Nine Emperor Gods Festival 2016
It’s the time of the year again! The weeks leading up to this week have been busy with preparations for the arrival of the “Nine Emperor Gods”. A large tentage area has been set up near Block 283 in Bukit Batok, with its interior filled with yellow scrolls and hard banners imported from South China. For this temple based in Bukit Batok, the intended welcoming date for the Nine Emperor God has been set on the 27th day of the 8th lunar month! After which we are told that the Nine Emperor Gods will reside within the space till 3rd October.
It’s overwhelming to imagine the level of preparations that have gone underhand before the arrival of the Nine Emperor Gods . Some of them arrive as early as 6am to help. There is a lot to do! Hundreds of yellow cloth flags that needs manual attachment to wooden sticks to hold them up are prepared a few days in advance. Joss papers are folded. Uncooked rice are placed into smaller clear plastic packets for the worshippers to bring home as a symbol of good luck and fortune in the upcoming year. Vegetarian food were prepared for the public. The friendly uncles and aunties busy themselves with these tasks tirelessly, chatting as time passes. There is a lot to catch up on as this yearly event not only honours the Nine Emperor Gods but also serves as a time for them to gather! At certain times of the day, there are also some palm reading going on!
A day before the big arrival, the tentage looks something like this.
There are specific positions for each items within the tentage. The main worship area is in the middle of the tentage. As seen from the picture above, images of Siddhartha Buddha and other Bodhisattvas found in Mahayana Buddhism were hanged up. There is also a statue of Guan Yin(观音) as seen in the picture above. Scriptures and sutras can be found at the sides of this altar where the crowds will later use to chant. This main altar is flanked by long tables decorated with elaborate yellow cloths featuring the name of the temple-“Long Nan Szye (龙南寺)”. Atop these tables sits offering units bought by the public for blessings. Upon purchase, the names of the person who are to receive these blessings will be written on a slip of paper. This paper are then placed within their unit of offerings.
Each unit consists of a couple of staple food, such as peanuts, uncooked rice, Mee-Sua and Nine Lotus Lamps (生命灯). The Nine Lotus Lamps are lighted each day and changed every day leading up to the festival by the temple helpers and devotees.
In the picture above, a lady is checking out the names written on the offerings. The hanging red “lanterns” on the left of this image are given out to those people who have purchased these offerings as a further token of blessing.
Picture above: “Dou Mu gong” (斗母宫) is the place where Nine Emperor Gods resides..
Behind the main altar itself is where the “Dou Mu Gong”(斗母宫) is located. Before the arrival of the Nine Emperor Gods, this area is sealed off to most people. Only those who have cleansed themselves well by keeping to a strict vegetarian diet for at least 15 days to a month are allowed to enter. It is unknown to us what were placed behind the yellow veil. During the festival, we were engaged in stories of sudden slipping and misfortunes that had happened in the past when someone “unclean” went into this enclosed space. Believers from the public tend to keep to a strict vegetarian diet for 9 days throughout the festival. When the Nine Emperor Gods eventually arrive, they will be escorted into this area where they will reside for the subsequent 9 days.
Inviting the Nine Emperor Gods! （请水）
On 27 September itself, we met at 4PM at the venue itself where the temple helpers were already busying themselves with preparations for the procession at night. There was free vegetarian food and drinks for the helpers and the public for the duration of the festival.
At around 6 to 7PM, we were all in white and had yellow “belts” tied around our waists. The symbolism was likened to being cleansed. This relates to the historical background of the festival which was found along the coastal areas where Japanese pirates frequently conducted killings and other inhuman acts. We gathered in front of the main altar where the lotus lamps brightly lit. Buddhist sutras were set up on each of the two sides on a yellow cloth in view of everyone. We were given lit joss sticks, some held one while others held three of more. Chen Shifu, the head of the temple led everyone to about an hour long chant with his steady voice amplified over the microphone he held whilst tapping rhythmically on a small “gong”.
Around 8PM, we hopped on to the big lorries that Long Nan Szye rented and set out for the receiving procession. The sacred urn from the tentage where only the cleansed could enter had been transferred to the two sedan chairs. It is not known how many urns there were or how they looked like. These lorries were red and brown and had heavy yellow flags with red 九皇大帝words printed on them hoisted by long poles at its vehicle sides which blew majestically in the wind as the truck accelerated towards Kranji Reservoir area. Upon reaching, we got down together with two beautifully decorated sedan chairs, which were dimly lighted. We walked a long way in to reach the reservoir. The two sedan chairs were hoisted by 8 individuals who would swopped places anytime when anyone needed a rest. The sedans should never touch the ground thus swopping has to be quick between the sedan bearers where they usually do so by tiling the sedan at an angle.
