Spring Cleaning, Vegetarian Diet and Bamboo Preparation
Ranging between a month before to a minimum of three days before the Nine Emperor Gods Festival, the temple’s members and devotees would begin their strict vegan diet. Participants involved in the rituals such as the palanquin-bearers are encouraged to adhere to a stricter vegan diet and regime of abstinence.
For the Nine Emperor Gods devotees, going on a vegetarian diet is seen as an act of cleansing the body of impurities as the deities are believed to be shun away from impure entities and objects. In addition, devotees also undertake a cleansing of the mind and soul where they would avoid using vulgarities and abstain from any form of sexual acts and impure thoughts. Going on a vegetarian diet also serves an act of penance where the year’s wrongdoing are cleansed by eating clean. Thus, it is believed that only with a purified body, mind and soul that they are able to receive the blessings of the deities during the festival.
Similarly, this act of the cleansing is also carried out on the temple’s premises. About a week before the festival begin, devotees would come together on a weekend to conduct a thorough spring cleaning of the temple’s grounds. Similar to going vegetarian, the spring cleaning of the temple is to ensure that the temple ground is uncontaminated before the festival commences as the concept of purity is a central feature of the festival. A flurry of activity can be seen throughout the compound as every nook and cranny of the temple is thoroughly dusted, swept, hosed down with soap and water, and scrubbed in preparation for the festival, including the inner chamber (内殿).
The more inaccessible areas such as the roof of the altar are wiped clean by the younger and more agile male members of the temple whereas the female devotees, from the Fu Nu Zu diligently clean and wash the cooking utensils, cutleries and dining furniture. Other specialized tasks done during this spring cleaning include fixing the electronic circuits under the palanquins, to the cleaning of the kerosene lamps and the replacement of the names on the donors’ board. The entire process usually takes up the entire day and upon completion, the temple was adorned with banners, flags, and other items, most of which were coloured in yellow which signified the impending arrival of the Nine Emperor Gods.
Another key pre-festival event is the preparation of the bamboo. The bamboo, which signifies world peace and prosperity, is believed act as a beacon which signals the Nine Emperor Gods to the temple as the arrive on to the mortal world. Two types of bamboo are procured by members of the temple which are then brought to the temple’s compound to be pruned and trimmed.
A tall but thin bamboo is selected and pruned about midway down, it is then placed inside the main hall of the temple, near the entrance of the inner chamber. In addition, the small branches of bamboo leaves which had been pruned are gathered and used to make flags, which can be invited home by the devotees during the festival, symbolizing the bringing home of the blessings of the deities.
The other type of bamboo procured is a, sturdy and extremely long, about 9 to 10 metres in length, mature bamboo. This bamboo is selected based on how thick its trunk is, as well how straight and upright it stands. Once selected, the bamboo is similarly pruned from around midway down, with branches cut and sprouts trimmed. Once that has been completed, the bamboo is then decorated with festive lights. However due to the bamboo extreme length, commercial decorative lights aren’t long enough to reach the bottom of the bamboo. Hence, the lights have to be customized to fit the needs of the temple.
Firstly, five to six strips of decorative lights are opened from their packaging and the two-pinned main plug would then be cut and it’s insulating jackets stripped, exposing the copper wires within. Next, the wires are inserted into a power socket to test for defect and they are then remedied accordingly. Once all the decorative lights are tested to be in working condition, the exposed wires are connected to a screw barrier terminal block which has a long wire attached that stretches the entire length of the bamboo to a three-pin plug, this allows all the lights to be powered on at the same time from the ground.
Next, the decorative lights would then be strung around the bamboo leaves all the way to the top as evenly as possible and secured in place using cable ties. Once complete, the wires and control boxes are secured with cable ties to the bamboo wrapped in plastic to waterproof it. The entire process takes about half a day to complete and once complete, it is hoisting up at the front of the temple.
Every part of the preparation of the bamboo is done without professional help as they felt that it would be wasteful to hire someone to do this when they could do it themselves. Doing it themselves also provides them with a sense of self-reliance and ownership, and highlights the strong community spirit in the temple as they prepare to welcome the Nine Emperor Gods.
