The theme for this year’s Phuket Vegetarian Festival seemed to be “angry rain gods” — we had torrential downpours each of the past ten days. Since I now live in Phuket Town where many of the activities were centered, I had planned to attend at least one event each day of this year’s festival. In the end, mainly because of the damp weather, I only made it to three rituals. But I had a great time at each (and — if the rain ends — I plan to attend the “closing” tonight which supposedly has the most spectacular fireworks). I also shot some really interesting photos and video, which I’ll be sharing over the next few days, along with quite a bit of commentary.
According to this year’s official programme, Phuket’s Vegetarian Festival
(or jia chai in local Hokkien dialect) began in 1825, when the governor of Thalang, Praya Jerm, moved the island’s principal town from Ta Reua in Thalang District to Get–Hoe in Kathu District, where were tin mines and Chinese miners. Kathu was then still covered by jungle and fever was rife. It happened that a traveling opera company (called ngiu in Thai or pua-hee in Hokkien dialect) came from China to perform for the miners.
When the whole company grew sick from an unnamed malady, they kept to a vegetarian diet to honor two of the emperor gods, Kiew Ong Tai Teh and Yok Ong Sone Teh. The sickness afflicting the opera troupe then disappeared. This greatly interested the people of Kathu, who asked how it was done. The answer came that ritual vegetarianism with its attendant ceremonies had been the cause, with the result that people embraced the faith enthusiastically. Thus the festival began: starting the first evening of the ninth lunar month, it continued until the ninth evening; the aim was to bring good luck to individuals as well as to the community.
It later happened that one familiar with the festival volunteered to return to Kansai, in China, where he invited the sacred Hiao Ho-le or Hiao lan (incense smoke) and Lian Tui (name plaques), which have the status of gods, to come stay in Kathu. He also brought holy writings used in the ceremonies, returning to Phuket on the seventh night of the ninth month. The people, upon hearing of his arrival, went in procession to Bang Niao Pier to bring him and his sacred cargo back. This was the origin of the processions that figure so greatly in the festival.
Last Monday night I observed the Invitation Ritual, also known as the Tall Lantern Pole Ritual, at Jui Tui Tao Bo Keng Shrine. The shrine itself has a rather interesting history as it was originally located in Soi Angahlai, which was renamed Soi Rommanee when it became Phuket Town’s authorized red-light district in the early twentieth century. Due to a fire in the neighborhood which damaged the shrine, the villagers took the Hiew-hoy, or holy incense ash, to Pud Jor Shrine which sits at the corner of present-day Ranong Road and Soi Phutorn. During that year’s vegetarian festival, the locals moved the statue to a temporary shrine located at the Plu plantation in the middle of a betel vine garden adjacent to Pud Jor Shrine. The garden owner later donated the land to the “Kiew Ong Tai Teh” for the construction of Jui Tui Shrine, originally roofed with thatch.
A great pole, called Go Teng, is raised at each Chinese temple in Phuket on the afternoon before the start of the vegetarian festival. This is the last day of the eighth lunar month on the Chinese calendar. The purpose of the pole is to invite the Jade Emperor (Yok Ong Tai Teh) and the Nine Emperor Gods (Kiu Ong Tai Teh) to descend to earth in order to preside over the ceremonies. At midnight the hole is hung with nine lanterns signalling the opening of the festival.
During the festival, devotees wear white garments — these can be found for sale throughout Phuket prior to and during the festival — while eating vegetarian food and avoiding alcohol and physical contact with the opposite sex. Gambling, theft, and killing (right down to attempting not to accidentally step on insects while walking or swatting mosquitoes) are prohibited, as it hurting or “causing trouble” to others and the use of kitchen utensils or containers from non-participants. Devotees are not even allowed to eat with those not observing the precepts, nor are they allowed to wear fashion accessories of metal or leather. People in mourning and women who are either menstruating or pregnant are not allowed to attend any of the rituals.
All of this is designed to achieve full purification of the body and is considered “an act of contrition or expurgation for the sins incurred by the killing and consumption of animals in the course of the past year. &nbs[p;It is also a test of one’s power of endurance, self-discipline and penances.”
The Lantern Pole Raising at Jui Tui was scheduled to begin at 17:09. As I walked along Ranong Road on my way to the shrine I was pleased at the size of the crowds. A number of food stalls lined both sides of the busy thoroughfare and traffic was having difficulty squeezing through. It was difficult to make headway as the sidewalks were largely blocked by vendors and buses, cars, motorbikes, and pedestrians clogged the ever-narrowing roadway. If someone in front of you suddenly stopped to check out some food item, you constantly ran the risk of being hit from behind by either another person or one of the many motorbikes trying to weave their way through the crowd. I’m used to all this, and actually enjoy the challenge of wading through it, but I can see where it would be extremely frustrating to those who visit. A lot of this could be prevented by making a greater effort at keeping the sidewalks more accessible.
