Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Phuket Vegetarian Festival 2012 - Still Time Left

This year's Phuket Vegetarian Festival will be held from 15 October to 23 October; still plenty of time to make travel arrangements.

The religious celebration is one of my favorite events to attend and to photograph.  Duang and I have attended the festival twice, in 2008 and in 2010.  It is once again two years since we last attended so there is a strong possibility that we will attend once again.

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.

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.

A Shrine Volunteer Covers A Container of Rice Which Will Be
 Distributed As Part of Vegetarian Meals to Believers

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.

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. 
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.

The Mar Song are considered to be warriors. Their bodies are typically heavily tattooed with Oriental designs. 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.
The morning processions will occur from Wednesday the 17th through Tuesday the 23rd.  The processions commence at 7:00 A.M.  Participants in the procession are members of specific shrines for each day.
For 2012 the participants and schedule are:

          Wednesday, 17 Oct - Sapam Shrine

          Thursday, 18 Oct - Sam Kong Shrine

          Friday, 19 Oct - Baan Tha Rue Shrine

          Saturday, 20 Oct - Bang Neow Shrine and Chering Thalay Shrine

          Sunday, 21 Oct - Jui Tui Shrine

          Monday, 22 Oct - Kathu Shrine and Yok Ke Keng Shrine

          Tuesdy, 23 Oct - Sui Boon Tong Shrine

If your time is limited, I would recommend attending the processions on Sunday and Monday.

To get the full experience of the processions and associated ritual, you can visit the shrine before the start of the procession.  I recommend that you arrive before 6:00 A.M. to witness close up the preparations of the Ma Song.  Be forewarned, the preparations include piercing the Ma Song with various objects ranging from needles to assault rifles  It is quite a spectacle and a unique experience.

Headed Home With A Vegetarian Meal From the Shrine

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