Sunday, October 17, 2010

Phuket Vegetarian Festival 2010 - Background

Phuket Vegetarian Festival - Background

Devotees Carrying Shrine Idol Through Phuket Town

We arrived home last night (Saturday 16 October in Thailand) after a 1-3/4 hour direct flight on Air Asia back from Phuket.  The flight besides being economical was a vast improvement over our last journey back from Phuket two years ago - 12 hour; a combination of taxi, plane and bus.

We had spent 4 days and 5 nights in Phuket to observe and photograph the 9 day Phuket Vegetarian Festival.  The Festival, this year started on Friday October 8th and ended on Saturday October 16th.  We arrived Tuesday night and left on Saturday afternoon before the grand closing rituals.

The Vegetarian Festival is Phuket's biggest celebration and is a grand event for Phuket's Chinese community. Phuket was once a large tin mining as well as trading center. The Chinese immigrated to trade and to work in the mines.  Today a large proportion of Phuket's population is Chinese.  During the Vegetarian Festival, there are many ethnic Chinese visitors from throughout Thailand as well as from Malaysia and China.

The Phuket Vegetarian Festival started in the early 19th century.  In 1825, a visiting Chinese opera company, that had visited from China to entertain the tin miners, caught malaria while performing in Kathu. In those days, malaria was often fatal. The opera company decided to adhere to a strict vegetarian diet as an offering to two of the Nine Emperor Gods. The opera company recovered from their illness. The people of Kathu celebrated by holding a vegetarian festival each year to thank the gods and celebrate the opera group's recovery. An additional belief that inspires the festival is to bring good luck to individuals as well to a community.

The festival is held over nine days during the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calender which is usually late September or early October. Two years ago it was held from 28 September to 7 October.  This year it was October 8 to October 16.

The central belief of the festival is that by eating vegetarian food and observing 10 rules, believers can purify their body as well as their soul while bringing good luck to themselves along with their community.

The 10 rules that believers are supposed to follow are:

     Maintain body cleanliness

     Use only clean kitchenware that hasn't been used by people who are not participating in  the       festival

     Dress in white

     Be moral in thoughts and actions
     Do not eat meat

     Do not have sex

     Do not drink alcohol

     Avoid foods with strong flavor such as garlic and onion

     People in mourning should not participate in the festival

     Pregnant or menstruating women should not attend the ceremonies

During the festival, many rituals are conducted to call upon the gods. These ceremonies include body piercing, fire walking, bathing with hot oil, and climbing ladders constructed with sword rungs. The ceremonies are held at each of the nine Chinese shrines.

The largest rituals are the daily processions of believers during the morning through Phuket Town.  The origins of the processions go back to the early days of the festival when a local resident went to Kansai, China to invite two deities to reside in Kathu, a district of Phuket.  He returned to Phuket on the seventh night of the ninth lunar month.  He brought back with him the sacred documents used in the ritual back in China.  Residents of Phuket had a grand procession down to the dock to welcome him back upon his arrival from China.  Today's processions commemorate his original welcoming ceremony.

A Ma Song From Bang Neow Shrine In Phuket Town
Spiritual Mediums, called "Mar Song", also written as "Ma Song", become possessed by the Nine Emperor Gods. The Mar Song are dressed in clothes befitting the god that has possessed them. People believe that the god will protect the mediums from harm while they perform the various rituals and acts of self mutilation.

Each of the main Chinese shrines parades through Phuket Town on their appointed day during the festival. During the parade the Mar Song demonstrate the power of their respective Emperor God by withstanding the pain of their ordeal. For devotees, the Mar Song through their ordeal, are able to remove evil spirits and can bestow good luck upon others as well as for the community.  With their power and devotion Ma Song are highly respected and revered.  Along the parade route many people and businesses set up tables of offerings to receive blessings from the passing Mar Song.  Long strands of firecrackers are set off as a Mar Song approaches to scare away the evil spirits.  The greater the sound and noise the more effective the ritual of driving the evil spirits away on to the Ma Song.

A Devotee Helping to Carry Shrine Idol

A Shrine Idol Under Bombardment
As the processions advance, huge amounts of firecrackers are set off. The air becomes filled with the sharp staccato of bursting firecrackers, flashes of light, flying shards of bright red firecracker paper wrapping, and huge clouds of choking sulphurous smoke.  The fusillade of firecrackers is especially heavy for the passing of the shrine idol.  The shrine idol is placed on a chair that is carried upon the shoulders of several young men.  The young men wrap shirts around their heads to afford some protection from the onslaught of firecrackers that are thrown at their bare feet or explode above their head from suspended strings.  Power of the Emperor God is manifested in the ability of the young men to not be frightened or injured by the sound, fire, and confusion created by hundreds of firecrackers exploding about them.  Other followers assist the young men when the firecrackers commence small fires on the shrine idol.  They rapidly wave cotton tee shirts around the suspended chair to extinguish the flames.

Ma Song Gives His Blessing to A Resident
The Mar Song are considered to be warriors. Their bodies are typically heavily tattooed - Oriental designs. These tattoos are much more elaborate and sophisticated than the religious body ink that I have seen here in Isaan. The Mar Song are in a trance like state - they appeared to be talking or chanting to themselves with their heads trembling from side to side almost as if they had Parkinson's disease. The trance-like state for some people is attributable to a form of self hypnosis.  For the devotees, the trance is due to possession by an Emperor God.

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