Zhun Ti Tang 准提堂 2017
Worshipping the Nine Emperor Buddhas: A Photo Essay of Zhun Ti Tang’s Celebration of the Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods in 2017
The Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods has been an annual highlight for the volunteers and devotees of Zhun Ti Tang since 2010. As the middle of the eighth lunar month draws closer, images of various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and various ritual paraphernalia would be consecrated at an open field adjacent to Rivervale Shopping Plaza in preparation for the invitation and hosting of the Nine Emperor Buddhas for the first nine days of the ninth lunar month, where the bulk of the events traced throughout this photo essay had taken place. This year (2017) is to be a historically significant year for Zhun Ti Tang as she is returning to her ancestral temple in Bangkok to renew her incense lineage for the worship of the Nine Emperor Buddhas during the Festival itself.
The raising of the tentage two weeks prior to the last week of the eighth lunar month marks the beginning of a series of steps that led to the Festival. Yellow, a homonym of ‘Emperor,’ formed the basis of the cloth trimmings and background of the entire ritual space. Various altars are prepared for the eventual arrival and positioning of deities’ images which included, but were not restricted to, Skanda Bodhisattva, and a unique representation of Maitreya in the garb of an Emperor.
This majestic vessel lined with two standing dragons will eventually be used in the new premises of Zhun Ti Tang at Tampines. Throughout the Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods, devotees and visiting temples would place sticks of smouldering incense into the urn as a token of respect to the Nine Emperor Buddhas that were offered a position of prominence at the tiered altars located in the middle of this photograph.
A gilded image of the Dipper Matriarch (斗母) seated on a lotus throne was the first to arrive at the tentage. Flanking the four-faced Matriarch is the Sovereign of the Southern Dipper (南斗星君 on the viewer’s right) and the Sovereign of the Northern Dipper (北斗星君 to the viewer’s left). In front of the three deities’ images are nine intricately carved wooden chairs with footrests. These seats would eventually support a new set of images carved in the likeness of the Nine Emperor Buddhas.
As the invitation ceremony draws closer, devotees and volunteers of Zhun Ti Tang hurry to ensure that every aspect of the tentage has been properly positioned and accounted for. Here, an image of Master Pu’An has just arrived at the tentage. The deity was later placed before the altar dedicated to the Jade Emperor for devotees to venerate throughout the Festival.
Conscientiousness and perfection has no limit. A final centering of Maitreya Buddha was necessary with the aid of an assistant who could view the image from afar and thus was able to give feedback on the deity’s positioning from the perspective of visitors and devotees to the tentage throughout the Festival.
The main altar in the festival area is devoted to the Nine Emperor Buddhas and their mother, the Matriarch of the Dipper, who is flanked by the Sovereign of the southern and Northern Dippers on her left and right respectively. Indeed, no effort is spared by the temple in ensuring that the premises are spick and span and that everything is ready for the arrival of the Nine Emperor Buddhas’ from the sea on the 26th day of the eighth-lunar month.
The 26th of the eighth lunar month cannot have not come any earlier amidst the hustle and bustle at the tentage as the participants and devotees, in the white attire they were required to wear throughout the Festival, prepare for the invitation ceremony which begins by mid-afternoon. In the festival area, it was led by a contingent of monks, who recited from the Mahayana canon while awaiting the arrival of the Nine Emperor Gods from Zhun Ti Tang.
Because the Nine Emperor Buddhas were Buddhas that manifested themselves in the form of stars that made up the Northern Dipper, their worship was intertwined with the offering of Dipper Lamps. These Dipper Lamps were filled with rice and the lamps in them were lit before the altar to the Medicine Buddha throughout the Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods.
Everything has been prepared for the arrival of the Nine Emperor Buddhas. The smaller image wielding a sword and a bowl of sacred water in this photograph collectively represented the presence of all Nine Emperor Buddhas. Tortoise shaped buns were offered to the Nine Emperor Buddhas in anticipation of their birthday on the sixth day of the ninth lunar month, an occasion that was marked by much festivity at Zhun Ti Tang as described later.
