For me, Malaysia was an impressive country in many ways. Exuberant nature, millennial traditions, different cultures. Just because of three different cultures (Chinese Peranakans, Malays, and Hindus) that share the same territory, Malaysia has enough features to be a very unique country. In three months of living in Penang, an island located in the North, I had the opportunity to experience a bit of this incredible multicultural country. And among all I saw, participated and experienced, nothing was more impressive than the Festival of the Nine Emperors, a Taoist celebration to purify the body and soul. Also known as Vegetarian Festival, the event lasts nine days and is popular not only in Malaysia but also in some places in Indonesia and Thailand.
The celebrations begin in the new month of the Chinese lunar calendar (around the middle of October) and during the period the faithful people fast and practice abstinence from sex and alcohol.
Taoism and vegetarianism
Taoism is a philosophy and also a religion that understands balance as the governing force of all things. Many people know the Yin Yang, the symbol of Taoism that translates the ideas of opposing energies, duality and balance.
Having the balance as the basis of everything, Taoism also encourages its followers to have a vegetarian diet. Although vegetarianism is not mandatory, during the nine days of the Festival the followers only eat vegetarian dishes.
In Southeast Asia, in general, it is very common to find restaurants with a yellow and red flag, indicating respect for the principles of Taoism. In general, these restaurants are vegetarian or, at least, have a good variety of vegetarian dishes.
Although religion and diet are not directly associated, tofu, a famous vegetarian cheese made from soybeans, was invented by Chinese Taoists.
During the Festival in Penang, in front of the temples, there are several tents where vegetarian food is served for free. The dishes are delicious and I had the opportunity to try some!
Scourging and purification
One of the highlights of the Festival, however, is on a ninth day, when some faithful people are flagellated as a way to purify themselves. On that day, a big party takes place, with the right to the fireworks, procession, food, and money that is given in the street. The impressive scenes of spears with 10 kilos weight that cut the cheeks of the faithful without any anesthesia are breathtaking. Scenes like that often made me squeeze my eyes without the courage to see.
Cutting the cheeks with a spear, applying needles on the back, sitting on chairs with blades, holding incandescent iron objects are just a few of the purification rituals, which are accompanied by hundreds of followers in front of the temples.
In terms of flagellation, Malaysia is considered a "light" country. While Malaysian Taoists use larger and more specific objects for flogging rituals in Thailand, followers do not seem to have many limits. Petrol pumps, machetes, and objects of all sizes and thickness cut through the skin and face of the faithful. The impalament is also something practiced.
The nine emperors
By watching mainly the flogging rituals, a question jumps to my mind: “But, why ?”. Yes, it is a purification ritual, it is not difficult to understand. But what is the reason for all this?
The explanation about the Festival and who are the Nine Emperors is a little confusing. I talked to some friends and checked out various websites on the internet to really understand the story. However, the information does not beat. From what I understand, however, the Nine Emperors are entities that arose in Southeast Asia at a time of many illnesses and hunger. These Emperors came across the sea to save the followers of Taoism, and it seems that (after all everyone lives there to this day!), Sickness and hunger were wiped out.
I was wondering if the Nine Emperors are some sort of saint for Taoism, but the answer is "no." They are even entities ... Anyway, I tried to search, to find out, but I found the information very limited. Getting to talk about religion when you are a foreigner is not always simple. You're welcome as a spectator, of course, but as curious ... well, you have limits.
Procession, faith and millennial traditions
After the rituals of flogging, the followers follow in a great procession, holding candles and incense. Besides some "floats" where the faithful who flaunt themselves go, there are some carts with candles that also go in the procession. Heavy altars and boats are carried on the shoulders of some men. These boats will be launched into the sea at the end of the procession.
In the streets, the residents greet the faithful with incense and a very special prayer. The Southeast Asian Chinese, when they pray and ask for protection, join the two palms together and shake them from side to side. In the streets, whenever the procession passes, it is common for the faithful to join hands and greeting them.
One of the most impressive scenes I saw was the little girl on her knees, greeting the faithful. This scene made me understand why on this side of the world traditions are so strong and survive.
In the procession, it is also common to see people in trance. Some spirits, like the spirit of the child and the devil, are incorporated by some faithful who walk among the other followers.
The Festival ends with a large fireworks display and follows with lots of food through the streets and temples.
Faith, belief, tradition, horror, breathtaking scenes ... The Festival of the Nine Emperors marked me a lot and I still can not find the words to describe everything. But it was one of the most impressive things I saw in my life. Human faith is this space filled with so many things. Even if it is not the same god, the same belief, the same creed, for me, faith in the world is something present and indescribably human and exciting.
(Penang, October, 2018)