Friday, February 16, 2018

4 Winter Solstice Rituals From Around the World

Thousands of people around the globe will herald the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, with centuries-old rituals like soaking in fruit-filled baths and dressing up as a devilish folklore legend that punishes naughty children around Christmas.

The solstice, which falls on Dec. 21 this year, marks the first day of winter. It starts the moment the Northern Hemisphere is pointed at its farthest distance from the sun. The winter solstice is considered a turning point in the year in many cultures. The sacred day is also called Yule to pagans celebrating the birth of the new solar year, according to Circle Sanctuary, a prominent pagan group in America. Dozens of pagans and druids head to Stonehenge, an iconic site in England, to pay tribute to the sun during the solstice.

Getting scared by Krampus in Austria
Hordes of revelers descend on Hollabrunn, Austria each year during the winter solstice to watch a swarm of people dressed like Krampus — the half-demon, half-goat counterpart to Santa Claus — terrorize and tease the crowd in horned masks, fur body suits and whips. “It is weird, but it’s fun,” said Natalie Kononenko, a professor and Kule Chair in Ukrainian Ethnography Arts at the University of Alberta in Canada.

Krampus is a figure that punishes bad children by whipping and snatching them, according to Germanic folklore. The traditional Krampus run in Austria is believed to ward off bad spirits near the winter solstice, but it is also a source of local entertainment, Kononenko said. Last year, the creatures wielded torches, charged at delighted guests and jumped over security gates to lightly whip people, according to footage from the Associated Press.

While many of the costumes include giant horns, sharpened teeth and mangled faces — features that might be considered nightmarish to an ordinary person — the Krampus run annually amuses those in attendance. “It’s sort of like Halloween,” Kononenko said. “You get to dress up in these really disgusting costumes. You get to do stuff you don’t normally get to do.”

This year’s family-friendly Krampus run in Hollabrunn’s main square takes place Dec. 16. “To be really afraid again and experience evil with fun is the motto,” its organizers wrote on the event’s website.

Taking in a once-in-a-lifetime sight in Ireland
Dozens of people, lucky enough to be selected through an annual lottery, get the chance to stand inside the Newgrange monument in Ireland and absorb the first rays of the day as they fill the ancient chambers during the winter solstice.

Newgrange is a burial mound in Ireland’s Boyne Valley that is over 5,000 years old. The Stone Age monument contains a 62-foot passage that leads into a chamber that is aligned with the sun as it rises during the winter solstice, according to its website. Between Dec. 19 and Dec. 23 around dawn, sunlight pierces through the top of the chamber and slowly illuminates the room for about 17 minutes.

More than 32,500 people applied for a spot inside the chamber this year, according to Newgrange’s website. Only 60 of them were picked from the lottery to partake in this winter solstice ritual.

Soaking in baths full of fruit in Japan
In Japan, people traditionally soak in hot baths with the yuzu citrus fruit to welcome the winter solstice and protect their bodies from the common cold. During last year’s solstice celebration, children from a local preschool shared a dip in a traditional yuzu tub in the city of Toyooka as dozens of the yellow yuzu fruits surrounded them on the surface, according to Japan’s daily newspaper Asahi Shimbun. Similarly, the bath has become custom for animals in some Japanese zoos. Photos from the local media show Japanese macaques, hippos and capybaras enjoying fruit-filled baths last December in their enclosures at the Fukuoka City Zoological Garden and the Izu Shaboten Zoo.

In Korea, good luck on the solstice is associated with red bean porridge. Koreans will often make the dish both to eat and spread around the house to keep evil spirits away, according to Seungja Choi, a senior lector of East Asian Languages and Literatures at Yale University. Besides its believed spiritual benefits, Choi said, the meal also contains a lot of nutrition. “If you eat this, you get healthy,” she said.

Catching the sunrise at Stonehenge
England’s famous Stonehenge lures thousands of visitors during the summer and winter solstices. Revelers gather at the prehistoric site of ancient stones in Wiltshire to sing, dance, play instruments, kiss the stones and do yoga as they wait for the sun to rise. The iconic Stonehenge is known for its precise alignment with the sun’s movement and may have been a sacred place of worship and celebration for solstices for thousands of years, according to English Heritage, which manages the popular destination.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Lewes Bonfire night parade's 'racist' costumes to be axed

Members of Lewes Borough Bonfire Society traditionally wear black face paint and extravagant accessories for the annual parade in the Sussex town.