As the monks begin their chanting, a small group of Zhun Ti Tang’s volunteers were dispatched to the temple’s premises to retrieve and invite the first set of images of the Nine Emperor Buddhas consecrated in the first half of 2010 to the tentage to witness and participate in the festivities in their honour. After the deities’ images were brought to the site, the Hall-Master led the raising of the nine lamps supported by a bamboo pole that jutted into the sky. An indispensable ritual that signified the temple’s invitation to the various divinities to partake in the upcoming events held in the honour of the Nine Emperor Buddhas, the raising of the nine lamps marked the beginning of the proceedings, the nine lamps were to be kept perpetually lit throughout the Festival, where they would be changed daily. This was followed by a quick positioning and alignment of the images of the Nine Emperor Buddhas on the altar, where they were accompanied by another larger set of images that were carved in their likeness.
Perhaps one of the most recognisable facets of the Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods is the need for devotees to be clad in white whenever they were in the presence of the Nine Emperor Gods. A sea of devotees dressed in white, led by the monks, prepare to pay obeisance to the Nine Emperor Buddhas in the late afternoon while a small group of individuals accompany the Hall-Master to Zhun Ti Tang.
Happiness was on everybody’s faces as the first set of images that represented the Nine Emperor Buddhas were ferried from Zhun Ti Tang to the tentage outside of Rivervale Plaza, where the deities would be hosted by the temple and its devotees across the next twelve days.
The Hall-Master concentrates as he whispers an incantation onto the lit lamps that would eventually be slotted into a triangular frame that holds the nine Heavenly Lamps. These lamps, supported by a frame lashed onto a bamboo pole, acts as a spiritual lodestone that marks the beginning of the Festival. Conversely, it’s subsequent extinguishing and dismantling on the tenth day of the ninth lunar month marks the end of the Festival as observed by Zhun Ti Tang.
A final repositioning of the Nine Emperor Buddhas’ attire by the Hall-Master was underway before the attending congregation of devotees and volunteers took a short break for dinner prior to the invitation ceremony at the beach.
Night had soon descended over Singapore. After a quick accounting for the various volunteers tasked with wielding various ritual paraphernalia such as horsetail whisks and banners inscribed with the sacred names of the Nine Emperor Buddhas, the Hall-Master prepares to enter the inner altar to invite the sacred basin that would eventually become the symbolic seat of the Nine Emperor Buddhas that would be ferried from one point to another in a pair of majestic black palanquins covered with gold trimmings.
The Hall-Master and the censer masters prepare to perform the final rites of cleansing and installation of the Nine Emperor Buddhas’ spiritual seat into the waiting palanquins under a veil of yellow cloth supported by four volunteers.
A variety of musical instruments and ritual paraphernalia, as well as banners inscribed with the respective sacred titles of the Nine Emperor Buddhas were brought by the contingent of volunteers and devotees after nightfall, adding much colour and atmosphere to the solemn, yet joyous occasion of inviting the Nine Emperor Buddhas from the sea.
Accompanied by much excitement, the entire contingent prepares to make its way to Changi Beach, where a makeshift altar facing the sea was already set up. The ceremony began with a recitation of scriptures devoted to Guanyin Bodhisattva led by the invited monks, namely the Heart Sutra and the Great Compassion Mantra before the Hall-Master, acting as the representative and spiritual leader of the present contingent, tosses a pair of divination blocks in the hope of receiving an affirmation of the divinities’ arrival from the sea.
The Hall-Master (centre), the censer master (extreme right) and assistant-censer master of Zhun Ti Tang (behind the censer master) asked for the Nine Emperor Buddhas to grace the waiting congregation with their presence at the beach. Communication with the Nine Emperor Buddhas in Zhun Ti Tang’s case was performed with divination blocks. Major decisions that were undertaken by the temple, such as the list of scriptures and rituals that were to be performed through the Festival, were also proposed to the Nine Emperor Buddhas and subsequently confirmed using a similar method of divination.
It was not long before the Nine Emperor Buddhas had made their present known with a ‘smiling’ result after the divination blocks were thrown. Boarding a small boat that was eventually sailed into the middle of the sea, the Hall-Master and a small group of volunteers invited the Nine Emperor Buddhas into the waiting urn of sandalwood incense under the cloak of darkness while devotees waited on the beach with bated breath.
