One of the main cultural events in Phuket is the annual vegetarian festival or tesagan gin je. The festival takes places all over the island, but Phuket town is the heart of it, as there are the most important shrines and temples of the island. During this festivals, the nine emperor gods are worshiped an invited to come down from heaven and take possession of mediums. As I live close to one of the main shrines, the Jui Tui shrine, I of course had to see the ceremonies myself. Jui Tui shrine is located near Phuket’s main market at Ranong road. The main deity of the temple is called tean hu huan soy, a Chinese god associated with performing artists and dancers. The origins of the festival is based on an event which took place about 150 years ago. The mainly Chinese community of Phuket invited a troupe of Chinese opera entertainers. Many of the artists fell suddenly ill. To cure themselves, they then abstained from meat and alcohol and prayed to the Nine Emperor Gods. The locals were so impressed by their recovery, that they decided to venerate the Nine Emperor Gods (and whatever other gods too of course) and abstain from sex, alcohol and meat during 9 days every year to ensure good health for themselves.
The event begins with the rising of the poles. At around 5 pm on the first day the poles are erected at the different worship places. Those pole are believed to be gateways between earth and heaven, and it is there, where the gods are believed to descent to earth and take possession of certain people during the festivals. The Jui Tui shrine was very crowded at 5 pm and the air was thick from the firecrackers and the incense sticks. There was a wired tenseness inside the temple complex, like people were waiting for something. It was too crowded to go outside, where the pole was raised, so I stayed inside the building and witnessed the people around me. Suddenly I heard some people screaming and making strange moves. Right in front of me, a woman began to waggle her head and then her whole body was shaking. When she started to behave strangely, people put her in a red coat to mark her as a mah song or a person, which is possessed by a spirit. The mah song practice during the vegetarian festivals, is actually not a Chinese tradition itself, but originally Thai. As the Chinese settled in Thailand, they of course adopted many Thai cultural values and practices. The adaption of Thai culture went so far, that today most Phuketians aren’t able to speak Chinese anymore and often have to sent their kids to Chinese schools to learn the language again. The mah song are important elements in Thai popular folk Buddhism, and are consulted for advice by people from every class of society. The process of becoming a mah song is usually rather difficult and the future mediums are often sick a long time, before they become a medium. But at this festivals, it seems that ordinary people can become such mah song. Those shaking mediums, which sometimes made noises like animals are believed to be incarnated by the invited Chinese gods. Thus they are venerated and people go on their knees and pray to them. I wondered how much this possession thing had to do with the wish of certain people to become the center of attention and if this transformations really happened uncontrolled. At least the mediums looked very authentic and their behavior changed dramatically. Finally I made it out of the building into the entry area. I observed three men dressed in specific dresses started to shake and jump around in front of the poles. Then they started to light up incense sticks and then draw the sticks through hitting them on their body. Another guy got attention in that he hit himself with a whip till he was bleeding. After about an hour or so, the crowds dispersed and gave place to smaller groups of worshipers. Some hours later, the crowds regathered at the shrine, as the gods are believed to descent at the poles late at night, but as it was raining heavy, I preferred staying at home and skip this event. On the next day wasn’t much going on, but we decided to stroll a bit around and try some of the vegetarian foods at the little street market in front of the Jui Tui temple. There were hundreds of small street stalls and restaurants and a huge variety of vegetarian (some shops offered meat too though) foods.
Also my girlfriend decided to make some offerings to the female Bodhisattva called Guanyin. To venerate a certain god or goddess Thai people usually buy incense sticks, candles, flowers or oil for lamps as well as more specific offerings, depending on the likes of the god or spirit (could be toys, black sweets, fruits, eggs an many other things). In the Jui Tui temple they offered some colorful ships, which they burned in a fire to pay respect to a certain god. At a small room at the entrance of the temple, they periodically set fire to very noisy firecrackers.
There were processions every morning, everyday from different shrines and temples. As it was raining on the first and second big procession days (the 7th and 8th), I skipped those events and got some more sleep instead. On the 9th however, the sun was shining, perfect conditions to visit a procession. I drove up to Ban Tha Rua in Thalang from where the procession started. On the way up, I discovered shrines with fruits, candles, flowers and small cups of water (or whatever was inside there). The shrines were set up on both sides of the street, about every 50 – 100 meter. People were waiting for the mah song of the procession to walk by, so they could pray to them and offer foods. Before I arrived at the shrine, I saw the first caravans. They played loud music from several cars and fired plenty of very loud firecrackers. The firecrackers have the purpose to keep evil spirits away from the caravan. Almost every caravan was accompanied by a mah song. The mediums pierced thin poles, as well as other objects up to the seize of baseball clubs, through their cheeks or ears. There was astonishingly little blood though. Also some mah song with more severe damages, had some blood dropping from their mouths. Those ones were always accompanied by worshipers and friends who cleaned their bloody chins with tissues. The self-torture is believed to clean the society of their sins, in that the medium shifts bad karma from individuals onto themselves. The mediums stopped at the shrines and the worshipers went on their knees and started to pray to them and offer them foods. The mah song blessed them, sprayed holy water over their heads and distributed sweets, fruits and other goods to the worshipers in return.
On the 10th, I visited the morning procession again, this time the processions started at the Bang Neow and Cheng Thalay shrines. Everything I wrote above, was also true for this procession, except that it was bigger, much noisier and the self-torture more severe. But let’s the pictures tell the story.
In the evening of the same day, there was a fire-walking event at Saphan Hin, Phuket’s recreational park at the east coast. It was pretty crowded and I was quite far away for my 30 mm camera, thus the pictures are a bit low quality (had to use digital zoom). Before the fire-walking started, some mah song danced around the fire, hold their black flags before there heads and wrote magical spells with their fingers on the flag. During the whole event, there was music played from traditional Thai instruments, as well as the noise of firecrackers and rockets shot into the sky. After about 1 hour waiting, the procession finally arrived. Now they run around the bed of hot coals and finally stopped to form a line before the hot coal. Some guys started to prepare the hot coal for the fire-walking. The music stopped and it became very quiet. Then the first guy run through the coal pile. Some guys walked amazingly slow, and I wondered how their feet could have stand the heat.
On the following last three days was the ladder walking at several shrines, every evening. The mah song climbed a approximately 15 meter high ladder, of which the stairs were made up of sharp knives. It was very crowded and difficult for me, to get close to the ladder, so I had too take shots from about 50 meter distance.
On the last day of the Phuket Vegetarian Festival several processions from all the important shrines took place. All processions arrived around midnight at Saphan Hin Park. Allover the city were fireworks and firecrackers, it was pretty loud, the air full of smoke and the ambulance sirens could be heard everywhere. Especially when the mah song walked by, people especially became enthusiastic to light up ear-battering fireworks. We stayed first in the old town, to watch some processions walk through, and then moved to Saphan Hin before midnight. At Saphan Hin, there were shrines and candles everywhere, and people sit beside the streets and in the the grass. There were a lot of street stalls which offered plenty of meat products, and long lines in front of the shops, made of people who finally were allowed to eat meat again, as the festival was concluded at midnight. We bought some grilled chicken, fired some last firecrackers and went back home, not so unhappy to know, that on the next day, the air would be clean again. Nevertheless, the festival was a great experience of local Thai/Chinese culture, and I will look forward to next years festival.