Fire, Spirits and Ritual Self-Injury in Phuket: The Vegetarian Festival

Photograph by Amy Devlin (2013).

Fireworks explode in a loud cascade in the middle of the street, but no one flinches. I watch as a young barefooted man passes me – a pair of guns are impaled in his face, the barrels poking into the open flesh of his cheeks and out of his open mouth. He’s dressed in a black costume embroidered with Chinese symbols.

He is a mah song, a spirit medium, and he’s not the only one. Throngs of men and women are parading down the street, with metal skewers, needles, and even weapons inserted into their cheeks, arms, torsos and elsewhere on their bodies. They are in trances – their heads are twitching rhythmically, eyes rolled back, and their hands are clenched. Groups of devotees reverently carry statues of the gods. As far as the eye can see, everyone is clad in white.

Photograph by Amy Devlin (2013).

Phuket, Thailand’s largest island, is synonymous to many as a renowned tourist destination, ringed with blue ocean and palm tree beaches. But mid-October this year, it was transformed for the Vegetarian Festival, otherwise known as the Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods. The gods are said to descend during this time, when devotees around Southeast Asia wear white clothes and refrain from meat, sexual activity and alcohol to maintain ritual cleanliness.

Running through the first nine days of the ninth lunar month, the festival sees the annual performance of Taoist rituals among the Chinese-descended community, including spirit mediums who perform various feats of endurance and self-injury such as climbing ladders made of swords and bathing in hot oil.  These mah song are “devotees whom the gods enter during the fest [and who] manifest supernatural powers and perform self-tortures in order to shift evil from individuals onto themselves, and to bring the community good luck.”1 Held in honor of the Nine Taoist Emperor Gods, identified with the nine stars of the Big Dipper (seven visible and two invisible to the naked eye), the boddhisattva of compassion Kwan Im also features prominently in the festival.

It’s 7am on Saturday. The early morning procession is occurring in Kathu, near the shrine said to be the original home of the festival on the island. Women dressed like Kwan Im gaze at us from the back of pick-up trucks covered in orchids. Altars line either side of the road, as local residents bow to the mah song. Sometimes the mah song step up to the altars to drink various cups of water and handle the fruit offerings, while spectators watch intently for significant signs. Children bustle up to them as they pass out candy and yarn bracelets.

Photograph by Amy Devlin (2013).

Phuket Town, the economic heart of the island, is likewise abuzz with the festival. The sea of people in white remains a constant presence. During the day, the central market is crowded with stalls offering jae (specially prepared vegetarian) food and pristine white clothing. The nighttime is cacophonous, marked with a wholesale deployment of fireworks – most thrillingly in the middle of the road as cars and motorbikes drive by, seemingly indifferent. Noticeably, this is a sanctioned event: police are present at night, and the Municipality of Phuket has a put up a photogenic and tourist-friendly installation of red Chinese lanterns on the main road in Talat Yai.

Later that night, I find myself watching the firewalking ritual at the shrine in Cherng Thalay. A sizeable and excited crowd gathers as a bed of coals is meticulously prepared and compressed by four men holding a leveling tool made of poles and wood planks. Shortly after, the mah song usher forth, still entranced. Some stand in front of the altars and pray, heads shaking with the characteristic twitch. It’s almost time.

Photograph by Karabee Das (2013).

Then, one by one, the mah song run across the coals.

Dr. Cheu Hock Tong has written a seminal and detailed ethnography and shorter works of this festival as celebrated in Malaysia. He explains that the fire “overcomes impurity and repels evil influences… By walking over the fire, the religious virtuosi, by virtue of their ritual purity, enact the victory of good over bad, mind over matter” and thus cleanse the entire community as well.2  Unfortunately tonight, not all goes according to plan.

One mah song falls into the bed of coals, immersed in flames briefly as he is dragged out by a group of men. When another mah song falls not long after, the ritual performance ends abruptly. Someone in the crowd explains that there are bad spirits present who caused the accidents. The female mah song emit high-pitched shrieks as they all suddenly clear out of the grounds. The tension in the air is palpable and lingers after their departure.

*** 

The Vegetarian Festival was brought over to southern Thailand in a process that is enmeshed with the history of Chinese migration in Southeast Asia and the larger themes of Chinese identity, culture and even modernity. Phuket Island is particularly accessible by sea, connected to the Chinese coast via the South China Sea and Gulf of Thailand. Over the last few hundred years, Chinese migrants from the western coast, particularly Fujian, have landed and settled in southern Thailand. Scores of thousands alone came to work on rubber plantations and in tin mines.

Dr. Annette Hamilton, Professor in Film Studies and Media Anthropology at University of New South Wales, has studied the Vegetarian Festival in the context of the cults of Kwan Im as a historically located phenomenon. As the arriving Chinese brought “beliefs in spirit forces and powers, usually named entities who could inhabit human bodies and bring about magical transformations,” over time “a distinctive Sino-Thai culture developed in the south, one far more obviously attuned to its cultural and historical origins than was the case with Chinese in many other parts of Thailand.”3

The connection to China is clearly evident in the legends and myths surrounding the event. The official account of the Phuket festival – conveniently detailed in a Thai-English pamphlet courtesy of the Tourism Authority of Thailand – traces its origins to 1825, when a traveling Chinese opera company was stricken by an unnamed illness (sometimes cited as plague or malaria).

Keeping to a strict vegetarian diet and performing Taoist rituals, the performers successfully recovered, and the people of Kathu “embraced the faith enthusiastically.”4 A member of the community brought back incense, name plaques and holy writings from China to continue the rituals, and flocks of residents met him at Bang Niao Pier, which became the origins of the processions witnessed today.

It’s interesting, then, to consider the attitudes of contemporary Chinese people towards the festivities. I spoke with a Chinese man from Guilin, brought to Phuket Town by his lao ban (boss) to work as an acupressure massage therapist. When asked about the Vegetarian Festival, he responded that such events also used to take place in Guilin back in the 1970s but that Thailand was a bit luo hou (lit. falling behind, aka backwards or less developed) – the implication being that such rituals had no place in a modern society. In China, he went on to explain, this sort of thing is no longer liu xing (popular or trendy). The twist is, of course, that it’s exactly this type of cultural event that affirms the continuing Chinese identity of Chinese-Thai communities.

Thus, it’s possible to embed the Phuket Vegetarian Festival within a larger context of modernity. As Dr. Hamilton eloquently puts it:

“The plethora of religious and ritual activities in contemporary Thailand can be seen as a response to modernity, but so too were the flourishing cults and political movements of the south China coast two centuries ago, and their continuity is more than a random accident or an accidental byproduct of modernity. Modernity, in a sense, never quite happens; nobody is ever ‘there’ yet.”5

 

 

References
1. Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), Phuket Office. “Phuket Vegetarian Festival: 5-13 October 2013.” Pamphlet.
2. Cheu Hock Tong. “The Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods in Malaysia: Myth, Ritual, and Symbol.” Asian Folklore Studies, Vol. 55, No. 1 (1996), pp. 61-62.
3. Hamilton, Annette. “Kwan Im, Nine Emperor Gods and Chinese ‘Spirit’ in Southern Thailand.” Revised version, 2003. pp.12-13.
4. TAT. “Phuket Vegetarian Festival.”
5. Hamilton, Annette. “Kwan Im, Nine Emperor Gods and Chinese ‘Spirit’ in Southern Thailand.” p. 25.

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