6) Praying with Pain
March 29, 2013: I’ve photographed it many times, but this ritual has never failed to move me. There I was in the middle middle of a ricefield in the sweltering summer heat, watching as a fleet of faceless, shirtless men prepared to hurt themselves. This was Good Friday in Calumpit, Bulacan; a day when many residents of this town performed the age-old practice of self-flagellation.
Close to noon, the field became a sea of writhing bodies. Drops of blood filled the air, accompanied by the sickening crunch of wooden burillo whips hitting flesh. Some of the men lay on the ground and outstetched their arms to form bizarre human crosses. They, too, were whipped by fellow devotees. This army of penitents then marched off the paddies and into the main street. They headed to church - where God, grace and forgiveness awaited.
This event is truly spectacular, and the National Geographic’s photo-editors seem to agree – one of my penitensya photos made it to NatGeo’s Best of the Week.
5) The Nine Emperor Gods Festival
September 26, 2013: Taken from my article on CNN Travel:
“Come the ninth lunar month, while the rest of this island gets on with modern life, a little-known ritual unfolds in a corner of Singapore. The Nine Emperor Gods Festival may not be the biggest occasion in these parts, but it sure is met with almost fanatical devotion by members of the Jiu Wang Yeh Taoist sect. As its very name suggests, this pious party revolves around some heavyweight VIP's. The Nine Emperor Gods are said to be heavenly beings who possess great influence over earthly matters. History states the festival was long practiced in Southern China, before early Hokkien immigrants brought it over to colonial-era Singapore. “
“These days, little has changed in the way this event is observed. The center of the action is at the Kiu Ong Yiah Temple, along Upper Serangoon Road. Here amidst a carnival-like atmosphere of dragon dances and Chinese opera performances, devotees take turns carrying the “sedans” – shoulder-held shrines bearing an emperor god. The celebration reaches its peak on the ninth day of the ninth lunar month. Accompanied by cheering and furious drumbeats, the sedans are paraded around and swung vigorously to honor their godly occupants. This is revelry fit for nine kings, they say – with psychic rewards that are well worth the happy efforts.”
The 9EG is only one of the many unusual celebrations in multi-cultural Singapore. Check out other, similarly intense events here.