Vegetarian Festival

(Readers are warned that this report contains VERY gory details, so if you have a delicate stomach, you may prefer not to read it.)

I've witnessed parts of one of the world's most incredible festivals, and hope to return again next year to witness more aspects of this weird event.

The population of Thailand is 65 million, of which 11% or 7 million are Chinese Thais. A vast number of the Chinese live on the island of Phuket and nearby mainland, and are the main proponents maintaining this bizarre annual festival, known to them as Jia Chai.

The origin of the festival appears to be in doubt, but the main belief is that the festival originated about 1825, when Chinese tin miners who had emigrated to the area, or an opera company which had traveled there to entertain the miners, suffered a severe illness, possibly malaria. The opera group maintained a strict vegetarian diet and ritual ceremonies, and the epidemic passed. The miners were impressed, and a volunteer went to Guangxi in China to learn all about the ceremonies, and returned to introduce them in Phuket.

The festival lasts for the first nine days of the ninth Chinese lunar month (ie. September or October).

The devotees known as Ma Song, adopt a strict vegetarian diet, abstain from smoking, alcohol and sex to purify the minds and bodies, dress completely in white. The Ma Song, whom the gods enter during the fasting, manifest supernatural powers and perform self tortures in order to shift evil from individuals onto themselves, and bring good luck.

They participate in sacred rituals, which involve incredible and amazing gory feats including piercing their faces and bodies with a variety of objects. And you can witness the fascinating and weird events preceding the procession which starts each morning from one or more of the Chinese shrines on the island.

I visited the Bang Neow shrine about 6am one morning, and the forecourt was already teeming with a mass of Chinese clad all in white, as well as a number of tourists similarly dressed as a mark of respect.

Leaving my shoes outside as required, I entered the shrine and approached one of the altars to witness the beginning of a remarkable day. Suddenly, there was a loud yell from outside, and the crowd inside parted and made way for a fellow under a spell, who came bounding in like an orangutan and slapped his hands and forearms loudly on the altar, grunting and shaking his head.

He was calmed by shrine attendants, one of whom carried a surgically clean, long cone shaped spike. Carefully, but with determination, he proceeded to force the spike through the cheek of the devotee into his mouth, while he stood there unflinching. After the hole was considered big enough, the spike was withdrawn and a 2 or 3 cm. thick metal rod, about two metres long, was inserted through the cheek and out his mouth. With his arms spread wide to support the weight of the rod, he then left the shrine to join the procession outside, and make way for the next devotee. As he walked outside, I glimpsed daylight in his wide open mouth, through the hole in his cheek.

The next devotee had dozens of long spikes forced through the flesh of his arms from the wrists up to and across his shoulders, each spike decorated with a brilliantly coloured flower to make this gruesome feat attractive. At other altars in the temple, similar procedures were taking place.

Regrettably, I didn't observe the procedure which occurred to produce these trance like states. After witnessing several more of these operations from as close as 2 or 3 metres, I left the shrine to join the throngs lining each side of the streets to view the procession. (Incidentally, finding my shoes among the many others, and among the feet of the jostling throng, was quite a task).

The procession from the shrine, through the city streets, and back to the shrine covers about 4 or 5 kms., taking about two hours, and walked in bare feet. And all the time the devotees were tolerating the presumed discomfort of their self torture.

Some of the Ma Song I witnessed in the procession included individuals with :-

If you find these descriptions hard to imagine, photos of many of them are available on my web site (here).

I describe all these unbelievable sights to stress the weird, bizarre, extraordinary event that the procession is, which can be overwhelming. But there's more.

While attendants ensure no blood leaks from the holes in the cheeks and mouths, other devotees have blood dripping down their chests and backs where they have beaten themselves with short axes, one a spike's ball on a chain, or deliberately cutting their tongues. One group held the blades of short axes to their stomachs, while they then proceeded to hammer the axes into them.

Each of the devotees is accompanied by a group of assistants who may help support the instrument of self torture if it is very long, and also protect him from the crowd when they surge around.

All along the route, tables are set up where offerings of fruit, flowers and other gifts to the gods, which the devotees are invited to bless then distribute to the spectators. At one table, a devotee threw a small handful of rice grains over the surrounding spectators, who moaned in ecstasy or pleasure. By waving flags or cracking whips, they appear to fight off evil spirits from the spectators around the tables.

Groups of young men also carry a series of palanquins supporting various statues of Buddha. Some of the groups are stripped to the waist, and it appears that they must not flinch or waver when bunches of fire crackers are thrown amongst them by the spectators. The ear splitting noise of the multitude of explosions, and the overpowering smell of burnt gun powder, tends to drive back the spectators, but the palanquin supporters carry on.

Another feat accomplished by some devotees, is to stand balancing on one foot (not easy if he has a long spear through his cheeks) and stay balanced while fire crackers are exploded around his foot.

To increase the noise, drums are beaten loudly to also drive away the evil spirits. Added to the noise, smoke, drama and spectacle, is the presence of a long vividly coloured dragon wending its way along the route.

The ten rules of the Vegetarian Festival :-

  1. Cleanliness of bodies during the festival.
  2. Clean kitchen utensils and to use them separately from others who do not join the festival.
  3. Wear white during the festival.
  4. Behave mentally and physically.
  5. No meat eating.
  6. No sex.
  7. No alcoholic drinks.
  8. People at mourning period should not attend the festival.
  9. Pregnant ladies should not watch any ritual.
  10. Ladies with period should not attend the ritual.

Other feats which I did not have opportunity to observe this year included bathing in hot oil, bladed ladder climbing, and fire walking. Perhaps next year.

Here are some pictures from the event.

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Last updated 24 May 2006.