The full moon of Thai

25 01 2016

Yesterday, the day of the full moon of the Tamil month of Thai, saw the most lively and colourful of festivals, Thaipusam, being celebrated by the Hindu community. A very visible part of the festival is a procession of devotees carrying kavadis. In Singapore, the kavadis, some weighing as much as 40 kilogrammes, are carried along a route from the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple in Serangoon Road to the Chettairs’ or Sri Thendayuthapani Temple at Tank Road.

The annual procession remains as one of the most colourful religious and cultural celebrations in Singapore even without the chanting, singing, music and dancing, which would have flavoured it in its pre-1973 days. This year, a total ban on music was lifted, and this saw musical instruments allowed at designated points along the procession route. The festival is one of two occasions during which kavadis are carried, the other being the Panguni Uthiram festival celebrated during the full moon of the month of Panguni. 


Photographs from Thaipusam 2016

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More information on the festival from the Hindu Endowments Board’s website:

Thaipusam which falls in the Tamil month of Thai (usually January/ February) is an annual foot procession by Hindu devotees seeking blessings, fulfilling vows and offering thanks. Thaipusam is celebrated in honour of Lord Subrahmanya (also known as Lord Murugan) who represents virtue, youth and power to Hindus and is the destroyer of evil.

On the day before Thaipusam, a statue of Lord Subrahmanya decorated with jewels and finery and together with his two consorts, Valli and Devayani, is placed on a chariot and brought in procession. In Singapore, the chariot procession begins from the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple to Layan Sithi Vinayagar Temple at Keong Siak Road. The procession symbolizes the blessings sought by Lord Subrahmanya from his elder brother Lord Vinayagar.

Thaipusam ceremony starts in the early hours of the morning when the first batch of devotees of Lord Subrahmanya carrying milk pots and wooden kavadis leave Sri Srinvasa Perumal Temple for Sri Thendayuthapani Temple at Tank Road. The milk in the pots they carry are offered to the deity of Lord Subrahmanya at Sri Thendayuthapani Temple. Some devotees pierce their tongues with skewers and carry a garlanded wooden arch across their shoulders. Others devotees may carry a kavadi (semi circular metal structure decorated with peacock feathers, flowers and plam leaves). The spiked kavadis which require elaborate preparations leave the temple in the later part of the morning and continue till 6pm.

Carrying kavadi is a popular form of devotion for Hindus. It is usually carried in fulfillment of a vow that a devotee would have taken. Placing a kavadi at the end of the foot procession at the altar of Lord Subrahmanya and making an offering of milk symbolizes the cleansing of the mind and soul and seeking of blessings.

In preparation for carrying a kavadi, a devotee has to prepare himself spiritually. For a period of about a month, the devotee must live a life of abstinence whilst maintaining a strict vegetarian diet. It is believed that only when the mind is free of material wants and the body free from physical pleasures that a devotee can undertake the sacred task without feeling any pain.


More information on the kavadi, its origins and some of the various forms it takes from the Thaipusam.sg site:

There are many types of offerings, which the devotee makes to his beloved deity Sri Murugan. A special offering is the carrying of kavadi and there is a Puranic legend behind this practice.

There was once a great saint called Agasthya who rested at Mount Pothikai. Agasthya dispatched one of his students, Idumban, to Mount Kailai Range instructing him to bring back two hills called Sivagiri and Shakthigiri belonging to Lord Murugan.

As instructed, Idumban having arrived at Mount Kailai, picked up both the hills, tied them and swung them across his shoulders.

Lord Murugan had other plans. He wanted the two hills to be placed at Thiruvavinankudi (Palani) and at the same time test the devotion and tenacity of purpose of Idumban.

Idumban who was on his way back with the hills suddenly found himself lost. Lord Murugan appeared as a king, riding a horse led Idumban to Thiruvavinankudi (Palani) and requested Idumban to rest there so that he could continue his journey later.