Upon reaching the spot where the land opens to the straits of Johor, the temple helpers wasted no time setting up. Cupboard mats are placed on the grass and flowers, instruments, incense, lighters and scriptures were loaded onto them. The two sedan chairs are placed nearby with their door openings facing the open Strait. The cloth covering their doorways are lifted. Giant flags were also brought down from the lorries and laid on the grass, with red and orange ones representing each of the Zodiac signs whilst green ones represent (Nan Dou)南斗、(Dong Dou)东斗、(Xi Dou)西斗、(Bei Dou)北斗、(Zhong Dou)中斗。
Devotees gathered around the cupboard mats on their knees, making sure to have the front of their bodies face the open strait. Lighted joss sticks were handed out and Chen Shifu proceeded to lead chants. For about half an hour with joss sticks in hand, the crowd repeated Chen Shifu’s leading verses word after word. We were told that this “procedure” is an act of asking for blessings as devotees were occasionally prompted by Chen Shifu to utter their individual names and address. This was the first round. In the next round, joss sticks are collected from the hands of everyone in exchange for flowers fresh on their stalks. Chen Shifu again led the verse chanting and this time once in a while, they bowed and plucked petals from the flowers they had and threw them in the air with a resounding “HUAT AH!”. Soon after for a brief moment, the crowd dispersed into chaos only to gather again in long lines behind giant flags each representing their zodiac signs. Chen Shifu seems to be performing a ritual and in a blink of an eye, the “Lor Zhu” 爐 主 (annually ‘chosen’ by the deities themselves) comes up to the sedan chairs and seemingly reached to place something into the sedan chair. The cloths are unhooked at their ends to cover the doorway and the sedan chairs lit up in visibly bright colours, powered by a battery pack within. Sedan bearers effortlessly hoisted the sedan chairs to their shoulders whilst two temple volunteers readied themselves with one carrying a small bucket of water in one hand and a flower stem in another whilst the other had a small red bucket of uncooked rice. The sedan bearers swayed forwards in wide but coordinated gaits, the sedan chair rocking violently between them as if there was an immense spiritual energy residing within. The two helpers ran ahead, scattering uncooked rice and water from the bucket with the flower stem as a means of cleansing the pathway for the Nine Emperor Gods who were approaching in the sedan chairs.
As seen from the image above, as Chen Shifu and his assistants prepared the space for the receiving procession, volunteers held lights which were later placed on stands when the verse chanting started.
After receiving the Nine Emperor Gods from the waterside, devotees followed behind the rocking sedan chairs as everyone returned to pack the waiting lorries.
On the way back, whenever the lorry passes under an overhead bridge, there would be a loud gong and the two helpers would sprinkle rice and water up into the air amidst the devotees’ shouts of “九皇大帝 Huat Ah!” The lorries pulled to a stop once a short distance away from Long Nan Szye and the sedan bearers were back on their feet with the sedans again, vigorously swinging the sedans back to the temple. A large following of devotees followed, weaving past streets and traffic.
At around 1030PM after the receiving rites, we were greeted by the brightly lit tentage area of Long Nan Szye.
Upon reaching the tentage grounds, the sedan bearers entered Dou Mu Gong with the sedans
The temples had vegetarian supper packets and pots of kuehs and porridge ready for the devotees who cheerfully tucked in. The image shows one of the wide array of supper choices prepared by the temple helpers upon the devotees’ return from the receiving procession.
Once again, we gathered in front of the main altar again to recite verses.
The entire receiving procession ended around close to midnight. After which for the subsequent 9 days, devotees could come to the temple grounds to pay their respects and ask for blessings from the Nine Emperor Gods. Other temples such as Hong San See will also arrive to visit during this period.
Confucius Rituals (拜文昌星君)
One of the unique rituals that Long Nan Szye is the praying to Confucius. On 6th September, lunar calendar, a Confucius altar is set up. Children of devotees gather in front of the statue of Confucius to chant verses lead by a girl and boy selected by Chen Shifu in hope of achieving good results and blessings for their academics.
Here is what happen during the next few days! 接下来的几天！
Devotees flock to the temple to ask for blessings and to pray for their safety in the subsequent days.
Washable blessing 九皇大帝 ink stamps devotees can receive upon request. Devotees seeking extra blessings can request this stamp from temple devotees which will be stamped on the back of their shirt.
Opera performances are held during the subsequent few days to entertain the public.
Crossing the Bridge (过平安桥)
A bridge (平安桥) is set up for devotees to cross before lighting joss sticks to pay respects. Seen as part of a “cleansing procession” where crossing the bridge “safely” without any incident symbolizes prosperity and blessings from the deities in the following year.
