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Divine Encounters in Asia – a photo exhibition

Photographs of sacred rituals and ceremonies in Asia by Bangkok-based photographer and author Hans Kemp can be seen in the front hall of the Leiden Town Hall from 27 June to 19 August 2019. Here a sneak preview.

Just behind the neon signs, the marble and stainless-steel façades, the luxury cars and glitzy shopping malls, lies a different world, revealing itself through elaborate spirit rituals, blood-curdling ceremonies and exuberant festivals. For many people throughout Asia, life’s crucial decisions such as marriage, moving to a new city or the purchase of property are too important to be left to the rational mind alone. As a hedge against future uncertainties, spirits and deities need to be placated, worshipped and feted. And should misfortune strike, a healer or shaman navigates the spirit realms in search of a cure. 

The Chosen One

In a ceremony with its origins dating back to the eighth century, a Japanese man is chosen to become the Shin Otoko (the Man of God). At the end of the two-week festival, he will be cast out from the community, carrying with him all accumulated evil and misfortune. Once the Shin Otoko is spotted, his rescuers dash out from the shrine and dive on top of the God-man. They use a woven rope to pull the God-man from the grasp of the raucous crowd, which is going all out in its attempt to touch him.

God’s own army

Thousands of worshippers, led by oracles called Velichappadus (literally ‘revealers of light’) gather at the Sri Kurumba Bhagavati Temple in the southern Indian state of Kerala, in a boisterous and controversial celebration of unity with the Mother Goddess. A large group of entranced oracles called Velichappadus, carrying the pallival or ceremonial sword, march clockwise around the Sri Kurumba Bhagavati Temple.

Crocodile Biting

During the Wal Waru (crocodile biting) initiation ceremony, young boys from the Iatmul tribe of the middle Sepik area in Papua New Guinea undergo a painful scarification that makes the skin on their torsos resemble a crocodile, thereby acquiring the strength and courage of this mythical animal. During their stay in the spirit house, the boys receive instructions from the tribe’s elders.

Trance on the Edge

The Rongtsan, protective deities of the founder of Buddhism in Ladakh (India) in the 15th century, return every year to the monasteries of Stok and Matho and take possession of both laymen and monks in order to predict the future and bless the community. One of the lay oracles at Stok Gompa stands on the edge of the monastery’s roof and offers milk to the gods.


The exhibition Divine Encounters. Sacred Rituals and Ceremonies in Asia can be seen in the front hall of the Leiden Town Hall from 27 June to 19 August 2019. It is being held to mark ICAS 11, the 11th International Convention of Asia Scholars in Leiden. The photos come from the book with the same title with 288 photos and in-depth explanations of ceremonies and rituals in ten countries. The book, which is by award-winning photographer and crime writer, Hans Kemp, will be on sale at Kooyker bookshop in Leiden during the exhibition.

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