The Nine Emperor Gods Festival in Phuket, Thailand bears some resemblance to Thaipusam. Is there a connection?
There were yellow flags flying every few metres along the street, contrasted by red lanterns and a crowd mostly in white. With hundreds of food stalls lining the street on both sides, the atmosphere was positively carnival-like.
This was the Phuket Vegetarian Festival.
It is an annual event held during the first nine days of the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar. This is usually between late September and October in the modern calendar.
This year the celebrations were held from Sept 29 to Oct 7. In Malaysia, the same celebration is known as the Nine Emperor Gods Festival or Kau Wong Yeh.
The festival celebrates the beginning of the Taoist lent when devout Chinese abstain from eating meat and meat products, as well as seafood. This nine-day observation of the vegetarian diet is believed to be good for spiritual cleansing and merit-making.
It is thought that the vegetarian festival and its accompanying rituals bestow good fortune upon those who religiously observe the rites.
Although Thailand is a predominately Buddhist country, the population of Phuket is made up of about 35% Muslims, 35% Chinese, with the rest being Buddhists, sea gypsies, etc. The Chinese are mostly from the Hokkien and Hakka groups.
The activities of the Phuket celebrations are centred around five Chinese temples in the heart of Phuket town. The Jui Tui temple on Ranong Road is the most important, followed by Bang Niaw and Sui Boon Tong temples.
The Jui Tui, also known as Put Jaw, is the oldest at 200 years old, and is dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy, Kuan Yin. The festival is also celebrated in temples in nearby towns like Kathu, where the festival originated, as well as in other southern Thai towns such as Trang and Krabi.
I was staying in Phuket town during the festivities and was caught up with the activities at Jui Tui and Bang Niaw temples. The streets around the temples were closed to traffic in the evening and decorated with yellow flags. Hundreds of stalls selling vegetarian foods were set up even before the festival started.
It was a food paradise. All the stalls flew yellow flags with red writing to advertise that the food was vegetarian, and the restaurants did the same too. There was so much choice. Many of the dishes were made to look like meat products, but no animals are ever slaughtered for this event.
I’m not a great lover of these fake meats, which are soya and flour made to resemble beef, chicken, pork and seafood. Of course, there were also many vegetables cooked in a variety of ways. Even the milk drinks are made from soya rather than animal milk.
On the evening before the first day, the temples each erected a pole from which nine lanterns symbolising the nine deities would be hung. Offerings were also made to the Jade Emperor and the nine deities. The following days, people flocked to the shrines to worship the gods. Sedan chairs were lined up in front of the shrines, and these were said to be where the spirits of the Nine Emperor Gods rested during this time.
There was constant chanting for the first couple of days.
Everyone was expected to wear white, and there were dozens of shops and stalls cashing in on this by selling white garments. As people streamed in, the streets and temples turn into a sea of white and yellow.
The noise of the fire crackers was almost unbearable; fortunately I remembered to bring my earplugs. I didn’t have them with me on the first day, and my ears suffered when the temple caretaker set off some deafening crackers in a special burning place where I was standing.
The kids added to the din by throwing crackers that exploded as they fell to the ground. I was quite wary of these, never knowing where they were going to detonate, as the small boys threw the miniature bombs at each other. Occasionally the safety officers would caution them.
As well as abstention from meat, the Vegetarian Festival involved various processions, temple offerings and cultural performances. Shop owners set up altars in front of their shops, offering nine tiny cups of tea, incense, fruit, candles and flowers to the Nine Emperor Gods.
Mediums entered into a trance. These entranced devotees, known as mah song, went through incredible acts of self-mortification. They pierced their cheeks with all manner of objects, like sharpened tree branches with leaves still attached, spears, garden shears, slide trombones, daggers. I even saw some hacking their tongues continuously with a saw or axe.
They were accompanied by a team to watch over them. It is believed that while they are possessed, shaking their heads back and forth, oblivious to everything around them, the mah song will not feel any pain.
As I followed the procession, these mediums stopped at shop-front altars, where they picked up the offered fruit and either added it to the objects piercing their cheeks or passed it on to bystanders as a blessing. They also drank one of the nine cups of tea and grabbed some flowers to stick in their waistbands. The shopkeepers and their family stood by with their palms together in a wai gesture, out of respect for the mediums and the deities they represented.
Towards the end of the festival, spectacular feats were performed by devotees, such as walking barefoot over hot coals and ascending ladders with bladed rungs. I found it hard not to get caught up in this atmosphere of religious frenzy, although the deafening firecrackers did get a bit unbearable.
Interestingly, there is no record of this kind of festival in China. Therefore some historians assume that the Chinese in southern Thailand were influenced by the Hindu festival of Thaipusam in neighbouring Malaysia, which features similar acts of self-mortification.
The local Chinese, however, claimed that the festival was started by a theatre troupe from China that stopped off in nearby Kathu around 150 years ago.
The story goes that the troupe was struck seriously ill because the members had failed to propitiate the Nine Emperor Gods. The nine-day penance they performed included self-piercing, meditation, and a strict vegetarian diet.