About This Festival
When hearing the name “Vegetarian Festival,” western minds probably think, “Oh, that’s nice, if not a little dull. Where’s the excitement in vegetables?” In this case, the reality is there are a lot of reasons to be excited about this event. And a lot of reasons to be mystified by the sheer length that humans go to display their devotion and celebrate religious observances. And a lot of reasons to be simply grossed out.
The Root of the Vegetarian Festival
Legend has it that a Chinese opera troupe fell ill in the 19th century while on tour entertaining emigrant Chinese tin miners in Phuket. In an a-ha moment, one of the ailing performers realized they had simply failed to honor the Nine Emperor Gods (a tradition that falls during a nine-day period in the ninth month of the Chinese Lunar calendar) and returned to China to invite the gods back to Phuket. In a display of piety, the troupe went full abstinence—no eating of meat, no sex, no drinking, no swearing—their health improved, and a festival was born. In reality, the opera company picked a particularly bad to time visit Phuket as a deadly epidemic had been sweeping the island for months.
Elements of the Ritual
In China, Taoists traditionally believed that the Nine Emperor Gods were the individual stars of the Big Dipper plus two smaller neighboring stars who descended to earth to bring healing waters (ie rain). Celebrants wear white, light incense, ring prayer bells and parade in honor of the deities’ arrival.
Local traditions and stories become grafted onto other cultures practices as immigration introduces new ideas. In the case of the Phuket Vegetarian Festival, the Chinese traditions of wearing white and parading continue, but have morphed into something unique in its display and practice. Like Thaipusam, celebrants physically pierce and mutilate their bodies during the nine days to demonstrate the belief that the gods will bring healing waters and their physical wounds will be healed. Observers should expect to see entranced mediums walking the streets of Phuket with their faces and bodies pierced with thin long pins, knives, stakes, swords and any manner of sharp objects. A man with 20 blades jutting through his body, blood cascading down his white shirt is a stark sight for even the least faint of heart. Perhaps miraculously, both scarrings and deaths are rare once the Vegetarian Festival has ended.
Participants, known as mah song (roughly translated as “horseback riding”), are considered to be mediums (the horse) who invite the gods (the riders) to enter and possess them while in a trance brought on by the ritual piercing, flaying, and mutilation. While bleeding and entranced, the mah song visit Phuket’s temples (where the cutting takes place under the supervision of medical staff) and food stalls, where they partake in a variety of vegetarian dishes locally known asje. Watch for yellow signs with เจ written in red stuck in various dishes—this indicates they’re je.