Having rested, Idumban tried to carry the two hills but strangely found that he could not do so. A perplexed Idumban looked up and saw a child in loincloth standing atop one of the hills. Idumban requested the child to get down, however, the child refused claiming that the hills belonged to him. An angered Idumban attempted to attack the child but found himself falling like an uprooted tree. A scuffle ensued and Idumban was defeated. Only then did Idumban realize that the child was none other than Muruga or Subrahmanya Himself – the ruling deity of the region. Idumban craved the pardon of the divine child and also sought the boon that anyone who comes to the hills to worship Sri Muruga with an object similar to the two hillocks suspended by a load bearing pole, may be granted his heart’s desire. Idumban’s wish was granted. Murugan also said that he would bless those who bring sandal, milk, flowers, etc. in a kavadi to His shrine. Hence, the practice of carrying a kavadi.

At the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple, one can see a small sanctum dedicated to Idumban. Devotees who usually fast for Thaipusam break their fast one day later after offering their prayers to Idumban.

The simplest kavadi consists of a short wooden pole surmounted by a wooden arch. Pictures or statues of Lord Murugan or other deities are fixed onto the arch. The kavadi is decorated with peacock feathers and a small pot of milk is attached to each end of the pole.

There are more elaborate kavadis that devotees carry. The alagu and ratha kavadi are common forms of kavadi carried by devotees during Thaipusam. Kavadis are affixed on a bearer’s body by long sharpened rods or by chains and small hooks. A kavadi bearer not only carries a gift for God but the whole kavadi is seen as a shrine for God Himself.

Devotees who intend to carry kavadis are customarily required to observe strict physical and mental discipline. Purification of the body is a necessity. This includes taking just simple vegetarian meals and observing celibacy. According to orthodox doctrine, rigid fasting and abstinence have to be observed over a 48-day period prior to the offering of the kavadi on Thaipusam Day.

Piercing the skin, tongue or cheeks with vel skewers is also common. This prevents the devotees from speaking and gives them great powers of endurance.


Photographs from previous Thaipusam celebrations:






Colours of the harvest

15 01 2016

The Tamil month of Thai brings much celebration to Singapore where a large majority of its Indian population is of Tamil ancestry. One festival that brings colour to the streets of Little India is Pongal, the celebration of the winter harvest over four days. The streets are particularly lively in the lead-up to the festival as decorated clay pots, sweets, flower garlands and sugar-cane (which I am told signifies sweetness and longevity) fill up Campbell Street – where the annual Pongal bazaar is set up.

Sugarcane - signifying sweetness and longevity.

Sugarcane – signifying sweetness and longevity.

More on the festival can be found on my previous posts, as well as on Your Singapore. A description of the festival by Mr Manohar Pillai is also provided on a post on the Facebook Group “On a Little Street in Singapore“:

Pongal is the biggest and most important festival for the Tamilians, since ancient times and transcends all religious barriers since it signifies thanks giving to nature and domestic animals. Cattle, cows, goats, chickens are integral part of a farmer in India. It is celebrated for three days in Tamilnadu starting from 15th to 17th. Jan’, 2016. and strictly vegetarian food will be served only in all Hindu households. Thanks giving prayers will be offered to the Sun, Earth, Wind, Fire, Water and Ether, without these life cannot be sustained on Mother Earth. The celebrations comes on close to the harvest season which just ended and Jan,15, is the beginning of the new Tamil calendar.

Clay Pots are used to cook flavoured rice with traditional fire wood in the open air and facing the early morning Eastern Sun. The Sun’s early morning rays are supposedly to bring benevolence to the household. The cooked rice is distributed to all the members of the household and with it the festivities begins. Everyone wears new clothes and very old and useless clothes are burnt the previous night.

The next day the farmer turns his attention to the animals especially the Cattle and Cows.

The third day all people celebrate it with gaiety and grandly.

Decorated Clay Pots.

Decorated Clay Pots.

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Sweets for the sweet.

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A bazaar stall doing a roaring trade.

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A well stocked shop.

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A dairy cow.

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Campbell Lane dressed for Pongal.

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More sugarcane.

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Flower garlands on sale.

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The festive atmosphere also spill over to the nearby streets.





