The Phuket Vegetarian Festival is also known as the Nine Emperor Gods Festival. It is a nine-day Taoist celebration starting on the eve of the ninth lunar month in the Chinese calendar. It is mostly celebrated in South-Eastern Asian countries but particularly in Thailand.
But there is far more to this celebration than food. During the festival people will pierce their faces with swords and other sharp objects. This is a celebration of physical endurance and an invitation to the gods to protect them. An invitation that is perhaps not always answered.
The Nine Emperor Gods are the nine deified sons of the Father Emperor Zhoy Yu Dou Fu Yuan Jun and the Mother of Dou Mu Yuan Jun, the “Plough” constellation. This pair form the masculine and feminine aspects of the Taoist “gods in heaven”, and the nine gods form the seven visible and two invisible stars of the constellation. According to popular folklore, the Nine Emperor Gods are sea pirates from the Ming dynasty that plotted to overthrow the Qing dynasty.
However, the validity of this information is questionable, as is almost everything about the nine, who are better considered mythology than history. Instead, the teachings in Taoism say that the Gods are high-ranking Star Lords who move the planet through the heavens and offer judgement on life and death issues.
The origins of the festival in Thailand are unclear. It is thought that it came from a wandering Chinese opera group that fell ill from a malaria epidemic. One of the performers was sent from China to invite the Nine Emperor Gods to Phuket.
During this period, the Chinese followed a strict tradition of refraining from drinking alcohol, having sex, quarreling, lying, murdering, or eating meat. It was to try and purify the body and the mind, and so through purity recover from the malaria.
The opera group made a recovery, and the epidemic ended. Due to this, the people of Phuket have celebrated the festival ever since. It was meant to honor the gods and express the people’s gratitude for surviving a fatal illness. Since then, it has developed into a yearly event that draws in thousands of visitors from around the world.
On the eve of the ninth moon, temples that worship the gods hold a ceremony to welcome the nine emperors. The arrival of the gods is believed to be through the waterways and so processions are held from temples to the seashore and the river to symbolize belief in them. Devotees are dressed in white whilst carrying incense and candles waiting for the arrival of the gods.
Devotees stay at the temple and eat vegetarian meals in between reciting prayers. Due to the time of the year, there is often rain across the nine days of the celebration. On the ninth day, the celebration reaches its zenith, the procession draws lots of people who wish to send the gods home.
Whilst at the festival devotees are expected to wear white and maintain pure thoughts. They are expected to give up meat, sex, alcohol, strong foods, and stimulants. Tourists are invited to attend the procession and take photographs but are also asked to stay at a distance.
The festival is still deeply religious and so they ask that tourists respect their space. However, technically, people who are in mourning are not supposed to attend, and neither are women who are pregnant or menstruating.
These ceremonies, whilst they seem welcoming, can also be often gruesome and so are not recommended for the faint-hearted. Participants use sharp items like knives and skewers to pierce their cheeks.
They do this because it is believed that the Nine Gods will protect them from harm and thus there will be little blood or scarring. Interestingly, most injuries that occurred during this period are accidental, coming from the mass use of firecrackers during the festival.
The celebrations take place in the six Chinese temples in Phuket. The first event that occurs is called the Raising of the Lantern Pole. It notifies the Nine Gods of the start of the festival. A 10-meter-tall (33 feet) pole is erected that allows the Hindu God, Shiva to bring spiritual power to the event.
Throughout the next few days, the local communities bring their household gods to the temple with offerings of food and drink. This is because they believe that their household gods will benefit from the injection of spiritual energy.
At this time, there is the lighting of joss sticks and candles before they are placed around the gods. As well as this, participants walk in a trance across burning coals and climb an 8-meter (26 feet) ladder of sharp blades. All the while, tourists can eat the vegetarian dishes that fill the streets from local stalls.
Even though the festival is labeled as vegetarian, the food is actually vegan. The participants refuse to eat meat, seafood, and dairy products as well as those vegetables that are classed as strong, such as onion and garlic.
This is due to them being described as “heating” which contributes to aggressive behavior and lust. Instead, participants seek calmer foods to promote good health and peace of mind.
Remarkably, many restaurants and stalls use food that looks and tastes like meat. They use soybean and protein substitutes which are shaped to look like animal products that represent the food that they are replacing and often in a cartoon-like way.
The festival begins in the ninth month of the Chinese lunisolar calendar. This means that the dates change annually. It is usually held in autumn and so more often than not it is near the end of September and at the beginning of October. The peak of the Nine Emperor Gods Festival is the last day of the ceremony which usually has a frenzy-like atmosphere that sends the gods home to the sky until next year.
Unlike many festivals around the world, this bizarre tradition involves self-inflicting quite serious injuries. Whilst to some it may seem barbaric, it has attracted many people from around the world.
The celebration combines the old world with the new and has a good overall message. It promotes self-improvement and allows people to develop the peace of mind that can help the local community come together for one week a year.
Top Image: The Taoists who attend the Phuket Vegetarian Festival pierce their faces to demonstrate that the gods are protecting them from harm. Source: Joseph Ferris / CC BY 2.0.
By Kurt Readman