2015 Phuket Vegetarian Festival: Day 1 – Lantern Pole Raising

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Each year, the people of Thailand celebrate a vegetarian festival which begins on the 15th day of the waning of the 10th month of the Thai lunar calendar.  Many Thai people observe the rites of the festival even if they do not eat Thai vegetarian food the rest of the year.  The largest celebration, by far, occurs in Phuket


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During the festival, believers follow eight precepts, deriving from Chinese Mahayana Buddhism, called practicing “jay”.  They avoid eating any animal meat, keep up a high moral standard of good deeds in their actions, words and thoughts by keeping their bodies clean, keeping all eating utensils clean, making sure they don’t share their utensils with non-believers, avoiding the killing or harming of all animals, and being mindful of their actions and thoughts by abstaining from sex and alcohol. White is worn to signify this purity.

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Not all vegetarian food is allowed, either.  Pungent vegetables such as garlic or onions aren’t eaten as they are thought to inflame the passions and lead people to anger or lust.  The food during the festival is made without using any eggs or milk with hot and spicy chili peppers avoided as well.

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The official opening of the Phuket Vegetarian Festival for 2015 occurred yesterday, 12 October, with the raising of large poles — known as go-teng — as the various Chinese shrines.  These welcome the Nine Emperor Gods of the Chinese Taoist religion and they descend from the heavens via the pole.  Each shrine’s go-teng pole is decorated with nine lanterns and devotees light candles around the pole.  They bring shrines or images of deities from their own homes for the shrine to receive their spiritual energy.  Along with the lantern pole, each temple has nine chairs for the gods to sit in; these sometimes have statues placed in them to simulate the invisible gods.  Loud drums are beat around the temples and during the procession routes to scare away evil spirits.

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I like to attend the lantern-pole raising at Jui Tui Shrine, just to the west of the fresh market area on Ranong Road.  It is always a good idea to get there early so you can still move around a bit and stake out a preferred bit of ground.  By 4:30 or so, you cannot move at all.  But it is important not to get too close because as soon as the lantern holder is raised, a group of entranced Ma Song begin self-mutilation by wildly swinging axes and machetes and the crowd tried to shove themselves backwards and away…

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The first Phuket Vegetarian Festival was held in 1825 when the governor of Thalang, Praya Jerm, relocated the island’s principal town from Ta Rua to Get Ho (near Kathu) to be closer to the tin mines.  A Chinese opera troupe was visiting at the time and its members grew ill.  They kept to a vegetarian diet and soon the sickness disappeared.  The people of Kathu were impressed and braced the ritual ceremonies surrounding the practice of vegetarianism.  A festival celebrating this was started on the first evening of the ninth lunar month and continued for nine days.  Some time later, a devotee returned to Kansai in China and invited the sacred Hiao Ian (sacred smoke) and Lian Tui (name plaques), which have the status of gods, to come and stay in Kathu.  He returned to Phuket during the festival and local people met him at the Bang Niaow Pier to accompany him and his sacred cargo — which included a number of holy writings as well — back to Kathu.  This was the start of the processions that are such a large part of the festival.

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While the poles and lantern holders are raised in the late afternoon, nine lanterns are hung at midnight (accompanied by loud fireworks to frighten evil spirits).  This is the official opening of the festival with two important gods — Yok Ong Hong Tae and Kiew Ong Tai Tae — invited down to precide over the ceremonies.  Today or tomorrow, the gods Lam Tao — who keeps track of the living — and Pak Tao — who keeps track of the dead — will be invoked.  Processions of the gods’ images originating from each of the individual temples will begin early Thursday morning, accompanied by the Ma Song — usually men who are possessed by a god during the festival.

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The Ma Song will also perform feats such as bathing in hot oil, bladed-ladder climbing and fire walkiung at the various shrines.  They pierce their mouths, cheeks, ears, and arms with fish hooks, knives, razor blades, and bamboo poles.  The deity resising within the Mah Song protects their body from pain or injury.  A person can be chosen by a god to be a Mah Song at any time in their life, as long as they are unmarried and celibate at the time.  They usually are accompanied during the procession by a group of devotees who assist them during their trance-like state.

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More of my photos from this year’s Lantern Pole Raising can be seen in my Facebook album.


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