Monkeys, monkeys everywhere

14 01 2016

Monkeys, lots of them, promise to set Chinatown alight come Saturday. For 53 days, some 406 of them, in the form of lanterns, will add to the crowd of monkeys that is already very evident on the streets of Chinatown. The lanterns are part of a record setting display of 2688 lanterns that include ones depicting longevity in the form of peaches, prosperity in the abundance of gold zodiac coins and spring blossoms to celebrate the arrival of Spring and the lunar year of the Monkey. The lanterns on display, the centrepiece of which is a 12 metre tall peach tree, have all been hand-crafted and were designed in partnership with final-year students from the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD).

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Monkeys have already invaded Chinatown in anticipation of the arrival Chinese new year of the monkey.

Monkey lanterns - some 406 of them will add to the monkey madness.

Monkey lanterns – some 406 of them will add to the monkey madness.

The twelve-metre tall peach tree lantern.

The twelve-metre tall peach tree lantern.

Along with the light-up, there will also be much to look forward to during this year’s Chinatown Chinese New Year Celebrations. Organised by the Kreta Ayer – Kim Seng Citizens’ Consultative Committee, the lead up to the Chinese community’s main festival will see events involving the community, performances, a lion-dance competition and a festive bazaar and carnival. The lion dance competition (a ticketed event) features 14 teams from 8 countries will take place at Hong Lim Park on the weekend of 23-24 January.

There will be a lion dance competition to look forward to.

There will be a lion dance competition to look forward to.

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Along with performances that will feature both local and foreign performers.

Along with performances that will feature both local and foreign performers.

The Festive Street Bazaar, which runs from 15 January to 7 February, is always well worth a walk through. Lining Pagoda, Smith, Temple and Trengganu Streets – much as the street and festive markets of old Chinatown did, the bazaar adds much to the festive atmosphere. This bazaar will see some 440 stalls this year and on offer will be a range of festive goods such as decorative items and traditional delicacies and snacks.

The Festive Street Bazaar, where items such as traditional Chinese New Year snacks can be purchased, will feature 440 stalls.

The Festive Street Bazaar, where items such as traditional Chinese New Year snacks can be purchased, will feature 440 stalls.

Stalls already stocked to welcome the year of the Monkey.

Stalls already stocked to welcome the year of the Monkey.

More monkeys in evidence.

More monkeys in evidence.

Colour will also be added to Kreta Ayer Square. Nightly stage performances featuring festive songs, cultural music and dance will be held from 8 to 10.30 pm. Other modern interpretations of the celebration include a “Mother Tree” that will respond to postings on social media. Set up by students from the SUTD on the Garden Bridge, the pink tree reacts to every count of 18 posts on platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter that are hash-tagged #CNY2016SG, and give an 18 second show of lights. Another “tree”, the Wishing Tree at Chinatown Point, is where one’s wishes can be hung. Wishing cards are available at $2 each and proceeds will be donated to the Kreta Ayer Seniors ‘ Activity Centre.

The Mother Tree.

The Mother Tree.

There will also be an attempt to recall the traditions of our forefathers – in an exhibition, My Father Tongue. This would be held at the newly revamped Chinatown Heritage Centre from 28 January to 6 March 2016. The exhibition will look at the three main Chinese dialect influenced sub-cultures in Singapore and their festive practices. There would also be dialect workshops conducted during the period of the exhibition.

Dr Lily Neo, Grassroots Adviser and MP for Jalan Besar GRC, penning her wishes at the Wishing Tree.

Dr Lily Neo, Grassroots Adviser and MP for Jalan Besar GRC, penning her wishes at the Wishing Tree.

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The celebrations 2016 and the light-up will be  launched on 16 January 2016. The event will see a retelling of “Journey to the West” that will involve both local and foreign performers Fireworks and firecrackers are expected at both this an at the Chinese New Year Countdown Party on 7 February. More information on the events can be found at http://chinatownfestivals.sg/chinatown-chinese-new-year-celebrations-2016/.

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The final act

29 09 2015

Except perhaps for the haze and the heavy downpour, the scene at the Chee Chung Temple at MacPherson Road last evening would have been one typical of any of the temple’s festival evenings with a stage erected to provide entertainment for the evening’s heavenly guest. It was however the last time the evening’s performers, the Sin Sai Poh Hong (新赛宝丰) puppet troupe, will be seen on stage. One of only two Teochew rod puppet troupes in Singapore, the Sin Sai Poh Hong has now gone into retirement having played out their final act at last evening’s birthday celebrations for the Monkey King (or Monkey God).