The ‘Receiving’ of the Nine Emperor Gods in Charn Mao Hern Kew Huang Keng
The 2017 Nine Emperor Gods Festival as celebrated by Charn Mao Hern Kew Huang Keng was held from the twenty-eighth day of the eighth lunar month to the ninth day of the ninth Lunar month, which corresponded to 17 October and 28 October on the Gregorian calendar respectively. On the day of the receiving, the temple sees a flurry of activities as devotees and temple members prepare to welcome the Nine Emperor Gods at the auspicious hour.
Temple members were seen focused on preparing the various offerings and ceremonial items on the altars, one of which were five different fruits comprising of pineapples, apples, oranges, pears and bananas. The five different coloured fruits are a distinct Teochew element of Charn Mao Hern Kew Huang Keng which are representative of the five generals whom accompany the Nine Emperor Gods on their journey to the mortal plane and offering their protection. Other vegetarian food items and snacks such as glutinous rice, tea, a row of dyed orange sago, betel nuts and leaves, and tobacco are also prepared as offerings to the Nine Emperor Gods.
Besides preparing the food offerings and ceremonial items, other temple members were also busy with other forms of preparation such as tying small bags of “talisman water” (符⽔). Talismans which had been blessed are burnt and transferred to a large metal water dispenser from which they are then packed it small plastic bags and tied up for distribution to the temple’s devotees wishing to bring home the blessed water to their family members who were unable to make it personally. This talisman water when drunk is believed to bless and protect the family from illnesses and diseases.
Likewise, the courtyard at the back of the temple is also another busy area where a makeshift kitchen had been set up and the ladies from the Fu Nu Zu are busy cooking and serving the public plates of vegetarian bee hoon, vegetable curry and deep-fried tofu. For the entire duration of the festival, the temple offers free vegetarian food to the public. Beside curry bee hoon, the temple also occasionally serves other vegetarian dishes such as laksa and mee siam as well as desserts such as red bean soup.
Devotees from all walks of life, most of whom are dressed in white, signifying purity, can be seen streaming into the temple in droves. Devotees can be seen paying respects to the temple’s deities, have a quick bite at the courtyard or simply standing around the temple, eagerly await the start of the ceremony. The temple is abuzz with cheerful chatter, creating a very lively atmosphere as everyone is visibly filled with excitement for the festival to begin.
The start of the welcoming and receiving ceremony, as well as the festival, is marked by the Yin Yue Hui (音乐会) beginning to play the drums and cymbals, alerting both the other deities and devotees alike that the ceremony to welcome the Nine Emperor Gods is about to start. At the same time, the lion dance troupe from the Cheng Jing Hui (诚敬会) also begin performing their lion dance routine to pay their respects to the deities, inform the devotees, and pay respects to the Nine Emperor Gods.
Following the lion dance, the two palanquins are ‘cleansed’ with smoke from the burning of sandalwood. Once complete, the palanquins are then brought into the main hall of the temple and a prayer is conducted and the urns are then ushered out from the inner chambers. The urns are carefully placed inside the palanquins and obscured with a yellow cloth surrounding the palanquins as it is seen as being disrespectful to the deities to view the urns directly.
Once the urns had been secured, the ceremonial party then exits the temple, with the main censer-master called the Jia lou zhu (正炉主) is situated in the centre carrying the censer for sandalwood.
The assistant censer-masters, known as the hu lou zhu (副炉主), along with other temple ritual committee members（宫务）, walk behind the main censer-master, each holding a different ceremonial item such as a basket containing sandalwood, yellow cloth wristbands, 9 long joss-sticks, a large yellow rattan basket containing various offerings and the flag of the Kew Huang Keng. Following behind the ceremonial party are the palanquins carried calmly by the palanquin-bearers. The ceremonial party is led by the Taoist priest dressed in an orange robes wielding a bell in his hand.
Before the entourage can leave the temple grounds, the path before the ceremonial party has to be cleansed of any lurking evil spirits in the environment as they may disrupt the deities’ arrival. This cleansing is performed by two temple members carrying pails filled with two separate mixture: one is a mixture of rice and salt while the other is pomelo leaves stepped in holy water. The salt and rice mixture is scattered and the holy water is sprinkled in front of the entourage, warding off any possible invisible evil spirit in their way, only when this is done can the entourage move.
Led by the ceremonial party and palanquin-bearers, followed by devotees, the entourage exited the temple grounds and walked a short distant out of the temple before boarding the respective lorries and chartered buses as they departed towards the sea to receive the Nine Emperor Gods. Once the palanquins have been loaded up on to the lorry and the devotees have boarded the buses, the motorcade then leaves Arumugam Road with a police escort to clear the way as it makes for Carpark C1 in East Coast Park to rendezvous with the advance party who had left earlier to cordon off the section of the beach for the receiving ceremony.
