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Snapping Asia's ancient ceremonies

From crocodile biting to hungry ghosts, Hans Kemp records the region's rituals

A male oracle leads a large group of devotees during the annual Kodungallur Bharani festival, in the Indian state of Kerala. (Photo by Hans Kemp)

BANGKOK -- Dutch-born, Bangkok-based Hans Kemp is a heavyweight in photography, and not just because his latest book, "Divine Encounters: Sacred Rituals and Ceremonies in Asia," weighs nearly 3 kg (or 4.8 kg in a signed limited edition). This is a monumental work in every way -- 400 pages packed with provocative images, providing a fascinating and intimate portrayal of some of Asia's most unusual festivals and rituals.

The significance of such events is a longtime interest of Kemp, 57, whose previous books include "Burmese Light," about his travels in Myanmar, and "Bikes of Burden," about motorcycle transport in Vietnam. An international hit, "Bikes of Burden" has sold about 100,000 copies.

"Divine Encounters," published by Hong Kong-based Visionary World, is a wide-ranging examination of 14 rituals that regularly take place in 11 locations across Asia. Each chapter features a succinct description of a ceremony and its history, with many photographs spread across two pages for heightened impact at an expansive 50-by-33 cm.

The images are dramatic, but they also provide an insight into the enduring values of the region in the wake of a century of breakneck social and economic modernization.

"Across Asia, you have this modernization, but underneath there is still this tradition of spirituality that remains largely the same," says Joe Cummings, veteran author of numerous books on Asia, including "Buddhist Stupas in Asia" and "Sacred Tattoos of Thailand."

Top: During the Wai Khru ceremony at Wat Bang Phra, a Buddhist temple near Bangkok, a devotee transforms into a roaring tiger, possessed by the spirit of the Sak Yant tattooed on his torso. Bottom: During the Phuket Vegetarian Festival, entranced Mah-song mediums will go to great lengths to show their faith and the superior power of their gods. Faces, tongues and bodies are pierced with a wide variety of objects. The orleng, the sacred black flag, keeps the ritual site protected from evil forces. (Photos by Hans Kemp)

"It's like you can read about life from a century or more ago, and the values are still the same; the roots remain intact," says Cummings. "The sense of authenticity is huge, and you see that in the rituals and festivals. They remain important, vital to people. There is a strong attraction to these traditions. People really need to remain connected."

The 400-page "Divine Encounters" is published by Hong Kong-based Visionary World. (Courtesy of Hans Kemp)

The challenge of capturing these colorful celebrations took Kemp to remote locations in countries including Myanmar, Mongolia and India. "It's been in my mind to do this since about 2001," says the author, who has been shooting photographs in Asia since the 1980s, living first in Hong Kong, later in Vietnam and now in Bangkok.

Some of the oldest photographs in "Divine Encounters" date from the photographer's early years in the region, including the spectacular chapter "Married to the Spirits," about nat worship in Myanmar. The country is largely Buddhist, but reverence for nats, or spirits, goes back to ancient times, and remains prevalent in many areas.

Kemp traveled to northern Myanmar and immersed himself in the crowds, capturing every aspect of revival ceremonies, including a captivating rolling circus that included hundreds of bull carts, looking like wagons from the American West, rolling across a dusty plain.

Top: At the annual Zeedaw Nat Pwe festival in Myanmar, a nat gadaw, or spirit wife, performs one of the most popular nats,Big Brother Gyaw, a notorious drunkard, womanizer and gambler. Bottom: During the annual Kodungallur Bharani festival in the Indian state of Kerala, oracles called Velichappadus (revealers of right) dance in front of the "chicken stones." Prior to a government ban, numerous animals were sacrificed on these stones in a ceremony called Kozhikkallu Moodal, until the ground was saturated with blood. (Photos by Hans Kemp)

However, the majority of "Divine Encounters" utilizes new material, specifically shot for the book. "Once I really decided to do the book, I focused on getting it done, sprinting to the finish line, so to speak," Kemp says.

The final chapter, shot in culturally diverse Papua New Guinea, deals with one of the most gruesome ceremonies in the book. "Crocodile Biting" covers a rare initiation-into-manhood ritual in which a group of young men from the Latmul tribe, who live along the Sepik River in northern Papua New Guinea, are cut with razors, almost from head to toe.

Top: In the Yanchan Village spirit house, on the bank of Papua New Guinea's Sepik River, boys receive instructions from the tribe’s elders, ranging from lessons in the tribe’s mythology to rules on how to behave in a fight with other members of the tribe. The speaker emphasizes each statement he makes by continuously laying down a few sprigs of the sago tree on the Orator’s Stool, a carved representation of the principal ancestor spirit of the clan. Bottom: At the start of the Wal Waru, or “crocodile biting,” initiation ritual in the PNG village of Palimbei, a long row of performers, symbolizing a crocodile, moves between two spirit houses, incanting the names of various crocodile spirits. (Photos by Hans Kemp) 

"I had heard about this crocodile-biting ritual and wanted to cover it," says Kemp, whose pictures show how the young men's razor wounds are treated with smoke and painfully sculpted to transform skin into a ridged surface -- an obvious reference to the reptiles from which the tribe deems humans to have evolved.

