Sunday, February 26, 2012

Temple Lights at Night are Big and Bright

This doesn't even begin to capture the scope of this place.

Kek Lok Si (Temple of Supreme Bliss) is the largest Buddhist temple in Southeast Asia and one of the major sightseeing spots in Penang. Chinese New Year is an especially good time to visit it because it is lit up by thousands of lanterns at night. Imagine the biggest Christmas light display in your town. Now, imagine that it's the only light display in town. That's how magnificent the site is perched on a hill above the city.

I had heard that Kek Lok Si is extremely crowded this time of year with some people waiting in a traffic jam for hours to get in. So, I somewhat justified my lack of planning and total disregard for children's bedtimes when we drove right up at 9:45 p.m. and immediately found a parking spot. The boys were reluctant participants (to put it mildly) but my little girl thought the lights were beautiful.

Prayer lamps hung in remembrance of those who have passed on.

This temple complex is huge. There are several large halls, prayer rooms and courtyards with a dizzying array of Buddhas, Chinese gods and Bodhisattvas. Steps lead us up higher and higher through the terraced levels.


I even learned something when I went home and Googled the swastikas that were painted on the ends of support beams for one hall. The swastika symbol represents eternity and has been used by Buddhists since centuries before Jesus walked the Earth. In East Asia, counterclockwise swastikas often mark the location of Buddhist temples on maps. At least, that's what the collective minds at Wikipedia tell me.

At one point, I reached a man semi-guarding a partially closed door. "Can lah?" I asked which is perfectly acceptable Manglish (a mix of English and Malay languages) to find out if we could go through. He shook his head no but proceeded to permit pushier people to enter. So, I just barged ahead through the door, too.

These joss sticks filled the air with incense.

We made our way up into a hall filled with joss sticks and pineapple-shaped jars holding oil candles.  The kids were particularly attracted to the wishing tree. For a small donation, you could select a ribbon pre-printed with a wish. Each of the kids selected one to hang on the tree. My sweet, little girl picked out "World Peace." My younger boy picked out "Everything as You Wish."

Well, he must have some mighty strong wishing power because the lights in the temple started going off. At first, I thought it was some fluke since there were still plenty of tourists around and that they'd turn them on again. Or maybe they'd flash them on and off a few times to let us know it was time to leave. Nope, they were being turned off for good. My boy who had been asking "When are we leaving?" ever since we arrived 15 minutes earlier was getting his wish. Perhaps I should have listend to that guard.

We started making our way down through the many terraces and stairs. At first, the remaining lanterns lit our way, but after a while, even those were off. Luckily, some well-prepared tourist had brought along a strong flashlight and was kind enough to shine it on the stone steps for everyone.

On the drive home, we listened to Whitney Houston singing "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" on the radio, not realizing that she'd be gone the next day.

I tucked in the kids hours past bedtime and asked my oldest if there was any teeny-tiny redeeming part about our excursion. He thought about it for a second then replied, "Well, if my wish for 'Success in Everything' comes true, I guess it was okay."

May all your wishes come true, too.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Now that's a lot of Body Piercing! Thaipusam in Penang

That is not a shirt. It's multiple body piercings.

Warning: This post is not for the faint of heart. But if you've already looked at the first photo, you might as well proceed.

Back in Austin, I knew quite a few people with body piercings where I used to work. On the tamer end of the scale was anyone with multiple ear piercings or belly button rings. The lovely receptionist had a few rings going through her eyebrow with a thin chain connecting them to the piercings on her earlobes. During meetings, I could sometimes hear the clack-clack-clack noise of another coworker running the tiny barbell in her tongue back and forth across her teeth. One man had pierced his belly button, nipples and nether regions (although no one independently confirmed the last one). Are you thinking that I worked at some club or bar? Nope! It was a biotech company.

Anyways, these people had absolutely nothing on the rows and rows of body piercing I saw at Penang's Thaipusam festivities. It was quite a sight. In the picture above, all those silver urns covering the man's torso and arms have been hooked directly into his skin. Dozens more hooks covered his back. The man would occasionally stop and lean forward, pulling the ropes taut to add more discomfort (to put it mildly). From the front, I could see he had at least eight sets of chains and hooks draped across his face.

Thaipusam is one of Penang's biggest Hindu celebrations and also a public holiday. This being the multi-ethnic country of Malaysia, it overlapped with the the last day of Chinese New Year as well as the Islamic observation of Prophet Muhammad's birthday. Thaipusum marks the triumph of good over evil when Lord Murugan received a spear and defeated an evil demon.  I first heard of it when I was researching our trip to Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur which has an even bigger crowd for the occasion.

The festival starts in Little India with a beautiful, silver chariot carrying a statue of Lord Murugan along an all-day, 10-kilometer pilgrimage to the Nattukkottai Chettiar Temple on Waterfall Road. To symbolically cleanse the chariot's path, devotees walk ahead of it smashing coconuts on the road. I didn't go to this part of the celebration, but a friend who witnessed it tells me that a mini bulldozer followed the chariot, pushing the shells aside to literally clean up after the symbolic cleansing. Apparently, coconut smashing can only occur during approved times.

Hubby and I joined in on the activity closer to the temple. As we approached, I could hear the loud music and rhythmic drumming. The scent of incense and savory spices from the snack stalls mingled in the air. It was definitely a festival atmosphere — lots of people and food, souvenirs for sale, and Angry Bird balloons. Those birds are popping up everywhere.

