Go Vegan with Phuket’s 150-year old Vegetarian Festival

The sacred Nine Emperor Gods Festival is well underway, let’s take a look at the symbolic festival’s history. Beware, it’s not for the faint-hearted!
REUTERS/Jorge Silva

By Sandra Sparrowhawk |  Oct 03, 2019

This fall, citizens across Southeast Asia will once again unite to celebrate the Vegetarian Festival, also known as the Nine Emperor Gods Festival, from September 29th – October 7th. One of the most eye-catching and by far the most daring festivals in the whole of Southeast Asia, and perhaps the world, the 9-day Taoist celebration is held in honor of the nine sons of the Big Dipper mother goddess, Dou Mu.

Contrary to what the festival’s name suggests, the dishes served at the event’s many food stalls are strictly vegan and go back to the belief that abstinence from meat, alcohol, gambling, as well as stimulants, will aid in obtaining good health and purify the mind, body and soul.

REUTERS/Jorge Silva

Origin

Despite its widespread popularity today, not much is known about the festival’s origin. However, it is commonly believed that the religious celebration was first introduced to Phuket’s smallest district, Kathu, around 150 years ago.

At the time, Kathu played host to a large group of Chinese tin mine workers, quickly prompting the Thai people to invite a Chinese opera company to the island in order to lift the miners’ spirits amidst the dire mining conditions. During the Chinese ninth lunar month, however, Phuket was abruptly hit with a deadly epidemic, resulting in multiple fatalities and ultimately, infecting the Chinese opera cast.

It was then that the Chinese people realised that they had failed to pay homage to the Nine Emperor Gods in the early days of the lunar month. Hence, one of the opera singers set off to China in a bid to invite the nine gods to Phuket to cleanse the island of the disease. The following year, the Chinese kept up a rigid set of ten forbidden practices intended to invoke the gods and the eventually epidemic ceased. Ever since, the people of Phuket have celebrated the festival in accordance with those ten rules…

REUTERS/Jorge Silva
The 10 practices are as follows:

  1. Do not kill animals
  2. Do not eat meat or animal product
  3. Do not steal
  4. Do not harm others physically or mentally
  5. Do not tell lies or swear
  6. Do not flirt or touch people of the opposite sex
  7. Do not drink alcohol or take drugs
  8. Do not gamble
  9. Do not wear ornaments, including those made of metal or leather
  10. Do not share utensils, cutlery or food with those who are not obeying the 10 practices

Ceremonies

Some of the most thrilling features of the Vegetarian Festival are the many, oftentimes gruesome, ceremonies held to appease the gods. During the festival, religious devotees, dressed in white to represent observance, walk barefoot over hot charcoal and take part in extreme body piercing rituals, which include piercing one’s cheeks with swords and spears to ward off evil spirits and invite another year of prosperity.

Participating in said macabre rituals, however, is reserved for Phuket’s mah song (“horses of the gods”), the human representatives chosen by the deities themselves. Members of the mah song, which are mostly men, must be both unmarried and celibate during the festivities to rightfully represent the gods on Earth. According to popular belief, to qualify as a vessel for the gods, one must be chosen by them. This can occur either through visions and dreams, or, in rare cases, temporary possession.

REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

Prior to the parades, the mah song enter a trance-like state in anticipation of the event. As such, they are protected from harm and unlikely to feel much of the pain or scarring ensuing from the harrowing self-mutilation rituals – despite them being performed without anaesthetic. The practice goes back to the ancient Taoist belief that the art of inflicting pain and torture upon oneself, has the power to shield one’s community from bad luck and other tragedies.

Today, the festival is celebrated by both the Chinese community and those without Chinese ancestry in Chinese temples and various cities across Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

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