For nine days in the ninth lunar month, a large portion of Thai people celebrate the Chinese Taoist “Vegetarian Festival.” For the nine days, participants make nine commitments to help attain healthy bodies and minds.
Originating in China, it is believed that the festival was started in Phuket in Thailand in the 19th century. A nomadic Chinese theatre group was visiting the island of Phuket. The group were travelling performers and the story goes that the actors got malaria. Today a very serious illness, but in those days most certainly fatal. The actors all made a remarkable recovery and attributed their miraculous recovery to their Taoist and pure ways including a vegetarian diet and pure minds and bodies. Thais celebrated the joyful recovery of the actors and honoured the gods who saved the actors with
Over time, as with traditions throughout the world, the festival has evolved. It has also spread to other parts of Asia. During the festival, thousands flock to Phuket to pray to the nine Emperor Gods.
Nowadays, the festival reflects the Chinese influence with beautiful yellow and red banner with Thai and Chinese writing. This contrasts with the pure white clothes that those who make the nine commitments wear. They commit to purity and abstinence for nine days.
- To wear white
- To abstain from sex
- To abstain from alcohol
- To not eat meat
- To be clean of body and mind
- Kitchen utensils are not to be used by others who aren’t participating in the festival
- To behave correctly physically and mentally
- People who are in mourning should not participate
- Pregnant and menstruating women should not attend ceremonies.
One of the major changes from the original celebration has been the introduction of mediums. The mediums have spirits of the gods enter their bodies and then the mediums enter a trance. While in the trance. They feel no pain. To prove this, the mediums will have swords, knives or skewers inserted into their bodies, or will perform other acts of self-mutilation such as whipping their own backs, hitting the backs with maces or rubbing knives on their tongues.
I was lucky enough to have a brief viewing of a procession in Phuket (sadly it was followed by a downpour and flooding of the streets so I didn’t see much more in Phuket) and an entire ceremony in the old town centre of Takuapa, a town about twenty minutes away from where we live. Our tour guides came with us to Takuapa as well. So my friend Hayley and I headed off with the tour guides to check it out.
Upon arrival at the Chinese Taoist shrine, the mediums were inside giving offerings and being blessed then coming outside once in their trances to a ceremonial area to have their skewer(s) or swords inserted. The implement was sanitized with bleach, their heads (or arms) were held still and an official inserted the implement into the body of the medium.
Soon officials from a temple building balcony above them threw holy water on them and blessed them. Next, a dignitary who was the highest revered vegetarian of the festival (the tour guides called him the director of the festival) came out under a beautiful bright yellow ceremonial umbrella. All the viewers were instructed to sit or kneel in respect as he was there. I didn’t see him at all but his umbrella did some dancing around the palanquin as well.
Once the blessings had finished, small red packets of firecrackers were flung into the street as the palanquin was danced by mediums. Millions of firecrackers were lit. People carrying massive incense sticks used the burning incense sticks to light their fireworks. A good throw reaching the palanquin is said to have good merit. Soon the air became clouded with the odour of burnt sulphur and you could barely see the palanquin and the cloying smoke lingered as the fireworks were thrown for a good forty five minutes or longer. The cloud of smoke was constantly being lifted into the sky as the boxes and boxes of fireworks were gone through. We understand the firecrackers both attract the spirits to the festival as well as chase away bad luck. About a hour later, all that is left is a carpet of red expired firecrackers and it appears like a red carpet of flowers meant to welcome the spirits. As the firecrackers went off, it became too much smoke and too loud, so we retreated and had some vegetarian soup.
The temple also cooked and provided vats upon vats of delicious vegetarian cuisine. We had a spicy eggplant curry and rice plus a sweet Japanese green pumpkin (kabocha) stew with rice and chrysanthemum iced tea at the temple at no charge.
After the mediums whisk away the bad luck from households, participants of the festival can receive a red stamp on their white clothing. Once the street was left with about a foot deep carpet of expired red fireworks, we asked for a blessing and stamp to have our bad luck vanquished.
We made an offering, received a red turtle shaped sweet made from rice flour and sugar and were stamped twice on the back of our white shirts. We then took three lit incense sticks and prayed to all the Chinese gods for blessing of health and happiness to our home and families and friends. It was a very moving moment of prayer and had a definite impact of emotion on the two of us.
I have committed to the nine commitments for nine days and vow to be pure of heart, mind and body. I feel so fortunate to have been able to attend this event and feel I am a better person for understanding and participating. Love travelling and learning about other cultures. A big thanks to NeeNee and Booo for taking time to show us around and explain so much to us.