But the leader of a Zulu dance troupe booked to perform at the event said the costumes were "incredibly offensive".

The society agreed to alter the costumes.

Thousands attend the event, which is famed for its raucous atmosphere.

Members of six bonfire societies march through the town, carrying effigies of famous or controversial figures which are eventually set alight.

Thandanani Gumede, leader of dance troupe Zulu Tradition, initially accepted an invitation to perform, but said he was inundated with images of performers in offensive dress.

'Viking and showgirl'

He said the first picture he saw - from a bonfire society's pamphlet - showed an acceptable version of the costume.

He said: "It didn't offend me because it was clear they had taken to time to make the details of the costume correct. They had the leopard skin umqhele, the 'crown', similar to my own, beads and sympathetic body paint."

However, he found subsequent images "disrespectful", and was alerted to a 1,600-strong petition to stop "the offensive practice of blacking up".

"I was really disappointed," he added, "bones through the noses, dead monkeys, skulls, horns, huge feathered headdresses.

"They looked barbaric, like a cross between a Viking and a showgirl. It was incredibly offensive. Nothing about those outfits resembled a Zulu warrior."

Mr Gumede said the society was receptive to his suggestions, and he did not believe anybody had intended to cause offence.

Mick Symes, of the society said: "These costumes have been used for 100 years, and during parades things do get a bit over-styled.

"We lost our way a bit, but we are delighted to welcome Zulu Tradition to what will be a most wonderful night."

The skulls, bones, dead monkeys and black face paint will now be omitted and more traditional headpieces created for next year.

A counter petition has the support of 600 people, and some locals commented that the tradition of painting faces had been going on for years.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Taiwan's tribal matchmaking festival

As night falls on a square in the village of Matai'an, young women cast critical eyes over a dancing circle of men in embroidered skirts and feathered head dresses as part of an ancient match-making ritual.

Known as "Lovers' Night", it is the grand finale of the annual harvest festival in the settlement which belongs to the Amis tribe, the largest of the 16 recognised indigenous groups in Taiwan.

Near the island's rugged east coast, the village is a collection of basic, low-lying houses along meandering streets, located in a valley between two mountain ranges.

The harvest festival -- which usually runs between June and August, with each village holding it at a different time -- is the biggest and most important celebration for the Amis tribe, and in Matai'an it culminates with single women taking their pick of eligible bachelors.The centuries-old custom is a reflection of the tribe's matriarchal system, which sees women make key decisions including managing finances and men marry into their wives' families.

As the singing and dancing men pick up their pace, the women move in behind their chosen love interest and tug on a multicoloured cloth bag slung on their target's shoulder.

To spark interest, the men wiggle and flex their muscles, the most popular among them accruing a queue of interested women.

If a man reciprocates the approach, he will give his bag -- known as an "alufo" -- to the woman, marking the beginning of a courtship.

In the past, the ritual would commonly lead to marriage and even now still sparks relationships, but it is also a chance for Amis community members who are working in the cities to return and socialise.

"Lovers' Night is to make friends," said Cheng Ying-hsuan, 22.

Dressed in a red traditional outfit adorned with green beads and her own sequined alufo, she had returned to the village from the city of Hualien, where she now lives, an hour's drive away.

When asked if she hoped to find a boyfriend, she laughed and said coyly: "That's also a possibility."

Matai'an is one of the biggest Amis settlements and is home to around 500 people -- mostly elders and children.

- Time to reconnect -

"We like the feeling of everyone coming back together and reconnecting. For us this is the most important," said Liao Ching-tung, 28, who lives in the capital Taipei.

Each harvest festival, hundreds who have moved away to work or study return to join in the festivities.

The indigenous community -- which remains a marginalised group in Taiwanese society -- has seen its traditional culture eroded since immigrants started arriving from China centuries ago.