As the familiar sound of the boat’s engine approached the beach, the entire congregation cheered with joy and enthusiasm at the arrival of the Nine Emperor Buddhas. After having secured the urn in one of the waiting palanquins, scriptures devoted Guanyin Bodhisattva and exaltations of the Medicine Buddha were recited while waiting devotees knelt before the palanquins that housed the Nine Emperor Buddhas. Now that the invitation ceremony was complete, the entire congregation made its way back to Zhun Ti Tang, all the while keeping an eye on the path that was now lit by the countless fairy lines that dotted the outside of the now-swaying palanquins.
The Hall-Master leads his contingent of devotees and volunteers back to Zhun Ti Tang after having successfully invited the Nine Emperor Buddhas to take their seats in the swaying palanquins.
A short detour was made to the Hall-Master’s home, where a report to the deities about the successful invitation, and subsequent hosting of the Nine Emperor Buddhas at the tentage for the rest of the Festival was underway. Led by the rocking and lit palanquins and the Hall-Master, a snaking procession had eventually culminated at the tentage after a short journey on foot. The event climaxed with the Hall-Master’s invitation of the seated Nine Emperor Buddhas to rest in the inner altar of the altar before consecrating the various images that were honoured in the tentage, all the while thanking everyone for their hard work at ensuring the event’s success.
While a quick report about the successful performance of the invitation ceremony, and subsequent hosting of the Nine Emperor Buddhas, was being made to the various divinities that resided within Zhun Ti Tang, the enclosed sedan chairs that hosted the Nine Emperor Buddhas continued to sway as they waited for the Hall-Master and the invited monks to complete the required rites.
The Hall-Master prepares to consecrate the incense urn with the command flags of Zhun Ti Tang and the command flag bestowed upon Zhun Ti Tang by their ancestral temple in Bangkok while waiting for the Nine Emperor Buddhas to complete their initial inspection of the tentage in their swaying palanquins.
A final prayer and recitation of scriptures led by the invited monks was underway after the Nine Emperor Buddhas were successfully invited to take their place at the tiered altar prepared for them to observe the proceedings at the tentage. Befitting of their Buddhist origins, the Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods was officiated and largely led by Buddhist monks.
There was no rest for the Hall-Master and his aides, however. As a variety of vegetarian delicacies were to be prepared in the deities honour, coupled with the Hall-Master’s preparation for his trip to Bangkok, there was never a moment at Zhun Ti Tang without activity. The trip to Bangkok involved visits to three Mahayana Buddhist temples which also worshipped the Nine Emperor Buddhas, and thus were also observant of the practices that one observes among devotees and hosts of the Nine Emperor Gods in Singapore, such as the observance of a vegetarian diet and the wearing of white clothing.
In 2016, Zhun Ti Tang had consecrated a larger replica of the Nine Emperor Buddhas by using the initial (and smaller) set as a base. Since a third set had already been consecrated during the invitation ceremony, one would be forgiven for wondering where the second set was honoured. Long Lian Si in Bangkok’s Chinatown provided the answer, where the second set of the Nine Emperor Gods sits, alongside an intricately decorated image of the Dipper Matriarch had been gifted to the temple by Zhun Ti Tang.
The original set of Nine Emperor Buddhas as they are honoured in Long Lian Si, Bangkok. As seen from the spirit tablet designated for the Nine Emperor Gods and the Matriarch of the Dipper in the center-right foreground of this photograph, the divinities are addressed as ‘Buddhas’ instead of ‘Emperor Lords,’ given that Thailand possesses a rich Buddhist history.
The second set of Nine Emperor Buddhas consecrated by Zhun Ti Tang in 2016 were gifted to Long Lian Si, a Mahayana Buddhist temple in Bangkok. Accompanying them is an image of the Matriarch of the Dipper, shown in the centre-left middleground of this photograph.
