Phuket first: Vegetarian Festival twice in one year

PHUKET: For the first time in its history, the world famous Phuket Vegetarian Festival will occur twice in one year.

This year will see twice the number of 9th lunar months in the Chinese lunar calendar and twice the number of visits from the gods. However, maybe not twice the amount of celebrating.

“According to the Chinese lunar calendar there are two 9th lunar months this year. It happens every 100 years,” explained the president of the Jui Tui Shrine, Teeravut Sritularak, 65. “This means there will be two times for the Vegetarian Festival.”

The full-on festival will run from September 24 to October 2, followed by the unique nine days, which will span from October 24 to November 1 this year.

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The Jui Tui Shrine, which is based in the heart of Phuket Town and plays a leading role for Vegetarian Festival events, is looking to downplay the second round of festivities.

“Our shrine puts on too big of a celebration to do it twice in one year. However, we’ll have a meeting to discuss what we want to do. If enough people want to do it twice, we might,” Mr Teeravut said.

“Originally, we were just planning to open a restaurant at the shrine to provide food during the second period.”

The Vegetarian Festival, or jia chai in local Hokkien Chinese, 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 was many tin mines and Chinese miners. Kathu, at that time, was still covered in jungle and fever was rife. It happened that a traveling opera company (called ngiu in Thai or pua-hee in the Hokkien dialect) came from China to perform for the miners.

When the whole company grew sick from an unnamed malady, they kept to a vegetarian diet to honor two of the emperor gods Kiew Ong Tai Teh and Yok Ong 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 remedy, and as a result, people embraced the faith enthusiastically.

Throughout the years, the simple practice of devotion grew into a vibrant festival held every year in Phuket. Today, the Vegetarian Festival draws visitors from all over the world. The multitude of stalls selling vegan food, the lively parades, the ear-shattering fireworks, as well as the self-mutilation performed by scores of possessed ma song are all familiar sights of the event.

Ma Song, or entranced horses, are devotees whom the gods enter during the fest. They manifest supernatural powers and perform self-torture in order to shift evil from individuals onto themselves, and to bring the community good luck. Ma Song fall into two categories: those who, having had an intimation of impending doom, want to extend their lives; and people specially chosen by the gods for their moral qualities.

Throughout the festival, fireworks and drums are sounded, especially during ceremonies. It is believed that the louder they are, the better, because the noise drives away evil spirits.

Participants in the festival keep to a strict vegan diet for a varying number of days, usually no less than three. This they do to make themselves strong in mind and body; they refrain from all vice, eating animal flesh and killing animals. The festival thus promotes good hygiene, brightness and inner peace.

10 Rules for the Vegetarian Festival:

1. Maintain clean bodies during the festival.
2. Clean kitchen utensils and use them separately from others who do not participate in the festival.
3. Wear white during the festival.
4. Behave physically and mentally.
5. Do not eat meat or other animal-based products.
6. Abstain from sexual activities.
7. Do not consume alcoholic beverages.
8. People in a mourning state should not partake in the festival.
9. Pregnant ladies should not watch any of the rituals.
10. Ladies having their period should not attend the ritual.

— Saran Mitrarat

Phuket News
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