Spirits and the sword

Thailand September 30, 2015 01:00


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The Phuket Vegetarian Festival returns in mid-October with locals observing nine days of purification in homage to the gods

Set in Phuket’s old town, way beyond the province’s white sand beaches and the throbbing bar scenes of Patong and Bangla, the Vegetarian Festival gets underway on October 13 for a nine-day ritual of purification and atonement. It’s an intimate and largely local affair that has its roots in the days when the island was home to Chinese immigrants and Australian miners braving the mosquito-infested rivers and rainforest for tin. 
The Phuket Vegetarian Festival is nine days and nights of meat-free cleansing of the body, prayers, chants and eye-popping and gruesome processions that always draw devotees, visitors and street photographers to the island.
The festival originated 150 years ago in the Chinese-speaking community of Kathu when a visiting theatre troupe from China, struck down by a mysterious and deadly epidemic, decided they had fallen ill because they had failed to pay respect to the nine Emperor Gods of Taoism.
The performers then, the legend goes, erected temples and held a vegetarian festival to ward off any residual bad luck. Apparently the unorthodox remedy worked, and the annual vegetarian festival has been held ever since. Abstention from sex and alcohol were added in later years for absolute purification.
This year’s festival runs from October 13 to 21 and is centred in Phuket’s Old Town, where the heritage Shino-Portuguese shophouses and Chinese shrines provide a unique backdrop to the rituals.
The whole town flies yellow flags to mark the beginning of the spiritual retreat.
On the eve of the festival, a large pole is raised at 40 Chinese shrines around Phuket, and the nine Emperor Gods of Taoism are invited to descend from the heavens and take part in the ceremonies.
At midnight, nine lanterns are lit and hung on the poles, meaning that the Vegetarian Festival has begun. Chanting and reciting of mantras to the sound of solemn percussion breaks out at dawn and continues on until the festival ends eight days later. 
Food stalls also fly yellow flags to indicate they serve only vegetarian food, and devotees dress in white for the entire nine days to show they intend to remain pure and peaceful.
Visitors can expect ear-splitting and colourful parades, burning incense, peaceful chants, loads of vegetarian food and, of course, the scary procession of self-mutilated devotees roaming the old town.
Peace, however, has it violent side. 
While the vegetarian food is tempting and the Chinese shrines are gaily decorated, most visitors focus on the maa song, the human mediums inhabited by the gods during the festival.
The maa songs manifest supernatural powers and perform self-mutilation so they can absorb evil from other individuals and ensure a fortunate life for the entire community. Each morning begins with processions through the town.
At dawn, one can find scores of young men gathering in the inner sanctums of the temples, preparing themselves for self-mutilation. At the base of the shrines, they go into a trance, begin speaking in tones and don colourful aprons with Taoist symbols, as doctors make cuts at both sides of their mouths. It’s a painful “pleasure”, at least in the eyes of beholders.
The tin has long gone and for the past several decades, Phuket has been famous for its beaches, fine-dining and hedonistic lifestyle. This immersive festival, however, reveals the island’s wild and enigmatic side. Prepare yourself for the shocking. 
The festivity culminates with a procession of people deep in a trance, piercing their tongues and cheeks and other parts of their anatomy with spears, daggers, sharpened branches and anything else that comes to hand. Possessed by the spirits of nine deities, these ascetics apparently feel no pain and show little sign of real injury.
The festival will end on October 21. The poles will be uprooted, as nine Emperor Gods of Taoism return to where they belong.
< There are frequent flights from Bangkok to Phuket International Airport as well as direct flights from many other airports in the region, including Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, and direct charters to Europe and Australia in the high season.
< Phuket celebrates the annual Vegetarian Festival from October 13-21. For more details about this holy event and its thrilling processions, call the TAT Southern Office: Region 4 at (076) 211 036, 212 213 or 217 138, or visit www.phuketvegetarian.com.