First, the tanki, performs prayers to the Jade emperor and other main gods and deities. Then he sits on elaborately carved Ã¢ÂÂdragon chairÃ¢ÂÂ, so named due to the motifs of flying dragon, Chinese mystical symbols of power and fortune.
The possession begins
Possessed by Na Zha, the tanki walks around with a pacifier
Worshippers feeding the Na Zha possessed medium with milk and sweets
He lets his head down with their legs wide apart, chanting and calling the gods to possess him, while gradually falling into a trance. The moment of sacred possession is often signaled by increasingly fast gyration of his head, violent twitching of his body, and sometimes followed by sudden movements, such as a hop onto a table or chair. Often, the movements are so violent that the medium might hurt himself, and the temple assistants have to hold him tight, and then helped him to put on brightly coloured embroidered aprons which proclaim the name of the temple and the Ã¢ÂÂvisitingÃ¢ÂÂ deity.
A deity often represented by such rituals is the Qi Tian Da Sheng (literally meaning The Saint Equal With Heaven) or the Monkey God famous in the great Chinese classic, Journey To The West (Xi-You-Ji), which some say is the Chinese equivalent of the Hindu Monkey God Hanuman. The tanki who is possessed by Qi Tian Da Sheng often jumps around with great agility like a monkey. His followers would follow him around, sometimes feeding him peanuts or bananas.
Another Ã¢ÂÂpopularÃ¢ÂÂ god is the child-god Ne Zha (also known as San-Tai-Zi or the Third Prince), who is often seen holding a large magical ring and spear while standing on wheels of fire. Once possessed by Ne Zha, the tanki would be sucking a pacifier and wandering around the venue with followers who pass him sweets like one would do to children. Tankis are also often possessed by deities such as Guan Yin, Guan Di Yeh, Ji Gong, Hei Bai Wu Chang, Da Er Bo Yeh, etc.
As the ceremony progresses, the tanki wanders around the temple compound amidst loud gong clamps and sacred music, followed by devout worshippers. The tankiÃ¢ÂÂs assistant walks ahead of the tanki, waving a whip and occasionally hitting the ground with it. This whip, known as the fa-shen (Ã¢ÂÂWhip of the PowerÃ¢ÂÂ), usually has a wooden handle carved in the shape of a snakeÃ¢ÂÂs head. It drives away the evil spirit and clear the way for the god-possessed tanki.
Then the self-mortification begins. The tanki performs mortification using a few ceremonial weapons. These could include swords which he uses to beat or even slash his body. Occasionally he pierces his tongue with skewers to draw blood, or metal poles or spikes through his checks. Another commonly-used equipment is the Ã¢ÂÂprick ballÃ¢ÂÂ, a metal ball with 108 spikes protruding from its core. The tanki usually swings the ball around via a metal chain, hitting his body with it, cutting his back in the process. Quite a bloody affair indeed!
To the believers, the drawing of blood signifies personal sacrifice and the powers of the deities in possession of the tanki. Some scholars, somewhat skeptical, often observe that the tankis tend to slow the momentum of the swinging weapons just before they hit the skin. This means that any wound or cut sustained by the tanki is largely superficial, hardly more than a scratch.
The medium mutilates himself as proof of possession
The Monkey God manifesting himself through the medium
The possession ends
In some major ceremonies, however, the tankis may pierce their cheeks and tongue with skewers, drawing copious quantity of blood and yet appearing to feel little pain, as evidence of providential protection. Practitioners say that the wounds are real though they hardly feel pain when possessed by the gods; the pain comes immediately after they recover from the trance. Even then, these wounds tend to heal fast, and rather miraculously as well.
The blood drawn from the piercing is ued to scribble words representing messages from the gods on charm paper and embroidered cloth pieces or flags. Followers sometimes bring the charm paper home, burn them, and then drink water with the ashes of the charm paper in it.
Eventually, the tankis, still in their trance, would return to their dragon chair. The gongs would be beaten and the tankis gradually return to their Ã¢ÂÂunpossessedÃ¢ÂÂ or Ã¢ÂÂnaturalÃ¢ÂÂ state. As sudden as it began, the ceremony would come to an end. The tanki would open his eyes, wipe his body with rags and proceed to keep his tools.
Just another day of work for tankis and shamans in Singapore.