A final peep into the Sin Sai Poh Hong's art.

A final peep into the Sin Sai Poh Hong’s art.

A ritual at the temple related to the Monkey King.

A ritual at the temple related to the Monkey King.

Acts such as these put on by street opera and puppet troupes, while intended for the deities, served also to provide entertainment for the masses. They were a means by which cultural and social values were transmitted from one generation to the next in the days of low literacy levels and before television invaded our living rooms.

Last words ....

Last words ….

Sentiments expressed by a puppet?

Sentiments expressed by a puppet?

Teochew rod puppetry, which has very elaborately made puppets skillfully manipulated by iron rods, are a more recent introduction (early 20th century) to the street theatre scene in Singapore. The tradition is however thought to go back several centuries in southern China. Sadly, it along with other genres of street theatre once common in Singapore, seem now to have little place in a Singapore that wants to know little of its past and it may only be a matter of time, before the last curtain falls on a form of entertainment that once brought entire communities out onto the streets.

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Behind the stage door

27 09 2015

The stage door or hu du men (虎度门) of a Chinese opera stage is what divides the real from the imaginary. It is the line across which the actor leaves his or her real self and becomes the stage character the audience sees. This was one of several interesting facts of what does go on behind the scenes on a Chinese opera, or wayang as we refer to it here in Singapore that I learnt on a back stage tour organised by the Esplanade that I attended last evening. The tour, which was hosted by media personality Nick Shen, is part of this year’s celebration of the Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋节), Moonfest, being held this weekend at the Esplanade.

What goes on behind the stage-door.

What goes on behind the stage-door.

The eleventh edition of the celebration at the Esplanade, sees the venue bringing back the street opera scene with a performances by a Hainanese, a Hokkien and a Teochew opera troupe on each of the three nights of Moonfest this weekend. Wayang in the various genres once commonly found in Singapore, would in the days before lives were complicated by modernity, attract the crowds. Often held to coincide with temple festivities, the wayangs would move from village to village and bring with them an entourage of food stalls with wayangs held either on stages erected for the period or on existing free standing stages. The stage in those days would not just be where the performances were held, but also would have been where life, for the actors and their families, would often be lived.

Nick Shen introducing the concept of the stage door or hu du men (虎度门).

Nick Shen introducing the concept of the stage door or hu du men (虎度门). Stepping beyond the stage door, the opera actor leaves his or her own personality behind becomes fully immersed in the character.

The troupe's deities are an essential part of wayang back stage area.

The troupe’s deities are an essential part of wayang back stage area.

The back stage area is abuzz with preparation activity before each performance.

The back stage area is abuzz with preparation activity before each performance.

The area back stage is always a fascinating place, not least because one is able to observe the lengthly preparations that take place before the actor is able to assume his or her role beyond the hu du men. Hearing about some of what goes on from Nick Shen, whose many talents include Chinese opera acting, made it all the more interesting. Besides introducing the concept of the hu du men and to stage superstitions such as that it was considered bad luck to kick one of the many chests (used to store make-up, props, etc. back stage,  Nick, also provided an insight into life back stage. This was just before last evening’s show by a one year old Hokkien opera troupe, Xiao Dong Tian (小洞天), so participants could also observe some of the preparations for the performance.

Backdrops are an important part of the Chinese opera stage.

Backdrops – an important part of the Chinese opera stage.

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The backdrops are changed by drawing them in a similar way to curtains.

The backdrops are changed by drawing them in a similar way to curtains.

Interestingly, the troupe is a phoenix that has risen out of the ashes of an old phoenix, having been formed by some members of a century old troupe, the Sin Sai Hong (新赛凤), which was disbanded just last year (see: Last rites for the Singaporean soul) – the Hong (凤) refers to a phoenix and it is encouraging to know that the tradition is not completely being lost to the new world as well as that it there are perhaps a few from the younger generation interested in taking up the art.

The headdress for the character of a scholar.

The headdress for the character of a scholar.

Nick Shen doing a demonstration of an actor's beard is sometimes moved on stage.

