Deafening fireworks, raucous drums, colorful flags, floats and flowers, the pungent smell of Chinese herbs, not a stitch of meat in sight, and a procession of trance-induced young men and women, bodies and faces punctured by objects as diverse and bizarre as swords, mechanical tools or plant life. . . welcome to Phuket’s Vegetarian Festival!
Each autumn for nine days during the ninth month of the Chinese lunar calendar, Phuket Town is transformed from a crowded provincial capitol to a sacred site of extremes. During this time, the island’s ethnic Chinese community abstains from meat and performs acts of self-mutilation in order to placate the gods and protect the population from harm. The annual event, called Jia Chai in the local Hokkien dialect, was initiated more than 150 years ago following a deadly outbreak of an unknown tropical malady.
In the early 19th century, Phuket was a rural, tin mining region covered in jungle and dominated by Chinese immigrants. Miners bent on making a better life for their family settled the area and worked hard, building prosperity for Thailand and eventually, for themselves. It is difficult to understate the percentage of ethnic Chinese living on Phuket at the time, but it was significant enough to justify groups of mainland Chinese opera performers to travel here and entertain them.
On one such occasion, in 1825, during the Chinese calendar’s ninth lunar month, (late October, early November), the community and the performers were all hit with an undefined epidemic. While scourges were not uncommon in the area, it was the presence of the performance troupe which initiated a tradition that literally changes the faces and tastes of the island each autumn from that time to this.
As community members young and old lay stricken, the troupe encouraged everyone to adhere to a strict vegetarian diet and some to perform trance-induced acts of self-mutilation in order to placate two of the Chinese ‘Emperor Gods’ Kiew Ong Tai Teh and Yok Ong Sone Teh. Following the rituals, the epidemic passed and the ethnic Chinese of Phuket enthusiastically embraced the practices taught by their guests.
Today the festival is centered on the island’s six Chinese temples. Streets surrounding the shrines become nearly impassable during the week, with locals coming and going to make offerings to the gods, parades marching past, and yellow-trimmed food stalls serving all-veggie meals stretching out along the narrow, thronged streets.
Events commence on the new moon with the raising of a great pole or Go Teng at each temple (Sadoh Kroh). It is from this pole that nine gods are invited to descend at midnight prior to the first day of ceremonies. The pole reaches a minimum of ten metres and in addition to being the medium from which the Chinese emperor gods arrive, it is also said by some to bring the Hindu god Shiva, who adds spiritual power to the ceremonies. The festival concludes nine days later with merit-making ceremonies and the gods are sent off with a huge fireworks display on the final night.
All participants are expected to follow ten rules during the course of the ceremonies:
- Keep a clean body
- Keep your kitchen utensils clean and use separate items for those participating and those not participating.
- Wear white, (although with this year’s celebration of the king’s 60th anniversary on the throne, many people wore yellow).
- Behave (sic) physically and mentally
- No meat eating
- No sex
- No alcohol consumption
- People in mourning should not attend the festival.
- Pregnant women should not observe the rituals.
- Menstruating women should not participate in the rituals.
The festival is known particularly for its elaborate morning pageants. These parades were not an original ceremonial element, but have become a focal point for celebrants and observers alike. Some years following the advent of these annual rituals, one man volunteered to return to China in order to bring back sacred incense (Hiao Ho-Ian) and name plaques of the gods (Lian Tui). He returned on the seventh night of that year’s rites and when the people heard of his arrival, they marched in procession to Bang Niao Pier in order to escort him and the sacred objects back to town.
Today, daily parades include the procession of nine Chinese gods. Both effigies and real humans dressed to represent one of the idols are carried on chariots or on the backs of pick up trucks decorated as parade floats. Devotees and their assistants march nearby, along with a host of other followers dressed symbolically according to the deity they are accompanying.
