Ancient Gods, Rituals and Spirit-Mediumship - Part 2

Tanki: Divining Youth

Among some of these seemingly ordinary working class men or women, manifestations of their gods and deities appear from time to time, and turn a few into their chosen messengers.  These people are known as mediums, more commonly known among the Hokkien people as tanki (jitong in Mandarin Chinese).  The tanki is an ordinary person like you and me.  Being a tanki may or may not be a full-time profession.  Indeed many tankis hold an ordinary day job like we do, and perform their sacred duties in the evenings, over the weekends, on festive occasions or whenever the gods summon them. 

Every tanki, literally meaning “divining youth”, has his story of how the duty came to him.  Some have received messages from the gods in their dreams after suffering from a major illness or accident.  Others were suddenly possessed by a supernatural being one day, spoke in strange tongues they weren’t known to be able to speak and then convinced the people surrounding them that the gods have possessed them.  


Medium in trance - manifestation of the Monkey God


Medium representing Lian Hua San Tai Zhi


The Medium in trance


Medium representing Er Bo Yeh praying to the Jade Emperor's altar 

Most tend to describe the experience as something he hadn’t chosen – in fact many say that they have tried to “escape” from this onerous calling but fate nevertheless got hold of them and convinced them that they were the one chosen by the gods as an intermediary between the gods and their followers on Earth.  However, there are some anthropologists argue that mediumship often bestow the individual with enormous, often unquestioned authority over the worshippers, not to mention benefits from donations and material offerings from the followers. 

Even then, some studies show that whatever a tanki receives is out of free-will from the followers, at their absolute discretion.  It is often said that many tankis live a rather ordinary life.  They get enough to live, but hardly enough to lead a comfortable, wealthy existence.  In fact, any tanki who leads an enviable lifestyle would have raised many suspicions about his character and piety. 

Tankis hold court sometimes in temples, sometimes at their own homes.  Many of them stay in HDB (Singapore government public housing) flats, and homes of the popular tankis often resemble mini temples or shrines, full of visiting worshippers over the weekends.  They act as intermediaries with the gods or deities.  They help to cure illnesses, or advise on careers, family problems, relationship issues, or in fact any human problem under the sun. 

In short, the tankis provide help to the local community in resolving problems that neither the family, the mainstream organized religion, health authorities nor the state can resolve.  Bizarre as it seems in a modern society like Singapore, folk Taoism, complete with mediums and the supernatural, flourishes.  Ironically, with rising incomes and standard of living, this ancient religion is given an added impetus as its followers have more to spare for their beliefs.


Ceremonial Setting

On the birthdays of major deities or gods, larger scale temple festivals may be held during which the tankis become possessed by the deities and elaborate self-mutilation rites to demonstrate the power of the deities.   

A huge oblong-shaped tentage would be set up on an open ground, with elaborate altars installed within.  The actual geographic direction of altars aren’t very important in Singapore. Given the acute land constraints, festival organizers make do with what they have though relative positions within every festival tent tend to be fairly similar.  I would use the example of a festival setup at Sago Street, Chinatown, Singapore, in late 2003 as an illustration. 

At the eastern end of the tentage, an altar was set up dedeicated to the Jade Emperor (Yu Wang Da Di), supreme god of the Taoist world, and key heavenly gods, with food offerings laid out in front of the statues or paintings of these gods.     


A festival tent, with the altar of the Jade Emperor ahead

At the western end would be an altar to the key patron deity of the temple together with other heavenly gods and deities.  Statues of deities from other “friendly” temples are often brought to a festival as guests of honour (- one reason why many temples have two statues of the same god – one to be at the temple at all times and the other to serve as “ambassador”), and the mediums of these temples sometimes turn up to be possessed by their respective “visiting” deities.   


Table of feast for the Gods of Hell, at the entrance to the shrine to Hell


Shrine of Hell


 The Five Heavenly Protector Gods & their Horses


Horse belonging to a Protector God

To the north of the western altar is an altar dedicated to the Protector Gods - “Wu Yin Jiang Jun” (Generals of Five Camps)  – military corps of the Taoist Heaven.  Apart from an equally elaborate altar with statues, paintings and offerings, one would expect to see paper statues of the horses representing the Marshals of the North, South, East, West and Central, well fed with pots of grass on the ground.   

The most interesting shrine lies to the south of the western altar.  This is the shrine of the hell deities – normally a self-contained room of its own, sometimes extended into a further room within the tentage.  The entrance to the shrine is sometimes shaped like a gateway into hell.  It is normally dark, with gory painting of the Taoist hell.  Images of gods, deities are painted with luminous colours which glow in the dark, which makes the shrine even more eerie.  Mats and umbrellas are sometimes laid out on the ground – visitors beware! Do not step onto these for you may just step onto the invisible visitors from hell! 

It is important that the concept of hell for the Taoist world is very different from that of Christianity.  The latter regard hell as a dead end, where evildoers are condemned for all eternity.  Taoism, however, sees hell as a kind of boot-camp where most people would go through in the almost eternal cycle of birth, life, death and reincarnation.  The good guys would pass through the 10 “courts” of hell and its 18 levels with little or no suffering while the evildoers would get their due, such as being burned by fire, boiled in hot water, tongues cut, etc – images of these processes are duly represented in the many paintings hung in the shrine of hell.  In addition, the God of Hell, in Taoism, is not evil Saturn, but a mere administrator who have to perform the task of reforming the evildoers.

  The Ritual