Held only when a temple medium gets a command from the heavens, the Wangkang festival in Malaysia is a rare and unusual event designed to rid the world of evil. Diana van Oort took part in last year’s procession, the first since 2001.

Ghosts are being collected, a Chingay group show off their skills, lions are dancing, musicians play, stilt-walkers tower over us, Confucian priests perform rituals, deities are carried in elaborate sedan chairs and — at the very end of the procession — mediums are in a trance and a barge pulled by about 30 people slowly makes its way through Malacca’s old quarter. More than 10,000 devotees and tourists bear witness to this procession, symbolically sweeping away all evil forces that threaten to disrupt peace and prosperity.

This is the Wangkang Festival. It is organised to collect wandering souls, evil spirits and other negative elements on the streets of Malacca, the capital of a Malaysian state of the same name, that are thought to be responsible for the epidemic scourges and chaos that plague the world. The spirits are then sent into the unknown by way of a barge that is burned on the 15th and last day of Chinese New Year. The devotees hope this will bring health, peace, prosperity and happiness to the world and to Malacca in particular.

The grand and costly religious procession was introduced to Malacca by Hokkien emigrants from Fujian province, China. They had been migrating to Malacca since the 15th century, but an influx came when Hokkiens were fleeing persecution during the Qing and Manchu dynasties between 1644 and 1911. When the Hokkiens brought their deities to Malacca, the locals came to regard them as their patron saints.

Every year since, the temple members have collected the wandering souls, but only when the medium at the Yong Chuan Tian Temple gets the command from the heavens do they organise the elaborate Wangkang procession. The message is delivered via a small chair, which when held ‘writes’ characters. Through the chair the deity directs the temple committee to organise the Wangkang.

In Malacca, as far as could be determined, the Wangkang Procession was first put on in 1854 at Kandang and up to 1880 it took place every five to eight years. In 1891, in response to a deadly outbreak of cholera, it was held again. Since then it has taken place every 14 years until 1933. The festival was dormant for 68 years before it was revived in 2001 during the height of the SARS epidemic. The one I attended, the most recent, happened in early February last year.

The evening before the parade, crowds met at the temple to witness the beginning of ceremonies. As early as 6am, members of the Hokkien community started to gather. By 7.30am the road was cordoned off by police and the flotilla began to move from the temple. Dragon and lion dancers, as well as stilt-walkers clad in colourful, traditional Chinese costumes and more than a hundred musicians from various temples, slowly filtered out.

Then the main attraction, the Royal Barge, emerged to the deafening sound of firecrackers. From the temple the procession travelled for 20km along the streets of Malacca, before heading back in the late afternoon.

Made of merbau timber and five-layered plywood, it took five committee members three months to build the barge. It was nearly 6 metres long and 2 metres high with a 6-metre-high mast. The bright yellow, red and black lion carved and set into the bow was an impressive sight; even more so at night when its eyes were lit.

Teams of around 30 devotees pulled the barge by a rope around the city, causing it to seemingly glide along, even when the procession encountered rough patches and when going uphill. The cavalcade halted at 15 key stops, where five Taoist high priests led the cleansing rites to order all evil spirits and influences to get on the boat.

The climax came in the evening. There were more ceremonies in the temple and the mediums were in a trance. A paper temple was set on fire and it quickly burned to the ground. Then we watched as fireworks went off and the barge was loaded with bags of rice, water, wine, joss paper, herbs, pots, pans and stoves. The priests were saying their last prayers before the ship finally was set aflame.

The atmosphere was electrifying as a fireworks display simultaneously lit the sky. It is believed the royal barge “took on board” evil spirits as it burned, thus destroying the malicious demons. The flames continued as the crowds slowly dispersed.

At the temple we were given little plastic bags filled with tea leaves and were told to throw them into the fire. I was reluctant to toss mine in because I was supposed to walk away after doing so, without looking back. If I turned around, that would bring misfortune from the spirits hell-bent to do evil to those tempted to break tradition, even as they burn on their way to annihilation.