Since President Tsai Ing-wen came to power in May 2016, her government has been pushing for greater indigenous rights and preservation of tribal languages and culture.

But some groups have criticised Tsai for not going far enough and have clashed with authorities over land rights policy, demanding their ancestral areas be returned.

In Matai'an, tradition is alive and kicking.

Lamen Panay, 41, who goes by her tribal name, says the matchmaking event is still meaningful to her even though she is no longer single.

She has a collection of lovers' bags from past harvest festivals, but has since settled down with her long-term boyfriend, living with him in Taipei.

The couple are both from the village and Lamen still makes a point of picking him out during the matchmaking ritual.

"We are both usually very busy with work," she said.

"It's necessary to rekindle the flames."

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Palace Museum gets digital renovation

Nevertheless, huge crowds, especially during peak times, have sparked growing frustrations for museum officials and visitors.

Confronting challenges, museum staff have agreed to work with hi-tech companies to develop a digital museum that allows users to view its 1+ million items of rare relics and ancient cultural artifacts with APPS that provide an in-depth understanding on Chinese emperors' lifestyles under dynastic rule.

1st of its kind

After three years of efforts, the Palace Museum announced on August 1, 2017 that its entire collection has been stored into a digital community with the launching of nine APPs.

The museum's curator Shan Jixiang played a leading role to create a digital Forbidden City that integrates an intelligent museum with stronger security and communications systems.

By utilizing new advanced technologies and equipment, the smart museum taps into Big Data, Virtual Reality, 3D (three-dimensional) imagery and video games to provide valuable information for the public in an entertaining format.

For example, Xinhua cites the Night Revels of Han Xizai APP, where users on smartphones can click to uncover insights of the painting that depicts luxurious court life during the 5 Dynasty period - (906-960AD).

The painting comes to life on the APP as viewers can witness ancient performance art that had been composed of music and dance from the era.

Fun & cool APPs

There's other trend-setting APPs as well. The Qing Emperor's Wardrobe APP helps the public distinguish the differences between real imperial dress of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911AD) and what many Chinese have seen actors wearing on popular TV dramas that featured scenes from that part of history.

Users obtain explanations of Qing Dynasty court functions and ceremonies that were celebrated along with descriptions of the attire worn by imperial families, court officials, and ladies-in-waiting.

Another APP offers a digital map and information of the Forbidden City's 1,200 buildings and 9,371 rooms. Actually, the museum has over 1 million artifacts and artworks, but never more than 1 percent of items are set for display at a given time, while just a third of the buildings are open to the public.

VR and 3D tours

APP users can receive background information of each piece under the possession of the Palace Museum. Meanwhile visitors are encouraged to visit the physical site where they can go straight to the Hall of Supreme Harmony Sanxitang (Room of Three Rare Treasures).

Visitors are provided with VR (virtual reality) devices and given a VR tour. They can look at high-resolution images and listen to audio narration.

For added fun, The Hall of Supreme Harmony has placed 3D images on display that make the relics and artwork come to life. The computer giant IBM in 2008 had agreed to invest in a US$3million joint project with the Palace Museum to develop the project.

Japan-based Toppan Printing had also signed on to build a Cultural Assets Digitalization Research Center of the Forbidden City, which was launched in Oct. 2014 with a RMB37 million investment.

Viewing the benefits

"For many people, the Palace Museum experience can be enhanced as they use our APPs," Yu Zhuang, head of New Media at the Palace Museum, told China Daily. "The Internet has provided us with more channels to expand museum influences to more corners in people's everyday lives."

Yu highlighted the museum's calender APP, '365 Days of Masterpieces.' The APP features 1 piece for each day of the year. The user can click to receive cultural background on it.

Google Arts & Culture has agreed to place 100 artifacts from the museum to go online. Google only features famous artworks from around the world.

Most of all, digital users can capture a better understanding of what life was really like for Chinese emperors and the courts. A virtual tour named, ‘Beyond Space & Time' had been set in a computer game format.

Visiting from afar

In 2008, the then-director of the Palace Museum information department, Hu Chui, announced the Forbidden City would go digital during an interview with PC World magazine.

