Enigma at the Chao Mae Lim Ko Niao Shrine
On the first full moon after the Chinese New Year, Chinese descendants in Pattani province, Thailand’s deep South, celebrate the sacred palanquin procession at the 16th-century Leng Chu Kiang Shrine. All 18 Chinese deity figurines, including Cho Su Kong, Pae Gong, and Lim Ko Niao, are transferred from their altars to sacred palanquins before wandering (and having a lot of action and adventure) outside the shrine for one day.
The annual Hae Phra Mueang Pattani Procession, also known as the Chao Mae Lim Ko Niao Festival, is a homecoming event for Chinese descendants born and bred in Pattani. The festivalalso draws visitors and pilgrims for the sacred palanquin procession. The spiritual procession, water wading, and fire walking are all well-known rituals, but the Poe Divination (or zhijiao) – an ancient and little-known ritual ceremony – is phenomenal.
Six hours before the deities’ departure from the shrine
The Poe Divination is a sacred rite to seek divine guidance on procession preparations. On the eve of the procession, this ritual ceremony is performed at Leng Chu Kiang Shrine just after midnight. The Chinese oracle and senior members of the shrine gather to cast the moon blocks (jiaobei in Mandarin or poe in Hokkien dialect), a pair of wooden divination tools carved into a crescent shape with one side round and one side flat, to seek answers from the deities.
“From the auspicious time to bring the palanquins into the shrine, the time to move the deity statues from the altars to sit on the palanquins, to the time to light the fire for the fire walking ceremony, everything is up to the deities. They will let us know through the Poe Divination. We cannot decide on anything,” one of the senior shrine officers says of the Poe Divination or Tod Bia Tham Phra.
The Poe Divination is performed behind closed doors, but it’s well worth peering through the cracks and holes in the walls to see the secret rite. The clash of cymbals and the beat of the drums in a blaze of fire and colour add mystery and send shivers down the spine.
The oracle purifies the moon blocks by revolving them around the incense burner three times. Clasping the blocks together with their flat surfaces in his palms, he kneels and prays for guidance while raising the moon blocks to his forehead before tossing them on the floor. When both blocks have the round side facing down or up, it indicates that the divinity has said ‘no,’ and the ritual officer will pray for guidance before tossing moon blocks again. If the blocks land and one has the round side up while the other has the flat side up, it means the divinity says ‘yes’.
Pattani is located on Thailand’s southernmost tip and nestled along the Gulf of Thailand. It was a travel hotspot on an ancient maritime trade route. The coastal township attracted traders, priests, and explorers from all over the world in search of fortune, adventure and romance. It was a cultural melting pot where visitors and locals, Buddhism and Islam, tragedy and fortune, myth and truth all contributed to Pattani’s uniqueness.
The most famous visitor to Pattani is Lim Ko Niao. The Chinese maiden sailed from China to visit Lim To Kiam, her elder brother. She tried to convince her brother to go home to see their dying mother. Lim To Kiam told his sister he had married a local girl and converted to Islam. He didn’t want to leave his family. Disheartened, Lim Ko Niao committed suicide by hanging herself from a cashew nut tree. Her body was interred near the Krue Se Mosque. The locals in Pattani built the Lim Ko Niao shrine to honour her dignity before having her canonised as a deity. The Lim Ko Niao figurine was enshrined and joined other Chinese deities at Leng Chu Kiang Shrine in Pattani town in the late 16th century.
About two weeks after the Chinese New Year, the Chinese communities around the shrine get together and celebrate the sacred palanquin procession.
There are many deities to ask.
The Poe Divination ceremony to seek answers from the deities starts with the main deities of the shrine from the principal deity god of medicine Qingshui Zushi (Cho Su Kong), Lim Ko Niao and the god of prosperity Fude Zhengshen (Pae Gong). It continues with the goddess of compassion Guanyin, the supreme wealth god Xuanwu (Chao Pho Suea), the sea goddess Mazu (Chao Mae Tabtim), the god of war Guan Yu and other deities on the altar outside the main hall.
Within an hour, the ritual officer has all the answers needed for the procession preparation.
At the auspicious time for bringing the palanquins into the shrine, the porters carry the red palanquins for the main deities into the shrine’s main hall. The clash of cymbals and the beat of the drums blend with the exciting cheers from palanquin carriers who hoist the sedan chair onto their shoulders and swing from one side to the other. Outside the shrine, worshippers peer through the wooden air vent, hoping to catch a glimpse of the sacred ritual inside.
When the clock strikes the auspicious time to transport the deity statues to their sedan chairs, another round of deafening cymbal clashes and drum beats fill the shrine. A senior ritual officer rolls a stack of gold and silver joss paper and lights one end before revolving it around the principal deity Cho Su Kong, while the oracle carefully lifts the deity from the altar and places him in his red sedan chair. The clock is ticking, and the senior palanquin porters show the newcomers how to secure the statues to the sedan chair with red cloths.
A sense of relief fills the shrine when all deity statues are secured. Then, the head palanquin porter lights a handful of joss sticks for the gods and to signal that everything is all set for the sacred procession.
The anticipation of racing the deities along the route grows with each tick of the clock. The carriers are all cheering, the cymbals are clashing, the drums are beating, and faith is skyrocketing. Every 2-3 minutes, a shrine officer lights a roll of gold and silver joss paper and revolves it around the deities, followed by another officer who sprinkles holy water all over the place.
The doors swing open, and the palanquins of the deities rush out like the water flowing to the sea as the people of Pattani and beyond cheer. The southern town embraces and shares the traditions and faith that bind them together.
IF YOU GO
The Chao Mae Lim Ko Niao Festival will be held in Pattani town from February 2 to 8. The Poe Divination will begin at 12:08 a.m. on February 5, approximately six hours before the sacred palanquin procession. Pattani is about a two–hour drive from Hat Yai International Airport.