TANJUNG BUNGAH: Today marks the first day of the Hindu festival Navaratri. For nine days, devotees will fast, practise abstinence, and dedicate their prayers to the goddess Durga.
During this time Taoists, too, are partaking in a celebration – the Nine Emperor Gods festival, held for the same number of days, from the first to the ninth day of the ninth month of the lunar calendar.
The celebrations, in pre-pandemic days, feature a party-like atmosphere and often include miraculous feats by mediums piercing metal skewers through their cheeks to demonstrate devotion, and worshippers running across blazing flames and coals to bring good health and dispel bad luck.
Devotees at the Tow Boo Kong Temple in Penang began their celebrations yesterday.
To commemorate these sacred occasions, FMT speaks with devotees from these two religions to learn more about the practices and significance of each.
In Taoism, it is believed the nine emperor gods are the sons of Dou Mou, goddess of the North Star and yielder of the Registrar of Life and Death. They oversee the movement of planets and issues in the realm of life and death.
On the first day of the festival, white-clothed devotees head to the sea or river closest to their temple with sedan chairs and a sacred urn to invite the deities to join their celebration.
Tow Boo Kong Temple committee chairman Khor Wan Tatt tells FMT he isn’t allowed to disclose any information on the urn as most temples keep it a secret.
But a paper by Asian folklore researcher Ruth-Inge Heinze says the urn is brought to the water to welcome the spirits of the gods, and once the sacred ashes inside burn and catch aflame, it’s a sign the gods have descended.
In Sanskrit, “nava” means “nine” and “ratri” means “night”. Hence, Navaratri, or Navratri, literally translates to “nine nights”.
Each day is dedicated to the nine different forms of the goddess Durga, who is honoured for defeating the demon Mahishasura in battle, according to Seetha Lakshimi of the Temple of Fine Arts.
Navaratri consists of a 10-day pooja, or ceremonial worship, to celebrate the triumph of good over evil.
The festival is also devoted to two other goddesses: while the first three days are dedicated to the goddess Durga, “the next three are for Goddess Mahalakshmi, and the last three for Goddess Saraswathi”, Seetha says.
Prayers are done every day with bhajan (religious music) and the distribution of prasad (blessed food). Women and children are invited to devotees’ homes and offered gifts such as sweets, bangles, betel leaves, whole turmeric and coins.
Diet and devotion
As with many other religions, fasting is believed to purify one’s body to achieve higher levels of spirituality. During this time, some devotees commit themselves to a full day of fasting, while others eat regular, albeit lighter, meals.
Both Hindus and Taoists follow a strict vegetarian diet during their respective celebrations and eschew strong-flavoured foods such as alcohol, onions and garlic.
Wholewheat flours are avoided, and gluten-free options such as buckwheat flour and flatbreads are the food of choice during Navaratri. Some devotees only subsist on fruit and milk once a day, according to Seetha.
Taoists, on the other hand, resume eating meat only at the end of the ninth day to signify the conclusion of the Nine Emperor Gods festival.
Fire and light
On the eve of the ninth month of the lunar calendar, six enormous bamboo poles are erected in the centre of the temple grounds before the festivities begin.
The sixth pole raises a special nine-wicked oil lamp called “jiuqu deng” to the sky, in hope the deities will see its flame and be guided to the temple grounds.
On the last day of the festival, devotees return in a great procession to the body of water with the sedan chairs to send the emperor gods off.
There, a paper dragon boat will be set aflame and pushed out into the waters to symbolise the sending away of bad luck and to bid the gods farewell.
Once the nine emperors have been sent off, the lamp is brought down to mark the end of the festival.
During Navaratri, fire is just as important: instead of raising a lamp to the heavens, a pot symbolising the universe is lit and kept aflame.
This pot is placed in a sacred location so the flame can burn brightly while celebrations are underway.
The festival concludes with a small procession and a “love offering” by devotees to the goddesses in the form of celebratory dances and music.
Celebrated across Asia
Both festivals are celebrated by devotees across the region. Apart from Malaysia, the Nine Emperor Gods festival is widely celebrated in Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand, where it is also known as the Phuket Vegetarian Festival and is conducted on an immense scale.
Navaratri is, of course, observed throughout India, though different locations have different ways of celebrating.
If you’re looking for a party, make sure to head west to Gujarat, where spinning garba dancers and rainbows of traditional costume will fill you with wonder.
In the south, neighbours and friends are invited to watch a story unfold alongside an exhibition of wooden dolls and idols, while devotees in the north exchange gifts, boxes of traditional sweets and new clothes.
“Durga Puja” is celebrated in the east, and if you join the worship you’re given a prasad called “bhog” – consisting of Bengali flatbreads, chutneys and vegetarian dishes – for free.
And similar to the Nine Gods Emperor Festival, devotees in the east commemorate the end of Navaratri by a body of water and with a great procession, where clay statues are carried to a nearby river or ocean to send off the revered goddesses.