Phuket Vegetarian Festival Explained

As you might have seen during the past week on my blog, the Phuket Vegetarian Festival was being celebrated. It’s a remarkable festival that has some resemblance to the Indian Thaipusam Festival, which is celebrated yearly in Singapore. During the past week, I have been sharing some pictures with you of this event, but never had the time to explain what the festival was all about. So here goes…

00. Phuket Vegetarian Festival

What is it about?

The Phuket Vegetarian Festival {a.k.a. Nine Emperor Gods Festival} is a nine-day Taoist celebration beginning on the eve of the 9th lunar month of the Chinese calendar. It usually takes place by the end of September or the beginning of October. During this time devotees make use of a vegetarian diet and pay respects to the spirit gods. This year the event took place from the 24th of September to the 2nd of October.

The vegetarian festival is held in Bangkok and other Chinese-Thai communities around Thailand, but Phuket is by far the biggest and most spectacular place to witness this event. Most of the Chinese temples around Phuket take part in the festival, with the main action taking place in Phuket Town. However, during this years event, I have been visiting the smaller shrine in Phuket, as crowds would be smaller and it would be easier to witness all the rituals from up close.

Before the Festival

01. Food PrepBefore the vegetarian festival takes place, all along both sides of streets leading to a participating Chinese shrine, you will find food stands being set up. Due to these, the traffic is horrible during this time of year as they block off parts of the roads. So make sure to take time when travelling around the island, especially in the evening when the stalls are supplied with all different types of vegetarian dishes. Foods being offered are usually noodles, deep fried stuff and tofu shaped like meat or fish. {There are hardly any vegetables to be found!}

02. FlagsAnother thing you will notice when going around the island the weeks before the festival starts, are the yellow flags and Chinese flags that are being put up on road sides and intersections leading to the Chinese temples. Many of the items are sponsored by famous companies of the island.

The devotees themselves start to wear white garments, eat vegetarian food and abstinence from the 5 Buddhist Precepts a few days before the opening ritual so that they will be able to reach the body purification. In religious terms, it is considered as an act of contribution or expurgation for the sins incurred by the killing and consumption of animals in the course of the past years. But it is also a test of one’s power of endurance, self discipline and penance. The worshipers need to follow ten principles to cleanse their spirit, while devotees will go in procession, self inflicting all kinds of tortures to shift other worshipers evil onto themselves in order to bring luck back on the community…

Rituals during the Festival

During the festival there are several rituals that take place during this 10 day period:

Raising of the Lantern Pole or the Invitation Ritual: On the afternoon and eve of the ninth moon, temples hold a ceremony to invoke and welcome the Jade Emperor and the Nine Emperor Gods. In the afternoon the Lantern Pole will be raised, which is an act that notifies the nine Chinese gods that the festival is about to begin. The pole is at least 10 meters high once it has been raised, and it is believed that the Hindu god, Shiva, descends bringing spiritual power to the event.

On the eve of the ninth moon, temples of the deities hold a ceremony to invoke and welcome the nine emperors. It is believed that the arrival of the gods is to be through the waterways, for this reason the processions are held from temples to the seashore as a symbol of this believe. You will

Ritual of food offering: For the next couple of days, the community will bring offerings of food and drink to the temple. They will also bring their household gods, as it is believed that they will benefit from the annual injection of spiritual energy.

If you are in the vicinity of a temple you can observe and even participate in the lighting of incense  sticks and candles that are placed around the various gods. When we went to the shrine in Cherngtalay, some of the devotees took the time to explain to us the ritual of these prayers, explaining what to do at each god, what kind of wish to make and how to go around the entire shrine. It was amazing and inspiring to see them taking the time to explain their believe to us.

Street Processions: This is the most spectacular event of the Vegetarian Festival. Worshippers will go to temple early in the morning where they will enter a trance. Once in trance they pierce their cheeks with the most extreme objects possible. This can be anything from a huge stick to a two meter big sunflower, to knifes and swords. After they have been pierced, the procession starts. During the procession you can see the participants walking in a trance {or in Cherngtalay, being brought by car from the shrine to Surin beach} with all the different items pierced through their face, or attached to their body.

03. Procession

This is also the time that the general public along the streets can receive the blessings of the gods possessing the spirit mediums. The local Chinese/Thai community sets up an altar in front of their house, decorated with Chinese embroideries, table apron, placing on them lit candles and incise sticks, flower, fruit, sweets and tea.

04. Procession

Other events are the Lustral Hot Water-Bathing, Nail Bridge and Fire-Walking Ritual. All events are ment to purify the worshipers, and it’s believed that only those that are cleansed will be void from being seriously hurt.

05. Hot Water and Nail bridge ritual

Just before the Farewell Ritual takes place that sends the gods back to heaven, the Ceremonial Bridge-Crossing Ritual is held on the ninth day of the festival. Devotees are crossing the bridge, which is believed by crossing the bridge that you will be cleansed from impurities and misfortune that may fall upon you. Once crossing the bridge, a red stamp of the Nine Emperor Gods’ seal will be stamped on the back of the devotees to signify that they are purified from sins and calamities. In the Cherngtalay shrine any visitor will be allowed to cross the bride, and with this receive the Nine Emperor Gods’ seal.

Tips

  • Wear white – even as a spectator you are supposed to wear white. Even if it’s only your shirt.
  • Make sure you’re covered up – if you are going to see the festival, chances are you will want to enter the shrines. And in shrines you need to have covered shoulders and you’re not supposed to wear shorts.
  • Don’t bring young children to the processions; as the pierced faces can be quite scary.
  • According to festival rules, people in mourning, pregnant women, and menstruating women should not watch or participate in any of the rituals or processions.
  • Many local restaurants, especially in Phuket Town, will not serve meat during this time of year. You can recognise those restaurants by the yellow flags of the festival on display.
  • Only give donations at the temple. There have been many cases of people walking around asking for donations, they are not part of the temple. If you want to donate money in support of this festival, leave it at the temple.

Will you be visiting the Phuket Vegetarian Festival next year? I hope to be able to experience some more different rituals then the ones I’ve seen this year. It was truly a culture and interesting experience!

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