It is for this reason that Zhun Ti Tang had been invited to witness the invitation of the Nine Emperor Gods by Long Lian Si, where the deities were invited to take their seats in incense urns of sandalwood ashes. The ceremony, lasting around two hours, was also accompanied by the melodious chanting of the Universal Door Sutra in the Teochew dialect, a ritual led by the monks housed in Long Lian Si.
An enjoyable exchange of gifts and gratitude to the various Thai masters who were present at Long Lian Si during the Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods in 2017.
Xin Xing Tan in Bangkok, the ancestral temple of Zhun Ti Tang’s incense lineage where the worship of the nine Emperor Buddhas were concerned, was the highlight of the visit. The Hall-Master requested for a bag of sandalwood ashes from the temple that was to be brought back to Singapore in order to strengthen the spiritual ties that both temples share with each other through their honouring of the Nine Emperor Buddhas. The ceremony, performed on the first day of ninth lunar month, was a simple, yet solemn one that began in the wee hours of the morning, where the Hall-Master and his aides made the trek to the temple on foot with a myriad of offerings that included joss paper and a selection of fruits. Led by the resident Master of Xin Xing Tan, nine spoonfuls of sandalwood ashes were scooped and sealed within a yellow bag for Zhun Ti Tang to bring back to Singapore. The visit ended with an enhancing of the ritual flags that Zhun Ti Tang had first brought back to Singapore from Xin Xing Tan in 2010.
The Nine Emperor Buddhas honoured at Xin Xing Tan in their splendour. The Matriarch of the Dipper, flanked by two aides, is seated on a dragon throne positioned slightly higher than her numinous children, the latter whom rest on lotus thrones.
The resident-Master of Xin Xing Tan obliges with Zhun Ti Tang’s request and scoops nine measures of sacred ash from the incense urn devoted to the worship of the Nine Emperor Buddhas in Xin Xing Tan into a waiting yellow bag.
The Hall-Master enhances the ritual flags that he had brought along to Xin Xing Tan from Singapore with the smoke originating from the incense urn of the Nine Emperor Gods.
A final photograph with the master and staff of Xin Xing before Zhun Ti Tang returns to Singapore with the sacred ashes retrieved from her ancestral temple.
Twelve hours later, back in Singapore, much fanfare greeted the returning contingent as the Hall-Master passed the incense ashes of Xin Xing Tan across the many incense urns at the tentage. The entire event was one witnessed by all present at Zhun Ti Tang and accompanied by gongs and countless drumbeats, all of which contributed to the celebratory atmosphere of the event. A sprinkling of the sacred ashes into Zhun Ti Tang’s main urn and the incense urn of the Nine Emperor Buddhas in the inner altar signalled the end of the ceremony, but it also marked the beginning of Zhun Ti Tang’s preparation for one of the temple’s highlights on the second day of the ninth lunar month: the annual visiting (henceforth, yewkeng viz. tour of the temple’s surrounding) different temples devoted to the Nine Emperor Gods around the island.
The Hall-Master presents the hosted divinities in the tentage of Zhun Ti Tang with the sacred sandalwood ashes that the contingent had brought back to Singapore from Xin Xing Tan. Devotees and volunteers who were present at that point in time join the Hall-Master in giving thanks to the deities for having successfully renewed Zhun Ti Tang’s incense lineage.
The Chairman of the Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods scatters a part of the sacred ashes from Xin Xing Tan into the tentage’s main incense urn, signifying the temple’s success in inviting and continuing the incense lineage of Zhun Ti Tang.
Perhaps the most tiring, but equally rewarding, part of the Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods is to follow a contingent of volunteers, sedan chair bearers and devotees across the island’s many temples that observe the worship of the Nine Emperor Gods. Beginning in the early afternoon, the proceedings began with a round of chanting led by the invited monks, before the Nine Emperor Buddhas were invited from their place of rest in the inner altar into the waiting palanquins. As the palanquins began to sway, and subsequently loaded upon lorries devoted to ferrying the deities from one temple to another, final preparations were made for the contingent’s departure from the tentage.
A quick check of all the ritual instruments and key personnel is conducted prior to leaving the tentage for the yewkeng. This photograph, taken just fifteen minutes prior to the assembly’s departure from the tentage, shows the participants in the event performing a final prayer to the Nine Emperor Buddhas for the successful conduct of the yewkeng.
