by Antonia Lehn
The Chinese Vegetarian Festival takes place for ten days each year during the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar, which usually falls in October. The temples prepare for the increased numbers of devotees and the streets are crowded with the numerous vegetarian food stalls. The people come to watch the lively processions with spirit mediums who have pierced themselves with objects ranging from simple skewers to large objects such as swordfish and chains, amid the often deafening noise of firecrackers without which no Chinese celebration would be complete. The origins of this tradition have been traced back to the third century before the birth of Christ.
The Festival honours the good deeds of Nine Emperor Gods and various deities from Chinese mythology, or more specifically, of folk Taoism. Each of the Nine Emperor Gods was considered a kind and generous ruler and was greatly revered during his lifetime. They were the sons or manifestations of the Goddess Douma who is represented in the festival through her identification with the popular deity, Kuan Yin. The Nine Emperor Gods are invited at the beginning of the Festival and farewelled at its conclusion.
In Phuket, the first festival took place around 200 years ago, following the arrival of the Chinese, mostly of Hokkien origin, who developed the tin mines. Descendants of these tin-mining Chinese families of Phuket form the core of the Hokkien associations which still manage the temples and organise the Vegetarian Festival.
The small community of Nai-Tu was enjoying the performances of a visiting opera troupe from China. The usually prosperous townspeople were suddenly struck by a mysterious disease and some succumbed to it. Traditional medicines and healing rituals failed. Members of the visiting troupe also became ill and were unable to perform. The leader of the opera troupe noticed that the traditional festival was no longer being celebrated and he initiated its staging right in front of the opera theatre. The villagers invited the Nine Emperor Gods and asked them to protect their families. The sick started to recover and, two years after the re-introduction of the festival, all traces of the mysterious disease had disappeared in the village.
It came to the attention of one of the visiting Chinese that the rituals differed from those of his home town. One man was sent to China to perform a ceremony to symbolically invite the Nine Emperor Gods from a temple in China to Phuket. He returned with an urn containing a large incense stick which had been lit since the invitation ceremony he had performed in China. The festival commenced the following year.
By now the Chinese in Phuket were convinced that everybody has their own protective spirits. Subsequently each house acquired its own statues of deities and spirits and communal worship takes places in the temples during the annual festival. Sacrifices are to acknowledge the mercy of the gods and spirits and adherents undertake to abstain from impurities and cleanse body and soul.
Participants in the Festival follow a vegetarian diet and abstain from alcohol and sex for the duration, observe strict rules of hygiene and dress in white to symbolise purity. People in mourning and pregnant and menstruating women are excluded from participation.
The tradition of white clothing is said to have its origin in the Tung Dynasty when the reigning monarch commanded her officials to dress in white and to pray to cease the slaughter of animals and to make sacrifices to the gods so that they might bless the community.
Only temples dedicated to the Nine Emperor Gods (Kio Ong) participate in the festivities. Each of the numerous temples has its own Festival program.
The schedule of events for a major temple may include the following:
Tall Lantern Pole Raising and Invitation ceremony - This includes carrying a lantern pole to the temple stage and inviting the gods.
Worship of the Ancient Spirits Ceremony for deceased who were vegetarians in the past.
Khoo Khul ceremony for taking care of the spirits of Chinese soldiers who protected the country, the ritual of offering food to the warriors.
Invitation ceremony for Lam Tao (God of Birth) and Pak Tao (God of Death).
Propitiation of the Seven Stars. This ritual is performed for the seven planets, as well as the sun and the moon, the nine stars of astrology which are identified with the Nine Emperor Gods.
Bladed-Ladder ceremony. Mediums in a trance climb a ladder - its steps consist of sharp blades - and bless the public when they have reached the platform at the top.
Goey Hoey ceremony (fire-walking). This is seen as the most important of the ritual purification ceremonies.
Wrist-tying ceremony where children’s wrists are tied with auspicious thread by a spirit medium. This seems to be more popular among Thai, rather than Chinese children, and may well have its origins in Thai Buddhist, rather than Chinese temples.
Bridge-crossing ceremony. Wooden bridges are constructed especially for this ceremony. Participants walk across them and carry miniature paper effigies which are burnt at the conclusion of the festival, around midnight. This ritual is symbolic of burning away impurities and misfortunes.
Geoy Haan ceremony to let vegetarians release negative energies from their bodies.
Yok Ong (Jade Emperor) and Kiu Ong (Nine Emperor Gods) Farewell ceremony to return them to paradise.
Ko Teng (lantern pole lowering) ceremony - taking the lantern pole down from the stage to signify the end of the festival.
Processions - these accompany some ceremonies and are particularly spectacular for the observer. Colourful and lively spirit mediums and participants continuously have to dart firecrackers which spectators throw at their feet with great enthusiasm, resulting in deafening noise and a great clouds of smoke.
The aspect of this festival which is probably best known to outsiders is the practice of spirit mediumship, an ancient way of communicating with the supernatural. The medium enters a trance, enabling a deity or spirit to take possession of his/her body.
Spirit mediums are mostly men, with only a small proportion being women. Their dress indicates which deity has taken possession of their bodies. Males usually wear a kind of apron. The most popular colours are yellow, the imperial colour; red, symbolic of prosperity; and green, symbolising courage and worn by deities who were heroic military generals or warriors. The name of the deity is usually embroidered on the silk fabric.
There are low and high deities. Some of the high deities do not take part in the processions, or may ride in a sedan chair. The most popular of the higher deities is the goddess Kwan Im, the patron deity of vegetarianism. She is also identified with the goddess Douma, the mother of the Nine Emperor Gods. Her mediums are dressed in white and carry a horsehair whip to repel evil forces and demons.
There are some 1500 spirit mediums in present-day Phuket. Many claim that they had no desire to become mediums but that they were urged to do so by a god. Indeed, there is a story of a Western spirit medium who spoke fluent Mandarin while in a trance. Once entranced, the mediums engage in a variety of activities such as healing and divination and also perform ritual acts such as the purification of space from evil influences.
The most conspicuous of these activities is undoubtedly the act of self-mutilation, especially the piercing of cheeks and the cutting of tongues. This is performed in a trance. Mediums are said to suffer minimal or no pain and to recover from their wounds in a matter of days. The scars on many faces serve as a reminder.
The Chinese are by far the largest ethnic minority in Thailand. Whereas the festival is certainly indicative of a close-knit community with strong cultural traditions, it is by no means exclusionist. The Chinese have inter-married with the Thais over time and now constitute a Sino-Thai community. Indeed, many of the mediums are Thais and devotees and participants include members of the Indian and Muslim Malay communities, as well as occasional Westerners.
The festival remains a local event and is hardly a major tourist attraction. Visitors who come especially for the festival tend to be Thais and Sino-Thais from other parts of the country, as well as some Chinese from abroad. Travel guide books make scarce mention of it. However, should your travels land you in Phuket during this time, you would find it worth your while to spend a few nights in Phuket Town and experience, not only the culinary delights and the warm welcome of the Chinese community, but also the sensory and spiritual dimensions of this ancient celebration.
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