Phuket Vegetarian Festival: a Kaleidoscope of Color & Ritual
The Phuket Vegetarian Festival is an annual event held all over Phuket Island in southern Thailand. The origins of this festival go back to the 1920s when a Chinese opera company came to Phuket to entertain Chinese immigrants working in the tin mines. At the time, the opera members fell victim to an unknown disease. They tried to invoke the spirit of the emperor gods and purify themselves by means of a strict diet. The regimen involved abstaining from meat, sex, alcohol or other drugs (opium was very popular at the time). Other purification practices included self-flagellation with knives or walking on fire. When the disease disappeared, the local Chinese population was so relieved, they began to celebrate these practices as a yearly event.
Today, there are about twenty-one temples and shrines on the island that take part in the festival. It all starts on the 7th day of the ninth lunar month (October for us) on the Chinese calendar by calling the important gods into the temple grounds. They raise a very tall pole accompanied by lots of drum sounds, firecrackers and chanting to invite the gods to descend to earth. During the festival some chosen devotees believe the spirit of these gods can possess their body and allow them to have supernatural power and endure self-torture to banish evil from the lives of the people.
Many friends in Bangkok had warned me in advance about their experience at this – in their memory, rather bloody – festival. I was prepared for the worst, especially since it was the last weekend.
We went to Kathu Shrine at 5 am Saturday morning to witness this spectacle of believers getting possessed. Although to all the Thai people visiting the temple with us, this seemed to be daily practice, I was still a bit overwhelmed. There was a lot going on around me: humming, running, and praying. Maybe it was just the fact that there were all these people dressed in white, plus the eerie darkness of the early hour, the pungent smell of the burning incense and the rhythm of a big drum behind us. I can’t be sure. Fact is that I found myself safely hidden against one of the temple pillars next to a young Thai boy who appeared to feel similar as me. A spectacular day was coming up…
This year the festival dates are confirmed to be from Tuesday 23 September until Friday 03 October 2014.
For a 2014 festival agenda and travel options, please contact [email protected].