The Nine Emperor Buddhas are invited to take their seat in the palanquins and ready to leave the tentage after a quick check of the sedan chair bearers by their leaders, colloquially known as the ‘Head of the Sedan Chair Bearers (Kio Tau – 轿头). ’ These rocking palanquins would lead the gathering of committee members and devotees of Zhun Ti Tang when paying their respects to other temples devoted to the worship of the Nine Emperor Gods in Singapore.
The Hall-Master, representing Zhun Ti Tang, places an offering of fragrant sandalwood into the incense censer of the first temple visited, Hoon Sian Keng in Changi Road. Behind him is the censer master of Zhun Ti Tang (center), flanked by the assistant censer master and chairman of the committee of the Festival of the Nine Emperor Buddhas as celebrated in Zhun Ti Tang.
The Buddhist elements of Zhun Ti Tang’s worship of the Nine Emperor Gods also extends to the religious specialists engaged by the temple when worshipping the Nine Emperor Gods. As shown in this photograph from Kim San Tze Temple (the second temple visited during the yew keng), monks, rather than spirit mediums or Taoist priests, are engaged to perform the scriptural recitations that honour the Nine Emperor Buddhas and Bodhisattva Guanyin.
The third temple visited by Zhun Ti Tang, Nan Bei Dou Mu Gong, operates from a tentage raised beside Eunos MRT. In the second photograph, the Chairman of Zhun Ti Tang receives a token of appreciation from the hosting temple.
The visit to the fourth temple by Zhun Ti Tang, Jiu Huang Gong, was led by the contingent of sedan chairs and their respective bearers. The Hall-Master followed, leading the censer-masters and committee members of Zhun Ti Tang into the presence of the Nine Emperor Gods honoured in the inner sanctum of the temple.
The exchange of incense was an indispensable ritual that underscored ties of friendship and interaction between the temples engaged in the ceremony. In the second photograph, a representative of Hong San Temple prepares to transfer a portion of the sacred sandalwood shavings from Hong San Temple’s own censer into Zhun Ti Tang’s own.
2017 marked one of the few years where the Nine Emperor Buddhas visited the homes of the censer masters. Here, the Hall-Master prepares to confer the blessing of the Nine Emperor Buddhas upon those who dwelled within the home of the censer master.
The fifth destination of Zhun Ti Tang’s yewkeng was Hougang Tao Bu Keng, which is the oldest temple devoted to the worship of the Nine Emperor Gods in Singapore. Prior to entering the inner sanctum of the temple where the Dipper Matriarch and the Nine Emperor Gods are honoured, the Hall-Master leads Zhun Ti Tang in the worship of the deities just outside of the temple.
Yewkengs serve to deepen ties of friendship between different temples, providing an opportunity for the committee of Zhun Ti Tang and devotees to interact with members of other temples throughout the Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods, as evinced from Zhun Ti Tang’s visit to Long Shan Yan Dou Mu Gong in Ang Mo Kio.
Zhun Ti Tang’s last destination for her yewkeng was Long Nan Dian. After a short prayer and reporting of Zhun Ti Tang’s worship of the Nine Emperor Gods hosted at Long Nan Dian, gifts were exchanged between the temples. Interactions of this nature symbolise the sentiments mutuality and reciprocity between the various temples devoted to the worship of the Nine Emperor Gods in Singapore.
A group photograph of Zhun Ti Tang’s committee members, happy at having completed the yewkeng after the Nine Emperor Buddhas were invited to reside in the inner altar of the tentage at the end of the day-long excursion.
The day ended with a trip made on foot to the homes of Zhun Ti Tang’s chairman (top) and the assistant censer master of the Festival of the Nine Emperor Buddhas in 2017 (bottom).
Throughout the Festival, Zhun Ti Tang had also hosted various temples that had visited them. These exchanges were more than a reciprocal transaction; rather, they embodied a sense of community amongst different believers of the Nine Emperor Gods. While each temple worships the Nine Emperor Gods in a manner befitting of their respective history and belief system, these visits serve to underscore the sentiment of mutuality and respect that one had for the other and vice versa.
