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Fascinating Festivals


Thaipusam (27 January, 2013)

Thaipusam commemorates the birthday of Lord Murugan and his destruction of the evil demon, Soorapadman. Every year, thousands of visitors and devotees throng the island to witness this spectacle of epic proportions. In a show of faith and devotion, Hindus (including quite a few foreigners) in a trance carry magnificent kavadis that are pierced into their bodies or pots of milk as offerings to Lord Murugan.

The three-day event includes a silver chariot procession where the statue of Lord Murugan makes its way from a temple in the George Town heritage enclave to a hilltop temple in Waterfall Road. As the chariot passes the streets, devotees smash coconuts as offerings and to give thanks to the deity.

Along Waterfall Road, stalls selling everything from souvenirs and prayer paraphernalia to Indian sweet meats, drinks and snacks line the street. This Hindu festival comes alive in a carnival-like atmosphere with chanting and music – an experience like no other!



Chinese New Year (10 & 11 February, 2013)

Chinese New Year is celebrated for 15 days to usher in the lunar new year. It is a time to get together, seek forgiveness from each other and pray for a prosperous year ahead. Family reunion dinners, lion dances, firecrackers and open houses are part of the tradition. The two main events that form the celebration are Th'nee Kong Seh (9th day) and Chap Goh Meh (15th and final day).

According to Song Dynasty legend, Th'nee Kong Seh (Jade Emperor's Birthday) is observed by the Hokkien community to honour the Jade Emperor who rules the heavens. The Hokkiens were viewed as a threat to the unity of Imperial China. The Emperor ordered their annihilation and out of fear and desperation, the Hokkiens hid in the sugarcane fields, imploring for divine intervention. As fate would have it, lethargy set in and the Imperial troops gave up their search on the Jade Emperor's birthday. In gratitude, the Hokkiens made sugarcane offerings to the Jade Emperor.

Chap Goh Meh (Chinese Valentine's Day) is a time for young maidens (and their chaperones!) to ride along the scenic Esplanade in trishaws, seeking out their soul mate. The women would throw oranges into the sea while wishing for a good husband. If she happens to catch the eye of an eligible bachelor, his family would then approach hers to “negotiate” a possible union.



Qing Ming (4 April, 2013)

The Qing Ming or Pure Brightness Festival, is also known as the Tombs Sweeping Festival. Traditionally, the Chinese can start worshipping their dead ancestors 10 days before and after this date because this it is believed to be the “grace period” for the souls of the departed to leave the underworld and enter this worldly realm to accept offerings from their living relatives.

Far from being a morbid affair, graveyards are akin to picnic sites as relatives from far and wide gather to make offerings of joss sticks, Hell money, luxurious worldly goods (they are made of paper, though) and food for the deceased.

Visitors may find it interesting to see pop by shops selling these items because there are the latest sports cars, lingerie, the latest mobile phones, mansions and anything you can think of, really! These are later burnt or “sent” to the deceased in the underworld.



Hungry Ghost Festival (21 August, 2013 - 4 September 2013)

The 7th month of the Chinese lunar calendar is a time when the gates of Hell are opened and spirits roam the earth freely. During this month, Chinese Taoists and Buddhists make nightly offerings of food along the roads for wandering spirits while temples organise free stage performances to appease and entertain the souls. These include modern ko tai (singing and dancing) performances as well as traditional opera and puppet shows. Everyone is invited but please refrain from sitting on the bright red benches (usually placed right in front of the stage) as these are purposely left empty for the “special guests”!

It is taboo to get married or to move into a new place during this month-long festival. At common community areas like the market, altars with scary-looking effigies of the Phor Tor Kong or King of Hades (he keeps the spirits from creating mischief among the living) are put up. Food offerings are then placed on the altar for the underworld deity. Bukit Mertajam (mainland Penang) boasts of having the largest King of Hades effigy in the whole country!

On the 30 th day of the festival, the spirits return to Hell at the stroke of midnight. Giant paper effigies of the King of Hades and Hell money are burnt for the spirits to take “home”.



Mooncake Festival (19 September 2013)

Also known as the Lantern Festival or Mid-autumn Festival, the Mooncake Festival marks a Chinese uprising against the Mongol Yuan Dynasty in the 14 th century. Secret messages hidden in mooncakes (apparently the Mongols were not fond of the sweet delicacy!) were circulated by the rebels who escaped detection and managed to overthrow the Mongols, leading to the establishment of the Ming Dynasty.

In Penang , children carry beautiful paper and plastic lanterns around the neighbourhood to celebrate the historic chapter. The moon is always full and glowing during the Mooncake Festival.

If you are in town during this festival, remember to try some of the mooncakes on sale – from the traditional red bean paste filling to the modern cheese and chocolate variaties, it is a not-to-be-missed treat!



Nine Emperor Gods Festival (5 -13 October, 2013)

The Taoist Nine Emperor Gods Festival or Kow Ong Yah, falls on the 9th day of the 9th moon in the Chinese lunar calendar. The festival is always a wet affair but don't let that be a reason for you to stay away!

It is a major celebration in Penang with devotees observing a strict nine-day vegetarian diet to purify themselves and to fulfill their vows to the Nine Emperors of Mankind (the Emperors are the sons of Thien Hou, the Queen Mother of Heaven).

Vegetarian food stalls with yellow banners line the streets, serving up a creative list of meatless dishes. Some of the stalls are open 24 hours and are a tourist attraction in itself.

The main highlight of the festival are the mediums who go into a deep trance and perform unbelievable feats. These include the mind-boggling act of immersing themselves in hot oil, piercing themselves with sharp, long spears and walking through fire unscathed!

Popular temples for the Nine Emperor devotees are located in Gat Lebuh Macallum (on the island) and Jalan Raja Uda, Butterworth (on the mainland).

Like other Chinese festivals, float processions are a norm. On the last day, a procession starting from the temple grounds to the nearby shore will be held to “send” the deities back to heaven in a boat decorated with gold paper. Amidst the sound of clashing cymbals and thumping drums, the boat is set ablaze as devotees watch it drift into the night.

It is interesting to note that the Hindu festival Navaratri (which celebrates the nine forms of Shakti and female divinity over nine days) also overlaps with this festival.




Hari Raya Aidilfitri (8 & 9 August, 2013)

Hari Raya marks the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. The month-long celebration sees families visiting the graves of their loved ones, seeking forgiveness from their each other and inviting friends and relatives over for a feast of traditional Malay delicacies like ketupat, lemang and rendang .




Deepavali (2 November, 2013)

Generally, Deepavali or the Festival of Light, signifies the triumph of good over evil. Some believe it symbolises Lord Krishna's victory over a demon while others celebrate it to mark Lord Rama's joyful reunion with his wife Sita after 14 years in exile.

Coloured rice is used to make decorative motives on the floor. These interesting works of art are called kolam. Oil lamps are also lit as Hindus open their homes to friends and relatives.




Chingay Procession

Chingay began in Penang in the late 18 th century as a Chinese street procession with floats and street performers to honour the deities and welcome in Spring. Today, Chingay is largely associated with a procession of giant flags measuring up to 15 metres tall, skillfully balanced on the foreheads and shoulders of Chingay exponents – an eye-popping feat, we assure you!




Dragon Boat Festival

Legend has it that Qu Yuan, a famous Chinese patriot poet of the Warring States period (475-221 BC) committed suicide by jumping into a river to protest against the corruption of the era. The commoners rushed to their boats, beating drums and splashing water with their paddles to keep the fish and evil spirits away from his body. To commemorate his death, dragon boat races are held annually. Today, these races are recognised as an international sport.


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