Kaboom! Puffs of white smoke spiralled upwards into the night sky, a sign that the Nine Emperor Gods have arrived. Down by the river, a small group of devotees and mediums was engaged in a divinity ceremony to receive the deities.
At the top of a slope, a bigger group of devotees awaited. All were dressed in white and in kneeling position, their heads bowed and hands clasped in prayer, holding joss sticks and incense papers.
“I climbed a tree and caught a glimpse of the ritual when I was a teenager,” said businessman Sam Wong, 58, from Cheras, Kuala Lumpur. “It was the closest I could get to witnessing the 'welcoming deities' ceremony but saw nothing except the smoke and throngs of devotees.”
Wong was reminiscing about the exciting times when many people came from near and far to celebrate the Nine Emperor Gods Festival in Ampang New Village, Selangor. Decades later, this dramatic scene remains vivid in his memory.
Many people say that the ceremony to usher the high-ranking star lords from the riverside or the seashore was – and still is – shrouded in mystery. Every year, the Nine Emperor Gods Festival, which takes place Sept 29-Oct 7 this year, is celebrated from the first to the ninth day of the ninth lunar month.
Wong said, “In those days, word has it that if a tortoise is found by the river, the devotees would take it back as they believe it to be a manifestation of the deities. Now I think that it is probably an invisible tortoise, a symbol of divinity.”
Contractor HS Ho from Kepong, in his late 50s, said that according to some people, the welcoming party would probably collect a rock back if there was no tortoise in sight. “I heard that sometimes they pick up a fish too, or whatever they can find by the river,” said businessman TC Kok from Ampang.
Kok added that devotees, dressed in white, would take part in a street procession and walk 4km from the temple in Ampang New Village to a river in Lembah Jaya.
Also read: Who are the Nine Emperor Gods?
Each year, the devotees would head to a spot by the river to pick up the deities as they believe that the latter arrive via the waterways. But in recent years, said Kok, the venue has shifted slightly due to a development project nearby.
Wong, Ho and Kok are childhood friends who went to the same school together. During their teenage years, the festival was one of the most exciting highlights in their lives.
Ho shared, “I used to sell red flour tortoises and joss sticks to make a fast buck as a school boy.” Even now, he would occasionally stop by the Kew Ong Yeah temple in Ampang New Village for old times’ sake.
Ritual by the waters
There are about 80 registered Kew Ong Yeah temples in Malaysia, with the oldest one being the 160 year old Nan Tian Kong temple in Ampang New Village.
Wong Kin Tack, 85, chairman of the temple, said, "In Ampang, a procession of hundreds of devotees and 10 mediums will leave the temple at about 7.30pm on the eve of the festival to welcome the Nine Emperor Gods. From 10 years ago, lion and dragon dance troupes have also joined in."
When asked if anyone from the entourage picked up objects by the river, which are symbolic manifestations of the deities, he replied, “No such thing.”
“At the riverside, there will be chantings and burning of sandalwood incense (to invite the deities to descend into the urn). The urn bearer will throw a pair of wooden moon blocks (seng pui in Cantonese) to ask for permission to leave.
“If the answer is yes, (when one block faces up and the other faces down) it means the deities have arrived and are ready to depart. The devotee will then place the sacred urn in the sedan chair for the journey to the temple,” explained Wong, who has been temple chairman for 33 years.
According to him, there will be three sedan chairs carrying deities in the procession. The heavier one bearing the Nine Emperor Gods will not be swayed while two other sedan chairs carrying other deities will be.
During the sending off of the deities at 3am on the 10th day, Wong said an earthern pot would be set adrift in the river to bid farewell to the gods.
A prominent activity associated with the festival is the walking-on-fire ritual, believed to ward off bad luck. The Ampang New Village temple does not allow women to take part in the activity as only men are allowed. Fine salt and rice grains are sprinkled on burning coals to lower the heat.
Mediums would carry bags with cloth talismans when walking on the fire. For a donation fee of RM100, devotees can obtain these talismans for protection.
Meanwhile, devotees of the 48-year-old Leng Eng Tian Khiew Ong Tai Tay Temple in Sungei Way, Petaling Jaya, would welcome the Nine Emperor Gods from Morib, Selangor, each year.
Datuk Yap Yip Leong, 48, honorary advisor of the temple, explained that a lorry will load a wooden sedan chair for the deities, adding that 30,000 people visited the temple during the festival last year.
When the welcoming party reaches the seaside, three mediums, temple committee elders and the sedan-bearing devotees would walk 1.5km from the beach out to sea. The tide would have receded by the time the ritual begins about 11pm on the eve of the festival, said Yap.
“Three mediums would lead the welcoming delegation, walking out to sea until the waters reach chest level, with the sedan chair bearers and temple elders following closely behind," he said.
The mediums would begin their chantings to invoke and welcome the deities. When the yellow flags are waved, it is a sign that the deities have arrived. The sedan chair bearing its divine guests would be loaded onto the lorry to head back to the temple.
On arrival at the temple, the devotees would carry the sedan chair into the temple's inner chamber.
While many devotees observe vegetarianism throughout the nine days, Yap, a past chairman of the Leng Eng Tian Khiew Ong Tai Tay Temple, said some devotees would start their vegetarian meals earlier to purify themselves, from the 15th day of the eighth lunar month right through the festival.
A lantern would also be hung on a 9m bamboo pole erected in the temple grounds. It is believed that the pole is to facilitate the coming and going of the heavenly deities during the festival.
On the third, sixth and ninth day of the festival, at about 1pm, there will be a ritual to pray to Heaven and the Underworld to pay respects to the generals and implore them to grant peace and safety during the festival.
Other activities include nightly luck-changing ceremonies, crossing the staircase of knives (only for male members of the temple) to promote good health, and dipping of hands in hot oil.
On the ninth night, at about 11pm, the deities would be sent back to sea in Morib and on the 10th day, the temple would pray to the Jade Emperor in Heaven to thank him for a good festival.
Madam Choong, an octogenarian from Petaling Jaya, has been a faithful worshipper of the Nine Emperor Gods for the past 50 years. “This year, I will stay in the Ampang New Village temple on the eve of the festival and leave on the morning of the 10th day,” she said.
Some 80% of people who stay in the hostel at the temple during the festival are women. "In my younger years, I used to follow the procession by foot. Since several years ago, I have not been able to walk that much,” she said.
Klang businessman Sia Lin Jian, 50, is also a loyal worshipper. Originally from Xiamen, China, Sia is in Malaysia to work on projects that beautify Chinese temples. “I would go on a 15-day vegetarian diet during the festival and visit different temples in the Klang Valley each year to pray for peace and prosperity,” he said.
Regularly, he would take part in the fire-walking ceremony to “get rid of bad luck". "Usually, a thick layer of salt would be sprinkled on the coals. One’s feet would feel a warmth glow when crossing the hot coals,” he said.
Devotees need to purify themselves by going on a strict vegetarian diet before they walk on coals so that their feet do not get burnt. It is a test of their faith, and it is this faith that serves as a cornerstone of this cherished festival.