitake mushrooms and black eyed peas. This cost RM5, which is rather expensive. Also, the dumpling did not have Chinese chestnut, which made me feel that it wasn't the perfect dumpling. However, the dumpling had the right amount of flavour and fat from the meat and it wasn't too smothered in soy sauce.
Rice dumpling tied with reed string (very traditional, unlike the usual raffia string tied ones).
Here's how it looked like unwrapped. I can smell meat...yummy!
Deliciously heart stopping (literally - I wouldn't even want to know how much cholesterol is in this dumpling).

Finally a shot of the temple from my balcony as I slowly sink my teeth on the rice dumpling at around 5.30am in the morning.
View of the temple from my balcony after the sending off ceremony. The temple is still smoky, but it also has a strange, an almost sad stillness to the scene.

As I didn't expect this post to be that long (and it wouldn't have had I have gone back home after the urn was sent off on the lorry), the post for the lantern pole lowering ceremony is placed in a subsequent post here [Taking Down the Lantern Pole - Part 1].
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