Kemp photographed the cutting -- hundreds of cuts over many excruciating hours -- and followed the participants, their families and the tribe through the ceremony. After the cutting, the men, aged 18 to 25, were left to heal in a "spirit house" for four to six weeks.

The logistics of Kemp's trip proved daunting, not least because he had little information at the outset of where the cutting occurred. "It involved tons of work and research," says Kemp.

Top: Author and photographer Hans Kemp in Papua New Guinea. Bottom: A novice shaman starts her initiation by offering libations of grain and milk to the tengers, powerful spirits that dwell in the sky. The shaman is the intermediary between earth and these heavenly realms. As a “skywalker,” the shaman is able to enter nonordinary states of consciousness in order to gather knowledge and information used for healing practices and divination in her community. (Top photo courtesy of Worawan Simaroj; bottom photo by Hans Kemp)

As so often happens in such remote regions, there were hurdles to gaining trust and access. Kemp says he was shattered when he was unexpectedly turned away from observing the ceremony he had planned to document. Fortunately, he made new connections and wound up shooting in a different location, where he was allowed to photograph the entire ceremony. "That's just how it goes sometimes," he says. "You hope for the best, and get lucky."

Another gripping chapter, "Bloody Passion," covers the annual reenactment in the Philippines of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Unlike the rest of the rituals in "Divine Encounters," this highlights an event that is commemorated around the globe -- although not usually like this.

At the Via Crucis in San Fernando, about 70 km north of Manila, Kemp documents in bloody detail how magdarame (flagellants) flay their bodies with whips, and are cut with razors. A handful of devotees are pictured parading with large wooden crosses before metal spikes are hammered through their hands for a chilling -- although not fatal -- crucifixion ceremony.

Top: In Indonesia, female participants of the Pengerebongan ceremony in Bali enter a trance, having just left the inner courtyard of the Pura Petilan Temple. Bottom: Deities are carried around the Thai town of Phuket during the annual Vegetarian Festival. Loud firecrackers ward off malevolent entities. (Photos by Hans Kemp)

Each chapter of "Divine Encounters" tells a distinct story about a specific rite. Interestingly, they are not restricted to less developed countries. In "The Chosen One," Kemp follows a ceremony in Japan that taps into common tribal rituals intended to assuage the spirits, often using an individual to embody the misdeeds of the community.

In a detailed montage shot in Inazawa, in Japan's Aichi Prefecture, Kemp follows a Shinto ceremony in which a citizen is singled out to become, as Kemp writes, "the absorber of all evil and misfortune -- the Naoi-nin or Shin Otoko (Man of God)." We see the man's selection, his head being shaved and then the lengthy preparation for a community celebration in which he is shamed and attacked.

The festival dates back 12 centuries, according to Kemp, who captured the entire two weeks of festivities. "I was the only foreign photographer there," he says, adding that he was given free access, even camping out in the shrine to capture every moment.

Top: The annual Hadaka Matsuri in the Japanese city of Inazawa is a Shinto ritual that revolves around the Shin Otoko, or Man of God, a volunteer who will be ceremoniously expelled from the community, carrying with him bad luck and evil. The Shin Otoko, in the middle, enters the Konomiya Shrine and remains there until the main day of the ceremony. Bottom: On the final day of the ceremony, the Shin Otoko is pulled from the grasp of the raucous crowd, all intent on touching him in order to ward off evil and misfortune. (Photos by Hans Kemp)

In Hong Kong, where he lived in the 1990s, Kemp photographed the famous Hungry Ghost Festival for the "Return of the Lost Souls." This traditional Chinese festival (also called Zhongyuan Jie, Gui Jie or the Yulan Festival) has been likened to Halloween, partly because of its colorful costumes and its assumption of a visitation by the spirits of deceased ancestors.

Held on the 15th night of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, the festival features participants paying tribute to their ancestors in the afterworld. Along with ripe fruit and pig heads, gifts given in Hong Kong now also include watches and mobile phones.

Kemp speaks admiringly of how these ancient traditions have survived, even with the modern trappings. "People still believe. They do these ceremonies, even as they come with their mobile phones. But it's still authentic," he notes. "The rituals are the same. People are still looking for meaning."

Top: On the evening of the 15th day of the seventh month according to the lunar calendar, many residents of Hong Kong's Kowloon district make offerings to the spirits, urging the hungry ghosts to return to their world, sending them on the way with gifts of food and thousands of dollars of “hell money." Bottom: During the Hungry Ghost Festival in Hong Kong, a public basketball court in the King George V Memorial Park in Kowloon is transformed in a makeshift bamboo opera theater. Operas are performed for the benefit of spirits who have temporarily returned to earth. (Photos by Hans Kemp)

Kemp's objective is to document unusual people and cultures. In the era of social media, however, he often has unwanted company. "Many of these rituals and ceremonies have definitely gotten harder to cover," he says. When he started, he recalls, he would often travel to some distant land, and "have this amazing ceremony all to myself. Now, you find tourists in more places, poking their cameras everywhere."

Kemp laments the lack of cultural awareness among many onlookers, and their disrespect for sacred aspects of the rituals. "But I'm also glad these things are still going on, everywhere; it makes the world a much more interesting place," he says. "You realize you are not the only one who thinks there is more than meets the eye, asking the core questions: Who am I, where am I going?"

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