Things opened up a bit as I turned left onto Soi Phuthon. However, vehicular traffic was blocked by a Highway Patrol cruiser and several fancy cars parked in the center of the lane. These, of course, belonged to the VIP’s attending the evening’s rituals.
I ascended the steps into the shrine and was immediately jostled from behind by a huge mass of people who suddenly surged forward. I had no choice but be pushed forward by this wave, eventually winding up in the near center of the shrine’s courtyard. It wasn’t the ideal location but at least I was inside. I’d arrived almost an hour before the ceremony was due to begin and was glad I had. If I’d approached the shrine much later I would not have been able to enter. It was so crowded that I could barely raise my arm to take a photo or shoot video.
The lantern pole wasn’t too far in front of my location; it was laying on its side across the breadth of the crowd, held aloft by a number of helpers and guarded by various Ma Song — the spirit mediums whom the gods enter. These are the devotees — both male and female — who “manifest supernatual powers” and pierce sharp objects through their bodies to bring the community good luck and present the powers of the gods. These self-tortures are supposed to shift evil from individuals onto themselves.
Throughout the afternoon there was a lot of chanting and flag-waving. I watched several of the Ma Song go into their trances — some just shake their heads back and forth, others do interesting things with their hands and fingers while a few looked as if they were tripping at a Grateful Dead concert, dancing to music only they could hear.
My favorite part of any Chinese ceremony is when the drums and gongs start sounding out. It always send shivers up my spine as I get excited anticipating whatever event the percussion is announcing. It was in the midst of this pounding rhythm that the pole suddenly sprang skyward, punctuated by many rounds of very loud fireworks. The pole was extremely tall — it appeared to be two very straight tree trunks lashed together, topped with a spray of gold-painted branches. A yellow and red banner waved from around mid-height. Devotees were waving banners furiously, the chanting was at a fever pitch, and the Ma Song appeared completely possessed by their resident gods. The cacophony died down after a period of time but came up again as a second pole moved through the crowd. This soon rose up as a crossbar to the first, looking sort of like the boom on a ship’s mast. This is the pole from which hung the nine lanterns.
As soon as the second pole was in place a great disturbance caused the crowd to suddenly push backwards, shoving those behind up against the shrine’s outer walls. I was squeezed from all sides and couldn’t moved at all out of fear I’d step on somebody. Everyone was pushing, a few people fell to the ground, and there was some screaming from the front. Some people in front of me had looks of genuine fear on their faces while others struggled to videotape what had caused this shift in the audience.
From the camera screens in front of me I could see a number of beefy-looking Ma Song, looking like the world’s most-tattooed Sumo wrestlers — gathering into a large circle and beginning to swirl what first appeared to me as large sticks. These turned out to be a variety of axes and swords. Once they had swung these through the air they began wailing them against their own backs. It wasn’t until I’d watched my (very shaking) video afterwards that I could see bloody gashes appearing on their backs during this display of self-mutilation. They seemed to do this in complete disregard of the safety of the spectators as I assumed they had to be in trances in order to perform this. It’s a wonder nobody was seriously injured.
Towards the end of this part of the ritual the heavens opened up – literally. The rain poured down and the already pushed-to-the-limit crowed quickly shoved their way towards the single entry/exit gate. I was pushed along with the majority and managed to find secure footing behind one of the pillars at the gate. I remained under a narrow overhang for the duration of the downpour.
Reentering the shrine I found several groups of Ma Song with groups of devotees and other spectators gathered around. I watched one fellow rubbing burning joss sticks across his arms and chest after which he was given a whip which he began flagellating himself with. Finally, somebody gave him a sharp dagger which he ran repeatedly across his lower lip until blood covered his chin. At one point he broke his trance for a moment for a wicked-looking grin. Afterwards he wiped his blood on a black flag with red Chinese characters. Devotees then approached and reverently touched the flag.
I’d already seen a great deal and the festival hadn’t even officially started. I felt that was enough for one evening and so I left Jui Tui long before the Jade Emperor and Nine Emperor God Propitiation was scheduled to begin. A few further rain showers made my decision an easy one. However, I didn’t head straight home — after making a detour to buy yet another umbrella I headed to the Clock Tower Circle on Montri Road (just west of the Metropole Hotel). The city had placed a number of lighted Chinese statues around the clock tower to mark the festival. It was quiet on this particular night but has since become a nightly scene of youths congregating and throwing fireworks at passing motorists (I got hit by one the other night while on the back of a motorbike). And that’s only my real complaint about this and other Chinese festivals in Phuket: there are an awful lot of kids who delight in throwing firecrackers at other people, be they stranger or friend. I personally know somebody who’s child lost an eye in this way so it’s something that really bothers me.
In Part 2, probably early next week, I’ll write about the fire walking ritual and give some details about the street processions which occur most mornings of the Vegetarian Festival. I will also publish a few photo galleries, not to mention some video, as soon as I can get them all uploaded.