The advance party which had arrived about an hour before the receiving ceremony, had set up yellow flags in the sand to demarcate where the receiving ceremony was going to be held, as well as laid out a rope fence parallel to the sea using wooden poles with yellow nylon rope threaded through it to mark where the devotees should not enter. Besides cordoning off the beach, the advance party had also constructed a ‘gateway’, which consist of two banners, one in red and the other in yellow, both propped between two wooden poles and adorned with bamboo leaves, near the shore of the beach. The ‘gateway’ is positioned near the edge of the water and it acts as the entrance through which the Nine Emperor Gods enters the natural world.
Access to the interior of the barricaded area is exclusive to the palanquins-bearers and main members of the temple ritual contingent conducting the ceremony. Devotees are to observe the ceremony from outside the demarcated lines.
At around 3pm, the motorcade arrives at Zone C Carpark at East Coast Park and devotees alight from the buses and gather around the pavement leading toward the beach awaiting the commencement of the receiving ceremony. The ceremonial party, （九皇宫开路队，红彩，黄彩队，灯笼队，神牌队，花旗队）Yin Yue Hui（音乐會）, Cheng Jing Hui, （诚敬會） and the palanquin-bearers（香友會）thus to take up their respective positions in the carpark before the procession begins. Once ready, the gong bearers (码头锣) begin to strike their instruments, signifying the beginning of the procession. At the head of the procession was the Cheng Jing Hui carrying banners and flags and behind them was the Yin Yue Hui and their musical ensemble, with the ceremonial party, palanquin-bearers and devotees behind respectively.
Meanwhile, the lion dance troupe had positioned themselves in front of the procession in a straight row just before the pavement opens up to the beach. When the ceremonial party arrives, they would then perform a short dance to welcome them. After the dance, the lion dancers would open up, allowing the ceremonial party and the rest of the procession to pass through to the beach.
As they enter the designated area of the beach, the ceremonial party takes up position behind the gateway and begin laying out the ceremonial items on the beach while the palanquin-bearers took up position behind them and placed the palanquins down as well. The ceremonial items which were laid out include nine cups of tea, plates of tobacco, fresh flowers, oranges, betel nuts and leaves, a basket of sandalwood, a bunch of thin yellow cloth wristbands, a yellow coconut-husk bowl, joss sticks, joss paper, a large yellow censer (covered with yellow talismans filled with incense ash), two large yellow candles (partial buried in the sand on either side), and a golden triangular flag bearing the symbol of a dragon and the temple’s name(令旗). Tea was then poured into the cups in the following sequence: from the right to the left.
Subsequently, the main urn-bearer lights the sandalwood in the urn, after which the main and two assistant urn-bearers then proceeded to the palanquins to retrieve the main yellow urn covered with yellow talismans.(正炉) As the main yellow urn was lifted from the palanquin. It was then carried into the ritual area and placed in between the offerings and the golden triangular flag. (令旗).
The receiving ceremony commences as the Taoist priest begin his chanting to pay respects to the deities in the vicinity. Temple members along with devotees proceed to kneel, pray and bow with joss-sticks in their hands. After paying respects to the surrounding deities, the joss-sticks used for that prayer were collected from the urn-bearers and carefully inserted into the large talismans-covered urn. As the joss-sticks were being inserted into the urn, the urn-bearers were handed another three joss sticks while the other participants and devotees were given a single stick. With the joss-stick in their hands, everyone waited patiently for the ritual to begin.
At certain juncture of the chanting, the Taoist priest rings his bell and the censer-masters then exchanged their joss sticks for joss paper which they offered thrice in the direction of the sea and passed the stack of joss paper to other temple members who then stood up to a makeshift furnace by the side to burn them. During this period, the Taoist priest would continue to recite his ‘blessing and protection’ chants from a pink piece of paper (a petition or 奏折) for approximately fifteen minutes. As the chanting draws to a close, the temple members then loudly proclaimed “Huat ah! huat ah! huat ah!”
