Phuket’s annual Vegetarian Festival (also known as the Nine Emperor Gods Festival) gives a fearsome new meaning to the concept of veggie kebab.
INSIDE PHUKET’S JUI TUI SHRINE,a queue of perspiring, half-naked young men, their heads shaking with ‘ spirit-possension’ a wait their turn to be pierced through the cheeks with a steel spear. A burly man with surgical gloves daubs alcohol on the cheek of a youth who is supported by another man from behind. Then the long, sharp steel shaft, like a gargantuan needle, is carfully pierced through the youth’s cheek. He winces,but otherwise shows no sign of pain.
I cringe from the sight of blood, which is quickly wiped up ,but the shaking and drooling continues, indicating thet the spirit-god has accept the pain. Then a gaint skewer is inserted into the gaping hole left by the ‘needle ‘, and whole pineapples are speared on. Two attendants help the pronged bearer support his spiky load, and then the next in the line of young men is readied to repeart the process, each one with a different object to insert. Outside, explosions punctuate the morning calm as mischievous youngsters throw firecrackers at each other. The acrid smell of gunpowder mixed with clouds of fragrant smoke hangs heavy in the air. Firecracker-laden bamboo poles are readied to ignite on signal, then eardrum-shattering explosions rip the air as the pierced man begin their gory procession.
The first man has a six-foot spear bursting through his cheeks. But that’s nothing compared to what protudes from the faces of his companions; one sports a blade-fan; another razor-blades; two have goose-necked lamp. One man has even jammed motorcycle handle-bar through his face. Meanwhile, those on the conventional side sport skwers bearing fruits, while others have stems of flowers; a spray of purple orchids protudes from the side of one fellow’s mouth. Devotees kneel as the palanquins pass, while the spirit mediumn distribute blessing tokens such as orange and red ribbons printed with auspicious Chinese characters.
Five important temples in Phuket house many of the sacred icons used in this festival and each has its own procession on separate days. In preparation for the annual event, each shrine is meticulously cleansed the day before the first day of the ninth lunar month. Joss sticks are burnt to purify the districts. On the evening of the first day, a large bamboo pole bearing nine oil lamps is raised before each shrine. This serves as a home for the Nine Emperor Gods are central to the rituals. the nine Gods that are said to be celestial deities and represent the seven stars of the Big Dipper, with the two other gods dwelling in two other nearby stars visible only to the immortals.
Around town, nearly everyone wears white, indicating their participation in the festival. Many companies – from motor cars to transvestite cabarets – donate T-shirts imprinted with their logos, and it’s not unusual to see troops of devotees parading all garbed in the same T-shirt. The festival’s finale occurs shortly before midnight of the last day, when a long procession of the spirit-possessed and devotees from all five temples make a last parade through town to the incessant clang and boom of cymbals, drums, gongs and exploding firecrackers. A thick cloud of acrid smoke hangs over the city, and Phuket feels like a war zone.
Ash from a sacred urn is poured into the sea and, with this, the gods are supposed to return to heaven until next year. Once the final ceremony is over, after nine days of abstinence and sobriety, the people don their normal street clothes, hit the bottle and resume their usual non-vegeterian diet, which in maritime Phuket means lots of seafood.
However, in the temples one important ritual remains for the the tenth day. This is the lamp lowering ceremony. At the auspicious time, the nine lamps are brought down and the sacred oil is distributed amongst the faithful as tokens of mercy. As the oil believed to hold healing powers, devotees rub it on their body to cure ailments such as rheumatism. A small vial of the precious oil is supposed to bring luck for the coming year. Local residents say that the event gets bigger and better each year, with visitors coming from Malaysia and Singapore as well as other parts of Thailand to take part. Similar, but smaller vegetarian festivals are held in nieghbouring southern Thai cities such as Trang and Hat Yai. Although tourists are welcomed, and parade routes and schedules are printed by both the TAT ( Tourism Authority of Thailand ) and privately by a soy milk company, the festival is not really a major tourist attraction and many holiday-makers on Phuket’s beach resorts even remain unaware of it; so don’t miss this fascinating fesival if you’re on the island in early October.
Phuket’s vegetarian festival, the Chinese community ,and tin are all interwined. Phuket’s tin boom in a wave of Chinese labourers to work the tin mines. By mid-century,an estimated 30,000 Chinese were employed by tin mines on the island.
The immigrants imported ancient Chinese practices and beliefs with them, including the adoption of a vegetarian diet during the ninth lunar month for the purpose of purification and adverting misfortunes for the coming year. But the idea staging a local festival was initiated by a touring Chinese opera company. In 1820’s, the opera company was performing in the settlement of Ban Katun when a mysterious fever struck, decimating the town.
Desperate for a solution, the actors thought misfortune had descended because they had failed to observe the ancient rituals properly. They hastily arranged a ceremony in the theatre which had the dramatic effect of mysteriously curing all those afflicted.In gratitude, The community erected a shrine near the present day Kathu temple, and continued the annual ceremony. Envoys were sent to China to bring the requisite sacred objects ,scriptures and priests so that the proper ceremonies could be perfumed.
The earliest festivals saw performances of ‘ magical ‘ feats such as cheek and tongue piercing with sharp objects. Some devotees would walk on hot coals or climb bladed ladders. Miraculously, there was little bloodshed or burns; wounds healed quickly with blessed joss papers, and these feats remain integral to the modern-day festival.
The gods are offered the same vegetarian food as that eaten by devotees during the festival. Since most Phuket City residents also adopt the complete vegetarian diet for entire nine-day period, manybutchers take a nine-day holiday as well. Even western fast-food chains like KFC and McDonald’s experience a drastic drop in local business during the nine days. One reataurant run by a Taoist cult serves tofu ‘ drumsticks ‘ that taste for all the world like ‘ Kentucky Fied ‘. And for fast food junkies, stalls offer veggie burgers but without the slice of onion, as a garlic, onions and shallots are also taboo. Visitors to Phuket looking for culinary adventure can enjoy the varied vegetarian dishes on offer at the many special food stalls that line the alleys around the Chinese temples. During the nine day period, even ordinary restaurants serve kin jay ( vegetarian food ). ” There is an amazing variety ” says one Patong Beach hotelier, ” I went out to eat at the stalls for nine days and during that time I never repeated dishes. ” While inveterate carnivores may balk at the meatless diet, serious vegetarians will think they’ve died and gone to heaven.
Grazing from stall to stall or eating a meal, one can easily fill up for less than forty baht ( about one US dollar ). Many companies also set up stalls offering free samples of their vegetarian products such as instant noodles, soy milk, dairyless ice creams, or tamarind tea.
The temples give away food for a donation and some families just eat the temple-cooked food for nine days. Some volunteer their services to work in the temple kitchens. Thus, the vegetarian festival brings the entire community together.