The sixth day of the ninth lunar month has been designated as the actual birthday of the Nine Emperor Gods. Among all the mouth-watering vegetarian delicacies that were prepared in the honour of the Nine Emperor Buddhas, Zhun Ti Tang had also prepared cakes that were covered with birthday wishes to the latter.
Nan Bei Dou Mu Gong’s Visit to Zhun Ti Tang
Choa Chu Kang Dou Mu Gong’s Visit to Zhun Ti Tang
Long Shan Yan Dou Mu Gong’s Visit to Zhun Ti Tang
Jiu Huang Gong’s Visit to Zhun Ti Tang. The two large yellow candles burning in the incense censer was among the offerings presented by Jiu Huang Gong to Zhun Ti Tang.
The many happy faces witnessed during the various visits and exchanges made by representatives of other temples which observe the Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods to Zhun Ti Tang throughout the nine days are testament to the strong ties built through socialisation. The few photos as displayed here cannot serve to do justice to the extensive friendships and sentiments of hospitality built and maintained through the worship of the Nine Emperor Gods.
Salvation plays an important role in the rituals performed at Zhun Ti Tang throughout the Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods. The feeding of wandering souls who have been attracted to the tentage in the hope of securing their own salvation was best exemplified through the hosting of yankou rituals on Zhun Ti Tang’s part.
The twelve days seem to have passed in a blur. The eighth day of the ninth lunar month was marked by a grand celebratory dinner which took place concurrently with an auction of various antiques and prayer paraphernalia. After a quick tidying up of the ritual space, it was time to worship the Jade Emperor. This ritual, which officially begins during the first hour of the ninth day of the ninth lunar month, involves countless man hours and preparation beforehand, a process that begins from the eighth day.
An auction was concurrently held with the vegetarian banquet hosted by Zhun Ti Tang. After successfully bidding for a set of incense sticks, a joyful devotee prepares to present the offering into the incense censer of the Nine Emperor Gods with the help of the Hall-Master.
Zhun Ti Tang’s celebration of the Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods has contributed to her presence in the neighbourhood as well. In this photograph, members of the Community Club were invited to participate in the banquet on the eighth day of the ninth lunar month as well.
Preparing for the Jade Emperor Worshipping Ceremony that would last into the morning of the ninth day of the ninth lunar month viz. the last day of the Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods. Among all else, Zhun Ti Tang possesses nine lotus-shaped ruyi incense holders that were carried by the contingent during key events. Each of these hand-held incense censers represented an offering to one of the Nine Emperor Buddhas.
Offerings were passed among the monks and devotees present for the Heaven-Worshiping ceremony. This ritual marked the beginning of the end if the Festival, since it lasted into the wee hours of the morning of the ninth day of the ninth lunar month.
The remainder of the ninth day of the ninth lunar month was spent getting ready for the sending-off of the hosted Nine Emperor Buddhas, a ritual that occurs in a mirror image like manner vis-à-vis the invitation ceremony as described in an earlier section.
By twilight, as the final scriptures were recited by the invited monks, the Hall-Master and his contingent of volunteers ready themselves for the lowering of the nine heavenly lamps. It was not long before an excited crowd began to gather within the tentage in anticipation for the sending off ceremony to begin.
More offerings were present at the altar devoted to the Nine Heavenly Lamps on the final day of the Festivities, such that a new table had been included to support the spread of vegetarian foods presented to the attending divinities.
A final headcount and check of the many volunteers engaged to hold various ritual instruments associated with the Nine Emperor Gods was necessary prior to the contingent’s departure to the beach.
Like the invitation ceremony, the Hall-Master began by lowering the nine heavenly amps that were lit throughout the event. Unlike other days, however, Member of Parliament (MP) Charles Chong had accompanied the congregation in the completion of this indispensable ritual. A quarter of an hour later, the Nine Emperor Buddhas were ready to take their respective seats in the awaiting palanquins, a procedure that was carried out against the backdrop of an energetic mix of drumbeats and clashing cymbals.