But the most impressive participants in the parades are the Ma Song. Ma Song literally means entranced horse. The term refers to human dedicates who are said to be possessed by the gods. These religious devotees invite the gods to ‘enter’ them during the festival, are said to manifest various supernatural powers and can be seen performing all sorts of acts of self-mutilation. In particular, Ma Song puncture body parts – especially the face – with peculiar objects. This apparent self-torture is intended to shift evil from individuals in the community onto themselves in order to bring good fortune to all. There are two categories of Ma Song: those who, for some reason, believe bad luck is pursuing them and want to eliminate it; and those who have been chosen by the gods because of their high moral character. These trance-induced disciples are also known to walk across hot coals, bathe in boiling oil and climb bladed ladders.
What is interesting is that most of the Ma Song are young – between their mid-teens to mid-twenties. Beside the protrusions from their faces, Ma Song are distinguished by their bare feet and ceremonial attire of brightly colored aprons stitched with gold thread and decorated with dragons and other Chinese symbols.
Noise defines the event. Fireworks explode almost continually and a plentitude of drums bang incessantly in the belief that loud noises scare away evil spirits who might otherwise be drawn to the rituals. Dragons, Chinese lanterns, flowers, music, fireworks, incense smoke, the pungent smell of Chinese root herbs, and the delicate scent of jasmine are the visceral backdrop to an almost surreal scene.
Early one Saturday morning, on a narrow street of densely packed shop houses stained of soot, wood smoke and auto fumes, the bright morning sky goes unnoticed by a crowd of on-lookers. Also ignored are the countless bits of rubbish, bloody tissue, plastic cups and red stains of thousands of fireworks littering the streets. Our attention is now focused on the human drama unfolding before us.
Past us march hundreds of Ma Song. Their tongues, cheeks, arms and other body parts punctured with needles, pins, mechanical tools, plant life, PVC piping and other bizarre items. Adepts claim to feel no pain and do not appear to show signs of injury. Those performing the most extreme acts of mutilation are often accompanied by one or two attendants who can be seen either supporting the ends of large, protruding objects, wiping brows, clearing a path for them as they walk or otherwise supporting these trance-induced devotees.
Float riding attendees pass out candies, colorful string bracelets and pictures of the gods while the gruesomely punctured Ma Song walk quickly, heads forward, eyes glazed. Other parade marchers appear to be in trance, wagging their heads from side to side and looking, if not blissful, at least slightly spaced out. Old women dancing to unheard rhythms; young people adorned in the colours of their particular deity suck on large pacifiers; water blessings are sprinkling over the crowd like a community baptismal; a float of women dressed like brides pass by; young girls in traditional Chinese dress are conveyed on hand-drawn rickshaws; school children march in uniform; and vehicles sporting promotional banners, music, and salesmen broadcasting over horrid loud speakers are interjected between them all.
One particularly daunting god was carried aloft and surrounded by a large group young men. This roughly carved wood figure was nearly naked with wild shocks of hair protruding from its head. Raw, black, unrefined, almost tribal, it stood in a dance-like pose and was nothing like the staid, smooth effigies so typical of the Chinese. Almost all the men had taken off their shirts and wrapped them around heads and faces, reminding me of the Black Shirt protesters and youthful anarchist diaspora that can be found scattered through international G8 protests or US Peace Rallies in New York, San Francisco or DC.
Lining the parade avenue are small offering tables set up by residents with Chinese tea, flowers, incense, fruit offerings set atop gold pedestal trays, bowls of dried rice, and the requisite, lantern-red trim. As various god-possessed Ma Song pass by, they are invited to pause for a small cup of tea or glass of water. Those who stop perform a blessing that may include hoots, hollers or a series of seemingly random poses before moving on.
As the parade draws to a close the streets begin to empty, leaving only the media, a few stragglers and the truly devout to witness its conclusion. One very old man, in deep concentration, lights incense for his altar. His pure intent and tender countenance are reinforced by his totally white attire – including full head of hair. In silent meditation he makes his offering against the tail end of organized chaos and a receding wall of sound.