Monday, October 30, 2006

Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods

Hokkien: Kow Ong Yeah
Cantonese: Kow Wong Yeh
Mandarin: Jiu Wang Ye

This is the common banner which you will see everywhere; especially in Penang which definitely notifies one of the arrival of the vegetarian period.
It is the time of the year again; where we start to see the yellow flags everywhere and also crowds at the vegetarian restaurants. I remembered this festival where my mum observes a vegetarian diet for nine days during a certain period every year. In tune with the festival; which is known as the Nine Emperor Gods, it is also celebrated in the ninth month of the Chinese Lunar Calendar every year; or rather the ninth moon and span for a period of 9 days.
I used to accompany mom to a temple in Ampang when I was a kid and waited with dad while mom makes her prayer offerings. (Dad and I are Catholics)
The significant part of this festival is the color; everything is yellow – you see the yellow flags and cloths hanging everywhere to announce the arrival of the festival.
This year, mom decided to come back to her hometown up north; Penang (Pearl of the Orient) to celebrate the festival; following her offertory prayers and worship to the deities and also to walk down the memory lane of the vegetarian food served here. Furthermore, this year, the festival coincides with the double festive occasions; Deepavali and Hari Raya Aidilfitri for the Indian and Muslim community and thus there is a week holiday.
As such, mom and dad sent me back to visit grandmother and at the same time, mom took this opportunity to celebrate the festival in her birthplace; since she left it more than 20 years ago following her marriage. I noticed a striking difference between the celebration in KL and Penang; with the latter being more vibrant and merrier with the vegetarian food fair and stalls set up everywhere in the little state. Also, the interesting thing here is that most of the vegetarian outlets hang little yellow cloths at their shops or stalls to signify the “cleanliness” of their food; as my mum puts it. The cloth is only hung on stalls which serve pure vegetarian food and is deemed suitable to be consumed by the strict followers and vegetarians of the festival for nine days. Interestingly, according to my mum, most of the vegetarians in Penang will only patronize shops which hang these yellow cloths which are declared “safe” to eat vegetarian outlets.
Mum also explained the reason they were particular about the food and locations where they dine in; following a superstition passed down by her paternal grandmother. It seems that the vegetarian diet during this month is more strict compared to the normal vegetarian diet observed by most devotees on every 1st and 15th of the month and thus strictly only pure vegetarian food is allowed. If you took food which are not pure vegetarian, the consumer will actually suffer from an immediate bout of stomach ache and diarrhea following the consumption of the food. This goes to show how clean and pure this festival is all about.
The festival commence on the eve of the ninth moon in the Lunar calendar and temples will start with their ceremonies to welcome the deities; the Nine Emperor Gods. Since the deities were believed to journey through the water, their arrival is anticipated and received through the processions held by temples which take place from the temple location to the sea-shore or river (any water passage). Also, most of the devotees will be dressed in white during this celebration to signify their purity and cleanliness in receiving the arrival of their Excellencies with joss sticks and candles in their hands. Thus, the vegetarian meals signify their fasting period and also cleansing themselves to participate in the celebration of the arrival of their deities. During this time also, most of the activities include the walking on burning coal and also the raising of the lanterns. I heard that you need to be clean and just to be able to walk on the hot burning coal to avoid hurt and injury on yourself as the holy devotees will not feel a thing when they walk on it; it’s a matter of believe it or not for you J
From most of the resources I read, the Nine Emperor Gods dwell in the stars in heaven under the reign Tou Mu, the mother of heaven and the ultimate owner of the Book of Life and Death. In another resource, they were also said to be the nine sons of the Thean Hou, the respectable mother of heaven. They were believed to be honorable warriors and also said to be the Robin Hood of the East; the Chinese version of the legendary just hero who robbed the rich to help the poor. Similarly, Jiu Wang Yeh (Nine Emperor Gods) also did the same during the Qing Dynasty and helped most of the poor. Legend has it that they were once at their wits’ end when they were cornered by the officials/soldiers at the sea side with no route for escape when a giant red turtle appeared and shipped them over to safety to the Tow Boo Keong Island.
Guess that explains the reason why we see the Ang Koo kueh and also the flour loaf in the form of a red turtle; Mee Koo which is the favourite among the Chinese/Hokkien community during festive celebrations. Furthermore, the turtle symbolizes longevity and health.
During these nine days, there will be vegetarian food stalls mushrooming everywhere as devotees professed their faith through their abstinence from meat and indulging in a 9-10 days of vegetarian diet. I must say the atmosphere of the festival differs according to states. Hailing from KL, I can see the contrasting difference between the celebration in KL and Penang with the latter in a more vibrant and merrier mode. Perhaps it is due to the large percentage of the Chinese community in Penang state. You should make a trip to the famous temple in Burma Road in Penang and at the same time; look at the vegetarian food fair lined up on the left side of the road. Mom said this used to be the most popular area for the wide selection of vegetarian food but now the focus has also dispersed to every area in Penang. In fact, there is also a few notable and merry carnival-like vegetarian fair in places like Taman Lip Sin in Gelugor, Macalister Road, Sungai Dua, Air Itam, etc.
Well, yesterday was the culmination of the nine-day period and there will be a float-like procession to send off the deities back to the sea and await their coming again the following year.
That’s the end of the Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods; I have been following mum on her vegetarian diet as well (mum says I am already a partial vegetarian even on my everyday diet:p ). Oh ya, it was supposed to rain during this period as well; remember, the deities are associated with water but this year, it rained only on the first few days and then there was the scorching sun for the rest of the period L My theory would be that the nine suns are shining and providing light to the Earth (if you remember from the Journey to the West, where they traveled to the state which had 9 suns) and also the famous legend of the Chang Er and Hou Yi the archer who shot the nine suns who happened to be the nine sons of Thean Hou; hmmm, wonder whether there is any association to this story..hehe…. (I am a Catholic by the way)
Anyway, if you missed the celebration this year, do remember to check it out next year! ~

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