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Chinese Hell deity worship in contemporary Singapore and Malaysia
Author: Fabian Graham

This study investigates contemporary Chinese Underworld traditions in Singapore and Malaysia, where the veneration of Hell deities is particularly popular. Highlighting the Taoist and Buddhist cosmologies on which present-day beliefs and practices are based, the book provides unique insights into the lived tradition, taking alterity seriously and interpreting practitioners’ beliefs without bias. First-person dialogues between the author and channelled Underworld deities challenge wider discourses concerning the interrelationships between sociocultural and spiritual worlds, promoting the de-stigmatisation of spirit possession and non-physical phenomena in the academic study of mystical and religious traditions.

Fabian Graham

, Underworld altars and their tang-ki have now become a major locus of group ritual activities in Singapore and Malaysia. The primary ethnographic narrative is therefore centred on the pivotal role of Underworld deities as channelled through their tang-ki and the rituals they perform, which support the invention, reinterpretation and inversion of religious antecedents which Hell deity worship has entailed. The second narrative contextualises the contemporary Underworld tradition’s ritual and material cultures in a historic framework by outlining

in Voices from the Underworld
Setting a baseline of comparison
Fabian Graham

, and beyond the Malay Peninsula it would be extremely improbable for a practitioner to enter into an agreement with a Hell deity. Elsewhere, temple altars are adorned with statues of Heaven deities, and it is rare to visit a temple in all but the remotest locations without seeing devotees worshipping through the offering of incense or consulting them for advice by casting divination blocks. Thus, on the evening that I arrived in Singapore, on entering my first Singaporean temple, even though the altars were lined with rows of familiar Heaven

in Voices from the Underworld
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A baseline of comparison
Fabian Graham

channelling of predominantly Hell deities in Singapore and Malaysia’s contemporary religious landscapes. As noted in the Introduction, the technologies employed in the diversification of religious antecedents are located within an analytical framework labelled as ‘self-perpetuating technologies of religious synthesis’, a theory which considers the combinations of possible societal catalysts for the development of specific religious trends. In this instance, the theory is applied to account for the founding and popularisation of the modern

in Voices from the Underworld
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Fabian Graham

Voices from the Underworld is an in-depth study of the contemporary Underworld tradition in Singapore and Malaysia, where Hell deities are venerated in statue form and freely interacted with while embodied in their spirit mediums, tang-ki ( 童乩 ). 1 The ethnography focuses on the temple-based, spirit medium-centric ritual and material cultures that have come to prominence in these two locations since the turn of the century. The Chinese Underworld 2 and its sub-hells are populated by a bureaucracy drawn from the Buddhist, Taoist and

in Voices from the Underworld
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The earliest recollections of Tua Di Ya Pek embodied
Fabian Graham

Hell deity, and this soon prompted complaints from the temple’s neighbours. The ‘man in white’ therefore began to leave the temple in the daytime to visit Cecil Street market to buy snacks before his night-time excursions as the rickshaw drivers waiting for him in the daytime would not be able to loiter until night. “One day when he went to buy rice dumplings (rou zong / 肉粽 ), he asked the vendor to collect the money from him later at our temple. The dumpling seller thought that the man looked familiar, so agreed, but when he came to the

in Voices from the Underworld
Guanxi and the creation of ‘intentional’ communities
Fabian Graham

In both Malaysia and Singapore, the Underworld tradition’s mass popularisation has been brought about by differing combinations of societal catalysts, thereby producing both unities in and diversities between the two Underworld traditions. Both have involved the same inversion of Heaven to Hell deity worship, visually characterised by a predominantly shared material culture constructed around the veneration of Tua Di Ya Pek. However, expedited by a limited land and population demographic, Singapore’s bureaucratic ability to exercise

in Voices from the Underworld
Fabian Graham

would you like to know before you go back to England? I mean, what would you like to know about other things not related to England?” I smiled in appreciation of his intuitive knowing. I spent a few moments organising my thoughts as consultations with Hell deities at night are somewhat unnerving, an experience shared by almost everyone I asked, and promptly decided on a direct approach to counterbalance this particular Tua Ya Pek’s practice of answering questions cryptically or in riddles. “I want to know about

in Voices from the Underworld
Salvation rituals and Ah Pek parties
Fabian Graham

eldest patrilineal family member present. Each family then approached Tua Di Ya Pek, who blessed the ancestral tablets presented to them and then the devotees themselves. Prior to the popularisation of the Underworld tradition, and elsewhere in the present-day Chinese diaspora, the notion of having one’s ancestors blessed by Hell deities would be inconceivable. Before moving on to describe the Tua Di Ya Pek ‘conference’, as the conference began at Muar City God Temple as a new tradition in 2013, I will first discuss its origins and the ritual

in Voices from the Underworld
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The centrality of graveyards in the Underworld tradition
Fabian Graham

in a discarnate, hierarchical and highly bureaucratic realm whose location remains elusive. Nonetheless, annually, on the first day of the Lunar Seventh Month, the gates of the Underworld are opened and the multitudinous hordes of wandering spirits, referred to euphemistically as ‘good brothers’ ( hao xiongdi / 好兄弟 ), are, for one month, allowed to return to their origins and to wander the Earth. In the Underworld tradition these gates have been reinvented in physical locations, opening beneath Hell deity altars, through cemetery altars and by tang-ki in ritual

in Voices from the Underworld