As the Nine Emperor Buddhas led the way to Zhun Ti Tang in their palanquins, a snaking procession of devotees and volunteers garbed in white followed the Hall-Master from behind at a slow but steady pace. After reaching Zhun Ti Tang, the lit palanquins arrive to a simple table laid with incense and offerings in the honour of the Nine Emperor Buddhas. A sudden intensification of the palanquins’ rocking aroused the attention of onlookers and the surprise of the palanquin bearers, who began to move towards the lorries that had awaited them.
The Hall-Master performs a final cleansing of the palanquins prior to inviting the Nine Emperor Buddhas to take their seats within. As the Nine Emperor Buddhas are installed into their respective palanquins by the Hall-Master and the censer-masters, both devotees and volunteers fall to their knees while whispering prayers of thanks and gratitude for the Nine Emperor Buddhas’ grace throughout the Festival.
The entire procession follows the sedan chairs, who begin making their way back to Zhun Ti Tang. Greeting them is a makeshift altar of incense and food offerings prepared for the benefit of the deities while the Hall-Master and the committee of Zhun Ti Tang performs another round of thanks and reporting to the divinities in Zhun Ti Tang’s premises.
Before long, the entire congregation had already performed another round of obeisance at Zhun Ti Tang, and had already began making their way back to Changi beach. As per the invitation ritual, the sacred titles of the Nine Emperor Buddhas were recited by the attending monks. A simple ritual of thanksgiving to the Nine Emperor Buddhas for their presence throughout the Festival at Zhun Ti Tang was then performed with cups of tea before the makeshift altar by key personalities involved in the event, such as the Hall-Master, the censer-masters and the leader of the sedan chair bearers.
Preparations and rituals necessary for the sending-off ceremony began as soon as members of the congregation had arrived at the beach. From scattering joss paper onto the dragon boat, to the installation of the sacred titles of the Nine Emperor Buddhas onto temporary spirit tablets and offerings of tea made by representatives of the various organisations that had come together to make the Festival a possibility, a variety of tasks need to be completed before the sending off ceremony could commence.
The sending off ceremony climaxed with the boarding of a boat by the Hall-Master and a small group of his closest aides. The censer-master, clutching the basin of sandalwood ashes that represented the spiritual seat of the Nine Emperor Gods, followed. Moments later, the boat propelled itself into the open sea, where it was tailed by the dragon boat that Zhun Ti Tang had prepared for the event.
Accompanied by dozens of devotees who waited at the beach while clutching onto their respective command flags that were issued to them under the authority of the Nine Emperor Buddhas at Zhun Ti Tang, the Hall-Master and the censer masters of the event performed the sending off ritual under the anonymity of darkness. A final flicker from the coast marked the concurrent immolation of the still-bobbing dragon boat, a sight that was soon followed by the return of the motor boat to the beach. The Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods, as observed celebrated by Zhun Ti Tang, had thus ended. Volunteers and devotees began making their way back to the lit carpark that flanked Changi Beach, ready to return home after a long and tiring period of honouring the Nine Emperor Buddhas.
Solemnity creeps into the crowd during the last few moments of the sending-off ceremony, which marks as much as a new beginning of renewed faith as much as it marked the end of the Festival. In this still, devotees who were fortunate to have been permitted to wield one of the ritual flags issued under the auspices of the Nine Emperor Gods stand in silence, all the while watching the boat enter the darkness of the sea.
A burst of flame and smoke in the distance signals the successful return of the Nine Emperor Buddhas to the elements where they have been invited from.
The Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods as it is usually conceptualised in Singapore falls within Taoist lines, although Zhun Ti Tang, because of its incense lineage from Thailand, a predominantly Buddhist country, interprets the event according to Buddhist precepts and deities. Hence, the scriptures and rituals hosted by Zhun Ti Tang during this Festival have a Buddhist slant to them, even if the mannerisms of invitation and sending off are very much like other temples devoted to the Nine Emperor Gods as described in this collection of photo essays.
Text and Photos by Team Zhun Ti Tang (Esmond Soh)
Team Leader: Dean Wang
Our very sincere thanks to the committee of Zhun Ti Tang temple for their support and assistance during our documentation project.
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.