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Phuket Vegetarian Festival

Phuket Vegetarian Festival
For those who have never heard of it, the name Vegetarian Festival may not sound very interesting. But the festival contains much more than what its name may suggest. In fact, it is the most exciting, most significant and most widely observed tradition of Phuket province. It ranks with the Songkran of Chiang Mai, the Spring Festival of Nakhon Sawan and the Loi Krathong of Sukhothai as one of the most celebrated and magnificent festivals of this country.
ORIGIN
The Vegetarian Festival is a religious event originating from China. It was observed in Phuket for the first time in the newly developed mining town of Kathu by a Chinese opera company about 170 years ago.

Kathu was then a thriving town inhabited mostly by Chinese miners. As they were well-to-do and in need of recreation, they hired the troupe from China to give performances. Everything went on smoothly and the troupe was able to stay there for several months. Then they were suddenly stricken by an epidemic and the theatre was forced to close down.

The trouble reminded the leading members of the company of the religious rites they had performed in China periodically but that they had neglected to do since arriving in Thailand. They were convinced that they were being punished with the illness for their negligence. So when the time came for the observance, the whole troupe abstained from eating meat and animal oil and performed religious rites for a period of 9 days and 9 nights, in order to purify their bodies and minds, and to get rid of evil.

Strange to say, all the members of the troupe recovered their health immediately afterwards. This caused great curiosity to the local people. Some of them did the same thing the next year and found it beneficial both physically and mentally. The number of people practising this increased year by year. And now it has become a festival for the whole island. Even people who are not Chinese in origin nor related to Chinese by marriage take part in it either because they share the same belief with the Chinese or because they are attracted by the accompanying activities that are so exciting and fascinating.

The festival has undergone some changes in form and content through the decades and has become more and more colourful and entertaining. As practised today, it has the following features:
Name -- The full name of the festival is "Observe the Commandments and Abstain from Meat". In fact, the former part is considered more important than the latter, though it is not perceptible to the outsiders.

Period -- The festival normally lasts for nine days from the 1st to the 9th of the 9th Chinese lunar month. But this year it corresponds to the eleven-day period from 25 September to 5 October.

Dress -- The vegetarians, male and female, young and old, are required to dress in white during the entire period.

Food -- People observing the festival should abstain from eating meat and animal oil for at least one day. They can have their vegetarian meals either at home or, preferably, at one of the Chinese temples in and around Phuket town. The meals at the temples are provided free, but most people make a donation and have their names registered first.

Religious rites -- Rites are performed at more than ten temples at various times and dates. The details about the rites and the temples will be given by the organizers later.

Processions -- Long lines of devotees, led by images of gods and priests, walk through the streets in procession several times during the festival. Onlookers lining along the streets with large quantities of firecrackers prepared in advance, light and throw them to the procession, causing continuous deafening noises that are heard miles away and adding great fun to the occasion. No injury has ever been reported to be caused by the explosions.

MAGICAL PERFORMANCES

For the majority of people, these form the most absorbing part of the festival. During the performances of religious rites at the temples, the priests conduct various kinds of dangerous acts to show the power of their gods, to strengthen the faith of their followers and to rid them of their bad luck. These acts include walking barefoot across a stretch of ground paved with burning charcoal, climbing up and down, also barefoot, a stepladder with a total of 72 cross-pieces made of sharp iron blades, and cutting, striking or piercing parts of the body with sharp or pointed objects.

With the exception of fire walking which is usually done by ordinary believers, all these perilous acts are performed by or to mediums who are in hypnosis. Still, it seems inexplicable that they always escape serious injury. When the rites are over and the mediums regain consciousness, only traces of cuts are left on the skin and these are healed soon afterwards.

You may wonder whether the mediums have been hired to do the job and whether they have been trained beforehand. The reply is, they have not. All the mediums act involuntarily. They are in a trance. But they must have faith in the gods before they can be hypnotized. So it is very unlikely for a foreign tourist to gain the experience of a medium during the festival.
 
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS
As the name of the event suggests, observing the commandments is the integral part of the festival. According to a booklet issued by a shrine which coorganizes the event, the 10 commandments are as follows:

1. Abstain from killing animals;
2. Abstain from eating all kinds of meat;
3. Abstain from stealth and embezzlement;
4. Abstain from harming others bodily or mentally;
5. Abstain from telling lies, using obscene language or swearing at people;
6. Abstain from touching people of the opposite sex or talking with them flirtingly;
7. Abstain from taking alcohol or using narcotics;
8. Abstain from gambling;
9. Abstain from wearing ornaments including those made of metals or leather;
10. Abstain from sharing receptacles or utensils or a meal with people who do not observe the commandments.

You may wonder, if the festival is so solemn, why it should have the appearance of a carnival. The answer is that the participants are serious in their faith. The entertaining performances are given to attract crowds and to try to convert them by making them believe in the powers of gods. In this respect, the organizers have been very successful as is evidenced by the ever increasing numbers of participants in the event every year.
 
A TAOIST EVENT
The religious rites involved in the festival are entirely Taoist in origin and have nothing to do with Buddhism, as is shown by the following:

Two of the shrines co-organizing the festival call themselves "Tao Bo Keng", or the Temple of Tao Bo, which is a Taoist goddess believed to be the mother of the gods of the Big Dipper.

The supreme god worshipped in the shrines is the Jade Emperor, or Yok-Ong Songte as the local people call him. He is the supreme god of Taoism.

The use of magic powers is an integral part of Taoism, which in fact originated from witchcraft.

The gods invoked to preside over the festival are called "Kiu Ong", which means "Nine Heavenly Kings". Originally, the nine kings meant the gods of the sun, the moon and seven other heavenly bodies. They should still be so. But they are now interpreted also to mean seven Buddhas and two Bodhisattvas. This is an obvious attempt to give the festival a Buddhist colour to broaden its appeal.
 
TAOIST SHRINES
There are six Taoist shrines jointly organizing the festival activities in Phuket in recent years, of which the oldest is the Kathu Shrine, located in the County of Kathu 8 km to the west of the provincial town of Phuket. The practice of fasting in the 9th lunar month was first brought to Kathu in 1825, when Kathu was a booming tin-mining town. Of course, the shrine itself has been reconstructed again during the long period of time.

Three of the shrines are located in the town of Phuket -- Bangniao (or Thep Rasi) on Phuket Road, Chuitui on Ranong Road and Lorong (or Sui Bun Tong) off Phatthana Road. Bangniao and Chuitui are both over 80 years old and Lorong was founded in 1977 to share the burden of the other shrines.

Another shrine, Tha Rua, located near the Heroines Monument, is also about 80 years old. It is dedicated to Ngo Chinyin, another Taoist god. It did not join the festival activities until 1968.

In short, the Phuket Vegetarian Festival is exotic, colourful and entertaining. It is a bonus to visit Phuket during the festival period. Even if you do not like noise and excitement, you can have a glimpse of this peculiar event and then continue to enjoy your holiday in the usual way. The beautiful nature is not disturbed and the charming people of Phuket are always there to welcome you.