Sea, Sand, Sacrifice

Devotees wash away sins and appease the Nine Emperor Gods with rituals of blood and gore at the annual Phuket Vegetarian Festival.

Words: Phoowadon Duangmee
Photos: Sooppharoek Teepapan

For nine days every September, Phuket is engulfed by gruesome rituals and parades as worshippers purify themselves and atone for their sins in the island’s annual Vegetarian Festival.

This intimate and mostly local event began some 150 years ago, when a small Chinese-speaking community living on the island was struck by a mysterious epidemic. They then sought advice from an old sage, who told them they had angered the Taoist Nine Emperor Gods. In repentance the locals built temples and stopped eating meat so they wouldn’t have to kill animals, and it seemed to work. Since then their descendants have been holding the Vegetarian Festival every year.

When not praying or atoning for their sins, the devotees take to the streets carrying the Nine Emperor God idols in palanquins and beating drums to drive away evil spirits. These processions, however, become macabre and bloody as soon as the Mah Song, or spirit mediums, show up. Be warned, the sight of the Mah Song parading with their cheeks and tongues pierced with sharp, shiny objects of all shapes and sizes is enough to make even the strongest stomach churn.

The festival climaxes with a night of ear-splitting explosions as thousands upon thousands of firecrackers are set off.

Local men, playing the part of the Nine Emperor Gods’ soldiers, slice their skin with swords and axes in order to chase away evil spirits.

People wear white to mark the Phuket Vegetarian Festival. For nine days and nights, devotees pray and eat vegetarian food to purify their spirits, minds and bodies.

A spirit medium “possessed” by a Taoist deity leads part of a procession.

Locals pray for blessings and mercy.

The revelry becomes deafening as devotees set off thousands of firecrackers to bid farewell to the Gods on the last day.

Custodians of the Gods brave storms of exploding firecrackers and other dangers as they bear the idols through the streets.

 

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