Nick Shen doing a demonstration of an actor’s beard is sometimes moved on stage.

An female performer wearing a beard. While in the past only men could perform in an opera, there are more female performers these days and they would often be cast in male roles.

An female performer wearing a beard. While in the past only men could perform in an opera, there are more female performers these days and they would often be cast in male roles.

Performers now help each other with preparations. The blue make-up around the eyes is characteristic of Hokkien opera.

Performers now help each other with preparations. The blue make-up around the eyes is characteristic of Hokkien opera.

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Traditional musical instruments.

Traditional musical instruments.





The season for wayang

9 09 2015

Public entertainment during the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar, while intended for the special visitors of the netherworld, would once have attracted a large audience across Singapore. The crowds at such events, typically a getai in more modern times, or a Chinese opera or puppet performance in the past, have dwindled over the years. Perhaps this is more the case this year with the political hustings coinciding with the celebration of the hungry ghosts festival. It still is nice to come across them as they make not just for a colourful spectacle, but also because they tell us that the traditions of our forefathers, though modified, are very much still alive.

A 7th month Hokkien Opera performance at the Balestier Road Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong Temple's free-standing stage - one of the last such stages left in Singapore.

A 7th month Hokkien Opera performance at the Balestier Road Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong Temple’s free-standing stage – one of the last such stages left in Singapore.

A getai performance at Woodlands.

A getai performance at Woodlands.

Front row seats at such events are reserved for the guests from the netherworld.

Front row seats at such events are reserved for the guests from the netherworld.

The crowd at the getai performance.

The crowd at the getai performance.

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Another getai held in Sembawang,

Another getai held in Sembawang.

Which attracted a different kind of special guest.

Which attracted a different kind of special guest.

A performer at  the Sembawang getai.

A performer at the Sembawang getai.

And another.

And another.





The last puppet show

25 07 2015

The distractions of the modern world have seen us lose many of the traditions that once coloured the streets of Singapore. One that struggles to survive is Chinese puppet theatre in its various genres, kept alive only by the passion of those still involved with it.

Words that may no longer be sung.

Words that may no longer be spoken.

Controlling the Teochew Rod Puppet.

Controlling the Teochew Rod Puppet.

Sadly, we would soon see one of Singapore’s two Teochew rod puppet troupes, Sin Sai Poh Hong (新赛宝丰), exit the scene. Faced with dwindling interest, a lack of willing successors and the pressures of the modern world, the members of the troupes will play out their final act in the month after Singapore celebrates its half century embrace of modernity.

Fading with time ...

Fading with time …

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A more recent addition to the street theatre scene – Teochew rod puppetry arrived Singapore in the early part of the 20th century, the form of puppetry does have a long tradition in the land of the Teochew community’s forefathers, serving as a vehicle for the transmission of values from one generation to the next.

Part of the preparations for the performance include getting the puppets ready.

Part of the preparations for the performance include getting the puppets ready.

Strange bedfellows.

Strange bedfellows.

At its height in Singapore, its performances would have attracted many off the streets, although intended primarily as entertainment to the deities. Troupes such as Sin Sai Poh Hong were kept busy through the year and would on the average, be engaged ten days in a month, providing sufficient income for the troupe to be run on a full-time basis. However, pressures of the modern world in which tradition is less valued coupled with the enforced shift away from the use of the vernacular,has seen interest fall in traditional puppetry.

Music accompanies the performance.

Music accompanies the performance.

The photographs accompanying this post, as well as the badly taken and edited video found at the end of this post, were of the troupe recent performance at the Chee Chung Temple at MacPherson Road. The temple, where the troupe regularly performs, was commemorating the birthday of its main deity, Huang Lao Xian Shi (黄老仙师). The next performance, the troupe’s last, will be held at the same venue on the evening of the 28 September 2015 (amended from previously reported date of 24 August 2015), the sixteenth day of the eight month of the Chinese lunar calendar (Birthday of the Monkey King). More information on this, and further updates, can be found at this Facebook post (please click).

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The Chee Chung Temple.

The Chee Chung Temple.

Part of the festival rituals at the temple.

Part of the festival rituals at the temple.



Other forms of puppetry once commonly seen in Singapore:








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