The Dragon Boat龙船
As seen in the image above, it is one of the two paper dragon boats purchased by the temple. Attached to them are pink slips of paper. Devotees will write their names on these papers for further blessings. The paper boat will set sail and later be set alight in the waters during the day of sending off
Boa Buay 掷杯
Por Pua/ Boa Buay is a ritual where devotees kneel and recite verses that thank the deities for their blessings in the previous years. Many would attempt the Por Pua where two red halves are thrown by the individual onto the floor. The most common or optimal result is to have one halve open and one halve close which was a sign that their standing with the deities are assured and their following year will be free of major conflicts. In the case that both halves are either open or closed, rice will be rewarded in the form of blessings. The temple has recorded “Nine” to be the highest number of consistent one halve open and one halve closed result.
On 7th October, the temple organized a dinner with its helpers and devotees. The arrangement was free seating, mostly on a first come first serve basis which meant some problems when devotees in groups arrived late as it became more difficult to accommodate greater numbers of devotees at one table with only one or two empty seats at each table. Dinner started at 8.20pm and for its entire duration, we were indulged in watching a bidding process in front of us where items like hampers, electrical appliances (fans etc.), rice sacks and liquor were up for bidding by devotees. A speech then given by a representative of a MP who was unable to make it to the dinner recognized the efforts by the temple and their support for these events. Eventually, a piece of calligraphy written by the MP himself was placed for bid before Chen Shifu closed the dinner with closing remarks.
On 8th October, there was an internal temple dinner attended by temple helpers. Slightly more casual in style than the previous night, it seemed an opportunity for temple helpers to get together. Chen Shifu later gathered the temple helpers for briefing at the end of the dinner to prepare them for their roles in the sending off procession which was the very next day itself. Chen Shifu lead his temple helpers in a chant, the group went over these lines again and again, internalizing it within themselves in preparation to lead the chant the next day。
Sending Off (送驾)
The sending off on 9th October began a little later than in the previous days when we gathered in the late afternoon. Around 6pm, a lion dance was performed. Usually, the sending off procession is accompanied by these lion or/ and dragon dances as the entourage proceeds to the watersides to send off the Nine Emperor Gods.
Devotees then gathered in front of the Guan Yin statue to recite verses. Flowers and joss sticks were handed out, whilst those who joined late or who received neither the joss sticks or flowers made a praying gesture with their hands. For some time, the chant was repeated again and again
After the chants ended, we were then divided into two groups by gender and began to walk about the open space outside the tentage area with our joss sticks in lines, chanting consistently as we went along. As there were many people, the line was as if a long snake which weaved in and out of that open space as we kept on walking in a rhythmic pattern. Similar to the night when we had received the Nine Emperor Gods, sacred urns were transferred from the tentage into the two sedan chairs fast and quick way from the public view before being loaded onto the lorries. We were heading towards Kranji Reservoir again.
The devotees with their flowers and lighted joss sticks in hand, taking care to remain behind the sedans
Settling down near the waters of Kranji Reservoir!
As were got ready to chant verses, flags were hoisted up with everyone looking at the waters. The sacred urns are being removed from the sedan chairs and as the crowd remain chanting, several men disappeared for some time. They reappeared in the midst of darkness some distance away, their movements lighted by seemingly lighted candles burning within a circular foam decorated by yellow flags on its outer rims. There were two of these circular foams, we wondered if each urn was placed on each individual one. These men were sitting on thick foams and holding sticks as paddles; they had crossed down to the waters in the dark and were preparing to send the two dragon boats off into the waters.
Bit by bit, as the men paddled themselves from the side to the view of the crowds with the two dragon boats, we began to understand what was happening. The dark made it impossible to see anything clearly but in a few minutes, the crowd spotted two objects that had been set alight floating into the distance. It is not obvious if they were the circular foams or the dragon boats. We could see faint shadows of some men who paddled alongside these two lighted objects for a small distance to make sure they were burning and floating “correctly”before paddling back to the grassy shore. The two lighted objects floated on and on away from us until it was just a tiny speck of light in the far distance. After this, some temple helpers asked amongst themselves if the sacred urns were loaded onto these dragon boats and burned together with the paper boats or if they were taken back before the paper dragon boats were set alight. No one knows, they said.
龙南寺2017小组编撰(Tham Ki Yee, Paul Soh Zhan Hong, Chia Jielin, Tan Teenzhen, Tammy Chew, Ong Xiaohui, led by Lin Chia Tsun)
网页编辑Lin Chia Tsun
Special thanks to Long Nan Si for allowing us to do the documentation and for their assistance and advice. Special thanks to the 2016 team (Venus Goh, Branson Koh, Eric Ng) and Carolyn Kok for the contributions.
The Project Team (through the Principal Investigator) and the National Heritage Board of Singapore own the rights to the photos and photo essays on this website unless stated otherwise.