"The project has several purposes, mainly to allow people who cannot visit Beijing to experience the Forbidden City and for those who have visited the physical premises to learn more about it."

The staff were proud of the Palace Museum's rich cultural heritage and sought to bring greater attention to the world.

Many APPs encourage users to share their experiences with others while asking them to submit articles and photos that delve deeper into ancient Chinese history.

A museum is more than just a museum and when the Forbidden City had gone digital, it opened its doors to the world.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Towards building a happier Malaysia for all Malaysians

Whichever way we look at it, Malaysians will admit that we are not as happy as we were when we came together on Aug 31, 1957.

Yes, we have better roads; grander buildings; a sprawling, impressive Putrajaya that houses the civil service machinery of a small nation; we have weathered many political storms; we have stomached many economic woes. But we are by no measure as hopeful as we were sixty years ago.

On Sunday, Aug 20, 2017, some 100 over ex-servicemen and women from the Malaysian Armed Forces, Navy, Air Force and Police gathered at the iconic Royal Selangor Club in the very heart of Kuala Lumpur for their first annual general meeting to mark the birth of their ‘Persatuan Patriot Kebangsaan' (National Patriot's Association).

One of its key objectives, which should send a clarion call across the entire nation as we gather to mark sixty long years of trial and errors, omissions and sins of commission come the 60th Anniversary of our Merdeka (Independence) is the association's determination to “help build a fairer and happier Malaysia for all Malaysians”.

Indeed after six decades of self-rule under one sole political party, we are no more the happy people that we were in 1957 whence we gathered together as one nation of ‘Malayans' endorsing our solidarity of hope for a new nation – independent, fair and free finally.

The decades of living together, working together, eating together, and even wearing each other's traditional costumes and visiting each other's homes and exchanging home cooked meals and sharing goodwill on festivities are today politicised with a dose of religious bigotry and racial differences.

We have come so far worse as to even have drinking cups in schools segregated by religion. We have difficulties in appreciating cultural practices like having figurines as part of landscaping. We have aversions to dressing and costumes.

Hurting the soul-beat

And today the leadership of this nation is constantly crying out “untuk bangsa dan agama” (for race and religion). The division of a nation of multiracial and multi-religious people along race and religious boundaries just to stay in power is killing the soul-beat of Malaysians.

The ex-servicemen and women who put their lives at risk to serve the king, rakyat (citizens) and country for the love of an entire nation's happiness should know best. If they too are concerned about the need to fight for the happiness of all citizens and a happier Malaysia, it only means that we have failed.

And we have failed to ensure that our ex-servicemen and women are well taken care of. We have failed to ensure that politics does not interfere with the very duties of defending a nation and its people and rulers from threats – internal and external.

We have failed to return to the supreme commander, the Yang DiPertuan Agung, that sole right and honor and power to independently exercise over the armed forces, the police, the navy and air force of Malaysia even though these forces are named after the very monarchy, - "di Raja Malaysia".

If ex-servicemen and women have to cross the divides between the four defenses and law keeping entities - the armed forces, police, navy and air force, to set up an association to fight for their merits, rights, and justice and including to make the country a happier place for all Malaysians, it tells us one thing: we have failed in so many ways despite having the wealth and resources for six long decades to do better.

We shout about race rights. We scream about race threats; we drum up fears over religious infringements and deprivation. But we ignored the very people who were there to ensure our people are free from corruption, safe from the denial of democratic rights, and guaranteed of a watchful presence to ensure a happier nation of citizens.

We have so much wealth and resources tapped for centuries and still flowing. We have much more untapped resources. We are blessed with bell weather. No natural calamities that plague and threaten so many nations far and near. The global business community has time and again counted on us for their sweet killings.

But our political mantras and politicians have prevented us from being any happier.

A salute to the ex-servicemen and women for not failing in their duties to the king, citizens, and country even in their retirement.

And civil society too must align with such noble efforts to return to Malaysia and all Malaysians a nation and a future that serves only rulers, citizens, and nation. Not political advances for personal and family benefits at the expense of the rulers, citizens, and nation.