Numerous companies and families set up booths along Waterfall Road to offer drinks and nourishment to the devotees. HEB was a major sponsor. No, not the Texas grocery store chain. I'm referring to the Hindu Endowment Board.

Intel's Thaipusam booth.
I bet they don't have this at their Santa Clara, California headquarters.

Forget your offering of milk and sweets? No worries. Pick some up here.

Beautiful sidewalk chalk drawings lined the road, too.

All along the road, devotees of Lord Murugan carried kavadis, or physical burdens, to offer up to him as penance, thanksgiving, or in supplication. The simplest kavadis are urns of milk carried upon the head. Others kavadis are tall portable altars decorated with peacock feathers. They are balanced upon a man's shoulders and hips and then connected to him with hooks piercing his skin.

Woman with milk urn on her head in front and a two giant kavadis behind her.

 I wanna see your jaw dropping, eye popping, head turning, body shocking peacock kavadi.

The biggest burden is the multiple body piercings. Sometimes a spear representing Lord Murugan's weapon threads its way in one cheek, through the tongue, and out the other cheek. The piercings are done in front of a public crowd in Little India before the pilgrimage begins and removed after the offering is made at the temple.

I am truly amazed by how devoted these people are. It makes my promise to give up chocolate for Lent kind of lame in comparison. But hey, that's just how I roll.

Related Posts:
Kuala Lumpur: Temples and Caves

This post is part of Photo World Mondays on Travel Photo Discovery. Check it out for more visual delights.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Mystery Fruit #2: Elixir of Immortality

The weekend before Chinese New Year started, I was at my local market's fruit stall. Nestled among the apples and pears was something that caught my eye. A curvaceous piece of fruit with a pretty red bow just begged for me to pick it up. So I did and asked the fruit man what it was. He placed his palms together, fingers pointing up, and replied, "For praying."

Hmmm, that's interesting. For praying. I don't normally pray to fruit, but I bought it anyways so that I could look at it some more, maybe even put it on my table as a decoration. As he took my money, the man repeated, "For praying," about three more times just to make sure he got his point across.

I couldn't figure out what kind of fruit it was. Because I found it amongst the apples and pears, I thought maybe it was some sort of pear which had been manipulated while growing so it had a cinched middle. I searched the term "water drough" which the man had scribbled down for me and came up with nothing. One day, it suddenly hit me. It's a gourd! I don't know what took me so long.

In Penang, the bottle gourd or Hor Lor Pu is a symbol of prosperity, longetivity and good luck during the Chinese New Year. The gold characters on one sticker say "Wish You Good Fortune", the traditional greeting for New Year. The other sticker reads "Everything As You Wish". At least, that's what my dad deciphered when I held up the gourd during our Skype session.

Hor Lor Pu is supposed to hold the magic elixir of immortality consumed by Buddhist deities. Sounds like something Voldemort would want to get his evil hands on, doesn't it? Displaying it in your home is supposed to ward off harmful energies and promote long life.

Too bad it started rotting.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Chinese New Year Festivities

Fancy Chinese New Year lanterns at the upscale mall

Believe or not, Austin, Texas does not have a very big Chinese New Year celebration. (In your head, I should sound slightly sarcastic.) Each year, I'd scope out the events at the Austin Chinatown Center shopping mall in hopes that the kids and I could catch a Dragon or Lion Dance. But something like a basketball game or birthday party always came up during the few hours that the celebration lasted.

Chinese New Year festivities were something that I really looked forward to when we moved to Malaysia. Penang is about 40% Chinese, so I figured something must happen. Boy, does it.

For the first two days, many stores and restaurants are closed so people can be with their families. The malls stay open and decorate everything in red and gold. Lanterns are strung up crossing over streets.

The fireworks go on night after night. The first time we heard the loud pops, we all rushed to the windows to take a look. Since we're high up, all the displays were below us. Looking out over the hills of Penang, we could pick out many different spots that were shooting them off. The fireworks were still worthy of our attention for the next few nights. After a while, we wouldn't even bother to look out anymore. On the ninth day, offerings are made to the Jade Emperor of Heaven. The fireworks that night were INSANE and more numerous than New Year's Eve. They started just before midnight and went on for 3 hours. We wanted to yell, "Enough already!! Just let us sleep!"

Who needs sleep? The Jade Emperor of Heaven must be appeased.

Dragon Dances pop up everywhere. Instead of a singing telegram of good wishes, people get a bunch of young men hopping around with a huge dragon draped over them. One afternoon, I heard incessant drumming and looked out the window to figure out its source. A dragon danced out of a nearby house, did their performance, then dashed away. I've seen them outside a doctor's office on a very congested street. At least I had something to look at while stuck in traffic. I even saw a dragon dance performed for the security office of an underground parking lot. Let me tell you, those big drums really reverberate in that kind of concrete area.

This dragon was little different because it was a giant multiperson puppet on poles.
Usually, the dragon is draped over the people, and just their legs stick out.

There was a huge Chinese Heritage Festival in the historic area last weekend in conjunction with the New Year Celebrations. I think my boys' favorite part was playing Wei Qi (Chinese Chess).

Fifteen days after they started, the festivities will come to an end in Malaysia with Chap Go Meh, nicknamed Chinese Valentine's Day. Unmarried ladies scribble their name and email address or telephone number on oranges and hurl them into the ocean. Eligible bachelors fish out the oranges and make contact. Doesn't that sound like a great set up for a reality TV show? I really think someone needs to pitch it to Hollywood.

The last night also marks the Lantern Festival.

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