The second part of the ceremony was the act of ‘inviting of the Nine Emperor Gods and Dou Mu Yuan Jun’ (恭迎斗姆元君与九皇爺聖駕). Prior to the qing shen, the temple member’s joss sticks were gathered and placed in two lines from the gateway, creating a runway. As the gongs clashed, the censer-master and assistant censer-masters (正炉主 and 副炉主) picked up the coconut-husk bowl, stood up and carefully made their way into the sea through the ‘gateways’ with the guidance of the ritual committee members. Supported by several ritual committee members to prevent the censer-masters from succumbing to the waves and undercurrents of the sea, they waddle slowly further out to sea until the water is at their chest level to wait for the magic moment to invite water into the coconut husk. Once the coconut husk was filled, the members of the main committee slowly turned around and delicately escorted the urn-bearers holding the coconut husk back to the shore. A plethora of hands clutch the husk carefully, treating it with utmost respect, to ensure its safety back to shore as the Nine Emperor Gods and Dou Mu Yuan Jun are now embodied within the water contained in the coconut husk. As the group approached the large yellow talisman-covered urn, they collectively poured the water from the husk into it which marks the transference of the Nine Emperor Gods and Dou Mu Yuan Jun into the censer.
The receiving of water was repeated again, this time with the urn-bearers being substituted by two other temple members who return cradling the coconut husk filled with water carefully and placing it beside the urn for burning sandalwood. The censer master proceeds to offer gratitude to the deities by each adding a spoonful of sandalwood shavings into the smaller censer for burning sandalwood. Once this is done, they are each handed three joss-sticks and they proceed to bow and pray three times towards the sea. A ritual assistant then collections the 9 joss-sticks and sticks them into the incense ash in the large yellow censer with the talismans. He then passes the joss-sticks back to the censer-masters and they pray in the directin of the sea again. Once done, they then stood up, turned around and walked towards the other palanquin where they then bowed in prayer to the censer inside three times before the joss sticks are handed over to a member of the palanquin team who then carefully inserts them into the censer inside.
After this action had been done, the offerings which had been laid out on the beach were individually lifted up by the urn-bearers and presented in the direction of the sea, bowing three times with it, thanking the deities for their blessing and then kept back in the large yellow rattan basket which they were brought in. After the flowers and betel nuts were presented, each of the censer-masters was given a portion of the flower and the betel nut which they then kept in their shirt pocket. Once the ritual is complete, the censer-masters thus begin to empty the tea from right to the left as the remaining items are kept in the basket.
After all the teacups had been emptied, the urn-bearers once again each take a piece of sandalwood and added it into the sandalwood censer again. Following that, the urn-bearers and temple members proceeded to lift the large yellow talismans-covered urn and to bring it back to its palanquin. As the censer was lifted, the crowd cheered loudly “kew huang dai deh, huat ah! kew huang dai deh, huat ah!” (九皇⼤帝, 发啊!, 九皇⼤帝, 发啊!). The censer was then secured in complete secrecy behind the cover of the yellow cloths. Once it has been secured, the ceremonial party proceeded back to the shoreline, holding joss-sticks and the ceremonial items and paid one last respect to sea by bowing three times before turning around and heading back towards the carpark.
As the procession departs from the seaside, the palanquins were seen to be shaking vigorously from side-to-side, indicating the presence of the Nine Emperor Gods and Dou Mu Yuan Jun within. Akin to the arrival, the procession departure in the same order however this time round, the lion dance was performed to both the ceremonial party as well as the palanquins to greet the Nine Emperor Gods and Dou Mu Yuan Jun. Once they have reached the carpark, the procession party and the palanquins-bearers then made their way to the lorries while the devotees similarly boarded the buses to head back to the temple.
Upon returning to the temple, a crowd of devotees had already gathered at its entrance to await the arrival of the ceremonial party and the palanquins. As the motorcade arrived, they alighted a distance from Arumugam Road where they then took up their respective positions in the order of the procession once again. Once ready, the Taoist priest led the procession back to the temple and the gongs and the percussion instruments of Yin Yue Hui started to clamour as two temple members holding the pails of holy water steeped in pomelo leaves and mixture of rice and salt begin to clear the path for the procession.
As the procession passed by neighbouring temples on their way back to Kew Huang Keng, the ceremonial party gathered at the entrance of each temple and bowed three times to which is an act of greeting the neighbouring deities that the Nine Emperor Gods have returned home. Upon reaching Kew Huang Keng, the procession is similarly greeted by a lion dance performance at the entrance.