A pungent smell of burning incense sticks filled the air. In front of me an old man stood, his arms raised above his head, mouth moving slowly as he stared at the urn in front of me. The words leaving his mouth were a mantra to the gods, a prayer for a prosperous year ahead, or were it thanks for the year that had just ended. I didn’t know which one, but I wasn’t going to intrude into his moment. I moved on, below a sea of red lanterns emblazoned with Chinese symbols written in gold, towards the entrance of the temple.I wanted to experience Chinese New Year in Jakarta.
The light inside the building was a pale red, which shimmered under the flicker of a hundred candles that were every shape and size imaginable. Thick ones, that were as wide as a rugby player’s thigh and as tall as a full-grown man, stood at the entrance. Smaller ones were lined up in neat little rows on the tables. A temple clerk circled the room relighting the candles that had gone out.
In the corners of the temple were little alcoves where people knelt, prayed and moved purposefully on to the next spot. I could tell that this ritual had already been repeated countless times already today, because the offerings of food left on the alter were already covered in a thick layer of ash from the incense.
I moved quietly around the room, my camera in hand like the other spectators, taking photographs of people as they prayed. I felt like I was violating something personal, yet as the cameras around me I heard no word of reproach. After 20 minutes I had to leave, the acrid smoke was too much for my eyes, which were watering heavily.
My friend and I left the temple and went up the road. A half dozen times we repeated the same process, going from one temple to the next as we took in Chinese New Year in Jakarta. Each time the scene was a similar one. The air thick with smoke, the heavy smell of incense, the shades of red and the pretty red lanterns.
After a few hours of this spectacle, my eyes red and puffy from the smoke, we decided to call it a day. We headed home, our clothes heavy with the smell of incense. It had been a happy day and I spent the journey home wondering what the year of the snake would bring me.