Phuket’s Vegetarian Festival (or Jia Chai in local Hokkien Chinese dialect) began in 1825, when the governor of Thalang, Praya Jerm, moved the island’s principal town from Ta Reua in Thalang District to Get-Hoe in Kathu District, where there were many tin mines and Chinese miners.
Around this time, a travelling opera company (called ngiu in Thai or pua-hee in Hokkien) came from China to perform for the miners.
When the whole company grew sick for an unknown reason, they kept to a vegetarian diet to honour two of the emperor gods, Kiew Ong Tai Teh and Yok On Sone Teh. The sickness afflicting the opera troupe then disappeared.
This greatly interested the people of Kathu, who asked how it was done. The answer came that ritual vegetarianism with its attendant ceremonies had been the cause. The local people embraced the faith, an enthusiasm that continues to this day.
Thus the festival began. Starting the first evening of the ninth lunar month, it continued until the ninth evening, and the aim was to bring good luck to individuals as well as to the community.
Later, a person familiar with the festival volunteered to return to Kansai, in China, where he invited the sacred Hiao lan (incense smoke) and Lian Tui (name plaques), which have the status of gods, to come and stay in Kathu.
He also brought back holy writings used in the ceremonies, returning to Phuket on the seventh night of the ninth month. The people, hearing of his arrival, went in procession to Bang Niao Pier to collect the man and his sacred cargo.
This was the origin of the processions that figures so greatly in the annual spectacle. The afternoon before the festival begins, a great pole, the Go Teng pole, is raised at each temple, and the gods are invited to descend it.
At midnight the pole is hung with nine lanterns, signaling the start of the festival. The two most important gods, Kiew Ong Tai Teh and Yok Ong Sone Teh, are then also invited down to preside over ceremonies.
Aside from this, there are other ceremonies at the temples throughout the festival, notably invocation of the gods Lam Tao, who keeps track of the living, and Pak Tao, who keeps track of the dead; and the well-known feats of the Mah Song, such as bathing in hot oil, climbing ladders made of sharp blades, and walking on hot coals.
The Mah Song – literally, Steeds of the Gods – are also a central part of the processions through the streets of Phuket, often juddering from possession by the gods, and with cheeks or other parts of the body pierced with sharp objects as massive amounts of firecrackers explode all around.
The festival ends with merit-making ceremonies at each temple, and a farewell to the gods on the last night. That night is when the fireworks are at their most impressive, with processions winding their way from every shrine and converging on Saphan Hin.
BEING A MAH SONG
One long-time Mah Song is Sap Chutimakornkul, a born and bred Phuketian, who this year will have been a Mah Song at Bang Niew shrine for 22 years.
He explained to The Phuket News how he first became a messenger of the gods.
“It began when I had the same dream for three nights in a row, about six months before the 1991 Vegetarian Festival.
“I dreamed that a god flew over the clouds, then came down to earth and asked me to be his Mah Song. In the dream, I thought it was strange, but I agreed, and I was not worried.
“But when I woke up, I still didn’t really believe in Mah Song, and I didn’t want to be one. I was not a teenager anymore – I was nearly 30 years old – and I was not interested in doing extreme things like that.”
But what happened next, around four months later, and about two months before the 1991 Vegetarian Festival, gave Mr Sap no option but to be involved; he was “chosen” by the god.
“One day, I went to Koh Sirey with my friend, and we visited his older brother’s house. At the time he had been taken over by the god, and was showing all the outward signs of being a Mah Song.
“Then suddenly, I was taken over too. I was not aware what was happening. Then while I was being a Mah Song, someone asked me who I was. I wrote down “Tai Pae Gim Chae”, a god who is one of the angels who works as an ambassador for Yok Ong Tai Teh, the jade emperor, and king of the gods.
“Somehow, I wrote the name in Chinese characters, though I didn’t know any Chinese. Then I started to believe, and I was not scared. I thought back to the dream, and remembered in the dream that I had agreed to be a Mah Song.
“The first time I was a Mah Song [in the Vegetarian Festival], I already knew I had to pierce my cheeks with a piece of metal to take away the pain from other regular people. So I got a thin metal stick for myself – I cleaned it and prepared it to go through my face.
“Then, at the temple, the Mah Song beat the drums to invite the gods, who are always near during Vegetarian Festival time. It’s like saying, ‘I’m ready, now you can take over my body.’
“My helper at the temple assisted me to put the metal stick through my cheek, and by now I was unaware. I didn’t know what was going on. Then the god inside me took over, and grabbed a much bigger piece of metal. This was not the piece of metal I had prepared – it was much bigger, but I was not aware of what was happening.
“When I awoke from being a Mah Song, I saw I had very big holes in my cheeks.”
Every year since, about 10 days before the Vegetarian Festival, Mr Sap is visited by Tai Pae Gim Chae, his god.
“Some years, if I am not ready to be a Mah Song for him, for example maybe I’m sick or not healthy, then I ask him if I can take a break. Then the god agrees and understands, and I don’t have to be a Mah Song that year. But most times I agree.
“When I am being a Mah Song, and the god takes over my body, I can’t control myself. For example, when I am in the parade, I see you, and sometimes I remember you and want to say hello, but I can’t control myself – I’m not being myself.
Mr Sap said there are sometimes fake Mah Songs that he’s heard of, but these are not common.
“Sometimes the fake ones have to go to hospital because when they pierce their bodies, they cannot stop the blood flowing. Or when they are in the parade, they collapse because they cannot stand the pain from the piercings – these two problems do not affect real Mah Song.”
Another way to tell if a Mah Song is real or not is if they can speak Chinese when they have been taken over by the god.
Seniors of the shrine who know Chinese will ask the Mah Song questions about the gods in Chinese, and the real Mah Songs can answer well in Chinese, even if they do not speak it in their normal life.
Mr Sap explains, “After the Vegetarian Festival parade, the god leaves my body and I go back to my regular life. On the final day of the Vegetarian Festival, at Saphan Hin, we send the gods back to heaven.”
Dr Sirichai Silapa-acha, the Director of Patong Hospital, said that before the Vegetarian Festival each year, the Phuket Provincial Public Health Office gives blood tests to all the Mah Song, to test for any contagious diseases.
In the past, Mah Song would usually share the objects used to pierce their bodies. But these days, with people more aware of the transmission of disease through blood, each Mah Song has his or her own objects. These are cleaned with disinfectant or alcohol before piercing begins.
Dr Sirichai said there is no serious harm done by piercing one’s cheek with small objects.
“It is like piercing ears for earrings; it is not so serious. But people can get infections if they don’t clean the objects well.
“It is a traditional festival, hence it is impossible to stop people from piercing their bodies, or stop people using firecrackers.
“But we advise anyone who wants to join in and watch the big parades and street processions to wear cotton balls or earplugs for their ears.
“We have had some cases of perforated eardrums, particularly after the last day of the Vegetarian Festival, when there is the biggest parade ending at Saphan Hin.
“During the parades [through the streets], people should wear glasses, hats and other things to fend off smoke [and debris] from the firecrackers. But Saphan Hin is a large open air space, so it is good for ventilation.
You can view the full schedule of street processions and other events here. Thanks to the Tourism Authority of Thailand (Phuket) for allowing reproduction of their Vegetarian Festival guide.