The Phuket Vegetarian Festival is an annual event held during the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar. It is believed the vegetarian festival and its accompanying sacred rituals bestow good fortune upon those who religiously observe this rite. During the festival local residents of Chinese ancestry strictly observe a 10-day vegetarian or vegan diet for the purposes of spiritual cleansing and merit-making. Sacred rituals are performed at the various Chinese shrines and temples around the island and aesthetic displays such as walking barefooted over hot coals and ascending ladders with bladed rungs are performed by entranced devotees from these shrines and temples who are known as “Mah Songs”. There are also “Street Processions” each and every day throughout the festival which always start at the shrines and temples.
“Mah Songs” are people who invite spirits of gods to possess their bodies. Mah is the word for horse in Thai, and the name “Mah Song” refers to how the spirits of the gods use the bodies of these people as a vehicle, as one would a horse. Only pure, unmarried men or women without families of their own can become a “Mah Song”. At their temple they undergo a series of rituals including flagellation and self-mutilation to protect them for the duration of the festival. The “Mah Song” tradition doesn’t exist in China, it is believed to have been adopted from the Indian festival of Thaipusam.
Phuket’s Vegetarian Festival activities include large processions of “Mah Songs” wearing elaborate costumes who pierce their cheeks and tongues, without the aid of anesthetic, with all manner of things, including swords, banners, machine guns, table lamps, and flowers. While the face is the most common area pierced, some also pierce their arms with pins and fishhooks. Teams of people accompany the “Mah Songs” to keep their wounds clean and to help support the heavier piercings. It is believed that while they are possessed the “Mah Song” will not feel any pain. They can also be seen shaking their heads continuously, and usually do not seem to see their surroundings. It is not a totally reckless exercise, the “Mah Songs” are monitored by event organisers and doctors to make sure there are no serious injuries or infections While large crowds of people gather to watch, the entranced “Mah Songs” distribute blessed candy and pieces of orange cloth with Chinese characters printed on them, yang for good luck.
There was an amusing story about a “Mah Song” who lost his nerve at a recent festival. He intended to pierce his tongue with a spear but couldn’t face the pain so he bought a pig tongue and skewered it with the spear. He marched through the entire procession holding the pig tongue between his teeth. His deception was discovered when organisers asked to examine his wound and found he did not have one.
The Street Processions
The Vegetarian Festival is growing increasingly popular not only for tourists from Thailand but those from all around the world. Phuket becomes increasingly busy during the festival’s ten days with large numbers of people coming to try the delicious vegetarian food and observe the ceremonies and rituals. Another of the highlights of the festival is the processions which take place on each of the final seven days of the festival. On each day, a different temple takes its turn to make a procession from their temple around Phuket Town and back again. It is the images from these processions that can be seen all around the world.
The processions are big affairs that can take an hour or more to pass. They generally start early in the mornings and finish before lunchtime, although the temples also seem to have spontaneous processions around town at other times.
The most popular processions are early every morning when tourists get a chance to see the “Mah Songs”, although this isn’t for the faint hearted as the “Mah Songs” are often covered in blood.
Throughout the procession a cacophony of drums and firecrackers pound and explode to scare away evil spirits. As well as the “Mah Songs” and their entourages, there are also other groups marching. Community groups, entertainers and schoolchildren join the march to add variety to the show.
Then there is the final march on the last night of the festival. This is a staggering spectacle and one of the absolute highlights of the festival. The fireworks start up in the early evening and do not let up until the procession is finished at around midnight.
The procession starts around 7pm and continues through the evening. As they march through the crowds, they come under an extraordinary bombardment from the onlookers. They throw firecrackers around the marcher’s feet and even their heads. The onslaught is so intense that a haze of acrid smoke fills the air. The parade starts to spread out under the bombardment and turns into more of a charge than a march. It is a stunning sight to see the running figures charging through the noise and smoke while firecrackers flash around them. It is something that more closely resembles a war zone than a religious festival.
Around 11pm the procession starts towards the shrine at Saphan Hin for the final ritual to send the gods back to the heavens for another year.
The street procession timetable updates every year and can be found at www.phuketvegetarian.com/index_eg.htm