“ A festival to purify one's mind and soul through the practise of refraining from eating meat. „
The Vegetarian festival, Jia Chai in local Chinese dialect, is held annually in Phuket Thailand. The festival is also known as The Nine Emperor Gods Festival.
There are 10 rules to observe during the festival which entail more than just being vegetarian. I have witnessed and taken part in some of the rituals for the past two years and really find it a fascinating time.
The main highlight is the parades where you can witness the Mah Song devotees. Participation is said to bring good luck, spiritual cleansing and to bring merit to the community.
The festival started back in 1825 when much of Phuket Island was covered by jungle and many were prone to fever. In the Kathu district were located a lot of tin mines which were mined by Chinese miners.
A travelling Chinese opera company came to perform for the miners, and the whole cast quickly became ill from an unknown fever. But the opera company adopted a vegetarian diet and practiced ceremonies in honor of the Nine Emperor Gods -Kiu Ong Tai Te and the Jade Emperor - Yok Ong, the fever quickly disappeared.
The local people became very interested by this and ever since then from the first night of the 9th lunar month and for a further 9 nights the ritual is observed.
Later a follower of the festival from Phuket returned to China to invite some sacred items and writings which hold the status of gods to come back to Phuket. When he returned with the items the locals all went to the pier to help bring back the sacred items, this procession was the origin of the processions that feature heavily in the festival today.
*The rules *
Here are the 10 published rules for participants of the festival...
1. Cleanliness of bodies during the festival
2. Clean kitchen utensils and to use them separately from other who do not join the festival
3. Wear white during the festival
4. Behave physically and mentally
5. No meat eating
6. No sex
7. No alcoholic drinks
8. People at mourning period should not attend the festival
9. Pregnant ladies should not watch any ritual
10. Ladies with period should not attend the ritual
*Mah Song - Entranced horses*
The Mah Song or entranced horses are fundamental to the festival and at the centre of the rituals. The Mah Song are mediums which the gods enter during the festival, the vast majority are men but there also a few female Mah Song. They are easily recognisable by their strange high pitched chatter, their rhythmic shaking heads and a kind of strange skip to their walk.
During the festival the mediums are protected by the gods and commit various forms of self torture in order to shift evil from the community to themselves. Some of the tortures they endure are piercing of the cheeks, walking bladed ladders and walking over fire - but as they are protected by the gods they are said to walk away unharmed with no lasting scars.
*Lantern pole raising ritual*
This ceremony marks the start of the festival and takes place on the last day of the eighth lunar month. Within the grounds of the temples the Go Teng pole is raised to act as a kind of conduit by which the gods can return to Earth, at midnight nine lanterns are hung in the pole. From this time onwards the 10 rules are observed.
*Propitiation of the 7 stars*
This ritual takes places on the 5th day of the festival to appease the 7 stars. In Taoist cosmology, the Nine Emperors Gods are said to reside in the seven stars, Chit Chaen, which we would know as the Big Dipper. The Big Dipper has 7 visible and 2 invisible stars.
All of the shrines have the chance to participate in the processions on different days, so most days of the festival this occurs. It's probably the most well know of the festivities and attract large crowds daily.
The parades are the best way to see the Mah Song in action, the crowds and also homes and businesses along the route receive blessing from the gods by way of the mediums. Many homes set up tables outside with offerings of incense, candles, fruit, flowers and foods. The parade consists of music from traditional Chinese bands, the gods are carried along the route in sedan chairs and firecrackers are lit over them as they pass.
But the highlight for most is the Mah Song, which can be seen enduring various tortures mainly to the face. Some are fine to watch some a little stomach churning to see. All manner of objects are used, sharpened spikes, knifes, umbrellas, swords, table lamps, flags all penetrating through the cheeks, some are seen to beat themselves with stick or swords also. They give blessing to the crowd by waving their flags over heads and by accepting the offerings along the route.
*Fire walking ritual*
This ritual is just what it says; the devotees are to walk over hot coals in order to repel the evil represented by fire. There is a lot of ceremony at the start and a large build up for what is essentially over within a few minutes. The fire walkers are unharmed only if they are cleansed by observing the rules of the vegetarian festival.
*Bridge crossing ritual*
One of the last rituals to take place is Koi Harn (the bridge crossing ritual) on the 9th day of the festival. It takes place in all the shrines and the actualities of it vary slightly. The participants cross over a bridge constructed in the grounds of the shrine, shoes are removed and a two inked stamps are placed onto their back as they cross. The crossing is to cleanse from impurities and to offer good fortune. You can see many of the white shirts being worn during the festival are adorned with multiple stamps on the back from past years; the stamp represents the nine emperor gods. It's a good chance also to see the Mah Song up close.
To those who did not know what was happening it would seem like Phuket is under siege on the final night of the festival. Thousands upon thousands of fireworks and loud firecrackers are exploding all around, the air thick with smoke, wise veteran spectators can be seen with cotton wool in their ears, and goggles to protect their eyes, one or two are even seen wearing motorcycle helmets for added protection. The fireworks are thrown around haphazardly well before the farewell ritual gets going.
The farewell ritual marks the return of the gods to heaven, all the shrines send off the gods via water, for most this is at Saphan Hin into the sea which is within walking distance of Phuket Town. The routes are lines with spectators anxiously awaiting the processions. The gods are transported from the shrines and are carried in sedan chairs, when they pass by the volume of fireworks increases immensely many firecrackers are lit and suspended over the parade by bamboo poles. When the main god is carried past the fireworks stop and eerily the thousands of spectators lining the street sink to their knees.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand publish a leaflet with routes of parades and times of the rituals.
TAT Southern Office: Region 4, 73-75 Phuket Road, Muang , Phuket
Tel: +66 (0) 7621 7138, (0) 7621 2213
The Jui Tui shrine in Phuket Town on Ranong Road has an information desk set up during the festival, Tel : +66 (0) 7621 3243. This like many of the major shrines is worth a visit at any time of year.
(Historical facts etc were obtained from TAT leaflet)
UPDATE: This years festival will be held from 17th - 26th October 2009 - see you there?