By Pattarawadee Saengmanee
The Nation Weekend
WITH THE Chinese New Year celebrations done and dusted for another year, the people of Pattani turned their attention last weekend to the southern city’s annual festival honouring the highly revered goddess Lim Ko Niao.
Young pilgrims show their spirit in the sacred fire walking ceremony.
The festival, which started last Saturday and drew to a close yesterday, saw the Chinese descendants of the town turn the sacred Leng Chu Kiang grounds and Chinatown on Anuro Road into a lively entertainment venue. Thousands of local residents as well as tourists both Thai and from neighbouring Malaysia answered present for the festival, the highlights of which include a sedan-chair procession, the carrying of ancient deities to the river for bathing and walking through fire. On the sidelines, an outdoor theatre offers an interesting programme of cultural shows like Chinese opera, the southern shadow play and a Nora dance to pay homage to the deities while the walking street bustles with vendors selling local delicacies and souvenirs.
“This celebration reflects our identity and the diversity of our history and religious beliefs. Pattani has long been a multicultural community, where Thai Buddhists, Chinese and Muslims have learnt to live together in harmony. The economy is still driven by tourism and this festival is telling the outside world that Pattani is alive and well and different from what is seen on the news,” says assistant professor Noppadol Tippyarat, dean of the faculty of fine and applied arts at Prince of Songkhla University.
The pilgrims continue the procession by swimming across the Pattani River.
Legend has it that Lim Ko Niao crossed the South China Sea from China to Pattani to bring her brother back home to be with their dying mother. The young man, Lim To Kiam, declined her request, preferring to stay in Pattani because he had married a daughter of Phraya Tani and converted to Islam. Lim Ko Niao was frustrated by her brother’s refusal and ended up hanging herself from a cashew nut tree. The villagers later carved a wooden statue and built a shrine next to Masjid Kerisik to remember her life.
In 1879, Luang Cheen Kananurak refurbished the Leng Chu Kiang Shrine and moved Chao Mae Lim Ko Niao to her new home. The shrine was originally built to honour the goddess medical doctor known as Zhou Shi Gong.
On the 14th day of the first month according to the Chinese calendar, the divine rituals begin with the goddess Lim Ko Niao procession. Only men are allowed to carry the red wood palanquin enshrined with an original figure of the goddess and her presence is supposed to bring residents fortune and prosperity.
The highlight is a grand procession of Chinese deities on the full moon of the first month, 15 days after the Chinese New Year. At midnight, Chinese men, young and old, gather at the Leng Chu Kiang Shrine and perform a ceremony to ask the goddess when they can start and how to arrange the line.
On 14th day of the first month, the more than 400-year-old statue of the goddess Lim Ko Niao is brought out from the Leng Chu Kiang Shrine and carried around the town.
Featuring 18 statues of deities in the Leng Chu Kiang Shrine, plus seven others from local residences in the neighbourhood, this year’s procession began at 4.15am and was led by four original and imitation statues of the goddess Medical Doctor and goddess Lim Ko Niao, followed by goddess Tubtim, goddess Tiger, goddess Guan Yin, goddess Guan Yu and the fortune goddess.
“There’s no evidence that allows us to trace the beginning of this celebration. We don’t know when it started or who initiated it, but it has become a beautiful tradition handed down from generation to generation,” says 74-year-old Sathorn Kanjanasim, who serves as a committee member of Leng Chu Kiang Shrine.
“Pattani pioneered the tradition of the holy deity procession and this is now held in both Yala and Narathiwat. The difference here is that we don’t allow a medium to join the ceremony.”
After roaming around the town, the procession reached the Dechanuchit Bridge and the young men showed their respect for the goddesses by carrying all 25 statues across the Pattani River. It was deep and not easy to swim while carrying a statue but the men were cheered on in their task by Muslim villagers standing alongside Thai and Chinese pilgrims.
Late in the afternoon, the visitors moved to the ceremonial ground in front of the Shrine to find the best spot to watch the breathtaking fire walking ceremony. My friend and I climbed up to the roof deck, hoping our vantage point would allow us to capture stunning photos.
Local residents set up an altar table to welcome the deity procession, while a million firecrackers are burnt to celebrate.
“We believe that the water brings out the inauspicious elements from the statues when they are soaked in the river and that the fire walking ceremony burns wickedness,” Sathorn explains.
“I’ve been part of the deity procession for 40 years. We need to observe religious precepts for three to nine days before performing a fire walking ceremony to purify our minds.”
Surrounded by red fencing and off limits to women, the fire path is set up with charcoal, rice, coconut leaf stalks, salt and paper talismans. The deity procession continued to the entrance of the ceremonial ground where the hundreds of barefoot men were blessed with holy water before stepping into the fire.
Teerasak Kwansurat decided to take part in the fire walking ceremony when he was 19 at a friend’s invitation.
“I was born in Pattani and I first served as a volunteer for the Leng Chu Kiang Shrine. The fire walking ceremony is a way for a man to prove his maturity,” Teerasak, 32 says.
“After I saw other people walking on fire, I found myself wondering how hot it really was. I decided to find out for myself and prayed to Chao Mae Lim Ko Niao. If I came out of it safely, I would swear off beef for a life. And from the first steps, I never felt the heat of the fire. The streets are hotter. I stay focused on every step and I observe the religious precepts for three to nine days before the ceremony. It’s an individual belief.”
Carriers of the status meet to walk round the ceremonial ground three times while in a meditative state.
My media friend Chainarong Kitinartintranee also joined the ceremony though he didn’t fare quite so well: he ended up with a burn on his foot.
“Not everyone that can participate in this auspicious ceremony, so I was quick to accept Teerasak’s invitation. I didn’t feel the fire was hot. But I walked on the black charcoal and that’s when I got burnt,” he says.
“At first, I found the palanquin was heavy but the atmosphere gave me power and strength. The senior members encouraged us and urged us to keep focused and everything went smoothly.”
The ceremony wrapped just before 6 when the procession entered the shrine. The statues were dressed in new costumes and jewellery, while the pilgrims offered fruits and joss paper to ask for fortune, success and good health in the Year of the Pig.
>> The Leng Chu Kiang Shrine is located at 63, Anoru Road, Pattani.
>> Find out more details at www.Facebook.com/LimKoNeaw.pn.