Today marks the start of the annual Vegetarian Festival (thetsakan gin jeh — เทศกาลกินเจ), Phuket’s version of the Nine Emperor Gods Festival (九皇爺 — Jiǔhuángyé in Chinese pinyin or Kow Wong Yeh in Cantonese). This is a nine-day Taoist celebration beginning on the eve of the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar and is widely celebrated throughout Southeast Asia. The biggest (and most dramatic) festivities occur within the numerous shrines and temples dotted primarily in the region of Phuket Town in the south-eastern portion of the island of Phuket, with the roadways between being the site of grand processions of the faithful and huge crowds of spectators, all dressed in white.
In accordance with the traditions, many religious devotees will perform ritualized mutilation upon themselves and one another (with the consent of, context and understanding of all involved and the practice itself) while under a trance-like state, including but not limited to: impaling through cheeks, arms, face, legs, back etc., with everything from as small as syringes to as large as is agreed upon between all members; partial skinning (the skin is not removed, just cut and flipped over); slashing of limbs, chest, stomach and especially tongue with swords, axes and knives; bloodletting; removal of tissue (normally limited to cysts) and intentionally wrapping or standing near fire crackers as they are lit.
This is done without anesthetic, always inside or near the temples surrounded by other devotees with only iodine, petroleum jelly and surgical gloves as precautionary measures. Despite this scenario, many of the same people performing the rituals are also the people who will care for many of the people in their recovery. The actual impaling is done by doctors and physicians in the community, is planned out for weeks if not months in advance and medical teams are present in and around temple grounds for the entire time of the festival, with spectators frequently needing more help than the devotees, who remain in a trance during this process and are monitored through the entire event in case they should drop out of concentration, in which case they are immediately taken to medical professionals regardless of the circumstances to minimize post trance bleeding.
To this effect few people ever need to have prolonged medical treatment, and although in the weeks after the festival many people will be seen covered in bandages, scarring is uncommon, stitching, even on individual devotees who impale their cheeks, is rare, and return to daily activity for the devotees occurs shortly after the completion of the ritual, frequently before the festival ends unless performed on the last days, much sooner than before the bandages themselves are removed.
The purpose of this practice is a mixture of veneration for their gods and ancestors, to display their devotion to their beliefs and the trance itself, which although anecdotal in nature to what is experienced, has a profound impact upon demeanor for days or weeks after, frequently with devotees appearing exceptionally calm and focused in their day-to-day activities after the festival is completed.
During a period of nine days, those who are participating in the festival dress all in white and gin jeh (กินเจ), which has come to be translated as abstinence from eating meat, poultry, seafood, and dairy products. Vendors and proprietors of restaurants indicate that jeh food is for sale at their establishments by putting a yellow flag out with the word เจ (jeh) written on it in red. However, technically, only food prepared in the sacred kitchen of the Chinese temple (in Thailand, called sarnjao ศาลเจ้า or um อ๊ำ) is jeh, as it must undergo a series of rituals before it can be given that name.
Masong (ม้าทรง) are the people who invite the spirits of gods to possess their bodies. Ma (ม้า) is the word for horse in Thai, and the name masong refers to how the spirits of the gods use the bodies of these people as a vehicle, as one rides a horse. Only pure, unmarried men or women without families of their own can become masong. At the temple they undergo a series of rituals to protect them for the duration of the festival, during which flagellation and self-mutilation is practiced. The masong tradition doesn’t exist in China and is believed to have been adopted from the Indian festival of Thaipusam.
The festivities in Phuket include processions of masong wearing elaborate costumes who pierce their cheeks and tongues with all manner of things, including swords, banners, machine guns, table lamps, and flowers. While the face is the most common area pierced, some also pierce their arms with pins and fishhooks. Teams of people accompany the masong to keep their wounds clean and to help support the heavier piercings. It is believed that while they are possessed the masong will not feel any pain. They can also be seen shaking their heads back and forth continually, and usually do not seem to “see” their surroundings. At the temple during the festival there is also firewalking and blade-ladder climbing. While large crowds of people gather to watch, the entranced masong distribute blessed candy and pieces of orange cloth with Chinese characters printed on them yang (ยังต์) for good luck.
The Nine Emperor Gods (Jiǔ Huáng Xīng Jūn / Jiǔ Huáng Da Di — 九皇星君/九皇大帝 are the nine sons manifested by Father Emperor Zhou YuDou Fu Yuan Jun (斗父周御國王天尊) and Mother of the Big Dipper Dou Mu Yuan Jun (斗母元君) who holds the Registrar of Life and Death. The worship of Dou Fu Yuan Jun has declined strongly as proper teachings of Taoism degenerate since being exported out of China. Today, most Nine Emperor God temples do not acknowledge the existence of Dou Fu Yuan Jun. However, Dou Fu Yuan Jun is invoked alongside Dou Mu Yuan Jun in Great Dipper Honoring known as Li Dou (禮斗) ceremonies. Honoring the Northern Dipper stars prolongs one’s life, eliminate calamities, and absolves sins and past debts of oneself and his family.
The term Ye (爺) as in Jiu Huang Ye (九皇爺) loosely translates as “Grandfather”, a title worshipers commonly use to bring a more intimate relationship between themselves and the Nine Emperors. The Nine Emperor Gods should not be mixed up with the Wang Ye or Princes of the Ming rebels. Popular folk culture has it that the Nine Emperor Gods are actually sea pirates of the Ming dynasty that plotted to overthrow the Qing dynasty.Some interpret the teachings to be that the Nine Emperor Gods are actually high-ranking Star Lords who preside over the movement of planets and coordinate mortal Life and Death issues.
On the eve of the ninth moon (September 30 in 2016), temples of the deities hold a ceremony to invoke and welcome the Nine Emperor Gods. Since the arrival of the gods is believed to be through the waterways, processions are held from temples to the sea shore or river to symbolize this belief. Devotees dressed in traditional white, carrying incense and candles, await the arrival of the Nine Emperor Gods.
A carnival-like atmosphere pervades the temple throughout the nine-day festival. During this period of time, the constant tinkling of a prayer bell and chants from the temple priests are heard. Most devotees stay at the temple, eat vegetarian meals and recite continuous chanting of prayer. It is believed that there will be rain throughout the nine days of celebration.
The ninth day of the festival is its climax. Processions which draw scores of devotees sends the deities back home. In Phuket, this means that each of the temples throughout the island (some walking as far as the northern town of Thalang or the west coast community of Cherng Talay) has its own grand procession, all of which converge on Phuket Town while traveling to the seacoast at a section of shoreline called Sapan Hin, south of town.
During this grand finale, from about 9:00 pm until the wee hours of the morning, most areas of the town are quite chaotic. I tend to observe the proceedings from the area of a large traffic circle just south of the town center. Six roads from different directions enter the circle with another running parallel. Every procession passes through this area numerous times and the air becomes so thick with smoke from the fireworks that everyone’s white clothes soon turn black from the soot. All the spectators throw huge strings of powerful firecrackers, not only towards the masong but also at each other and any cars or motorbikes attempting to pass through the area. I’ve often compared it to a Baghdad firefight!
This year, frustrated by a complete lack of official postcards to mark the Phuket Vegetarian Festival, I created my own using two of my favorite photographs from previous years. These were printed by MOO Ltd. in London and just arrived a few days ago. I’ve already traded away most of the batch! (Next year, I may create new postcards for a Thai friend to sell in the local markets.) I will attempt to have various temples apply their rubber stamp “chops” to the cards before I mail them out to the lucky recipients!