Anyone who doesn’t like to eat meat will be pleased to hear about The Nine Emperor Gods Festival which is observed by cleansing the body via vegetarianism, and celebrated across the whole of Thailand, as well as in China, Hong Kong, Myanmar (Burma), Singapore and Malaysia, for a full nine days. The date in the Western calendar that the festival falls on changes yearly, but in the traditional Chinese calendar it starts on the evening of the ninth lunar month. In the Western calendar this means it is usually late September or early October with this year’s festival starting on the 5th of October and ending on the 11th of the month.
The Nine Emperor Gods Festival is known in Chinese pinyin as Jiǔ huáng yé, in Cantonese as Kow Wong Yeh and in Thai as Tesagan Gin Je. Despite Thailand being predominantly of the Buddhist faith (over 96% of Thai people identify themselves as Buddhist), the Nine Emperor Gods Festival is actually a Taoist celebration. We’ll see why a celebration of a different faith to the main national one is celebrated here a little later.
First, let’s go back to ancient Chinese mythology to take a look at who these nine emperor Gods actually are.
The Nine Emperor Gods (jiǔ huáng xīng jūn or jiǔ huáng da di in Chinese pinyin) are the nine sons of the Emperor Zhou Yu Dou Fu Yuan Jun and of the mother of the Big Dipper, Dou Mu Yuan Jun, who is the keeper of the Registrar of Life and Death.
Unfortunately for Dou Fu Yuan Jun, he is hardly worshipped these days as the stricter version of the Taoist teachings has been diluted somewhat and Taoism is not so widely followed in modern China. In fact it seems rather unfair to Dou Fu Yuan Jun as the majority of Nine Emperor God temples no longer even bother to acknowledge his existence. Dou Fu Yuan Jun is, however, still invoked along with Dou Mu Yuan Jun in a ceremony known as Li Dou which honours the Big Dipper. Taoist followers at these ceremonies believe that worshipping the Northern Dipper stars creates longevity, helps to avoid disasters, absolves all sins and frees one of his or her spiritual debts.
Popular Chinese folk lore tells the story of the Nine Emperor Gods actually being Ming dynasty pirates who collaborated together in a plot to overthrow the Qing dynasty. Perhaps not altogether surprisingly, many Taoist priests state that this story is not true and consider it an affront to the true Taoist beliefs which dictate that the Nine Emperor Gods are in fact high-ranking Star Lords who govern the movement of the planets and take charge of issues concerning the lives and deaths of us mere mortals. The seven stars of the Big Dipper in the North Ursa Major constellation, which are visible to the human eye, and their two assistant stars, which are generally not visible, represent the Nine Emperors Gods.
So, that’s the background but how and why did these nine gods inspire a vegetarian festival and why is a Taoist tradition celebrated so fervently in Thailand?
Thailand is actually home to a large Chinese population, and many Thai people are in fact ethnically Chinese, with a large number of people in their 30’s and 40’s today being second generation Chinese or having a Chinese grandparent. It is not at all unusual to see Chinese temples in Thailand, Chinese characters on decorative archways and on shop fronts, particularly on jewellery shops and shops selling gold. Chinese New Year is also celebrated in Thailand and in the weeks running up to that celebration, many towns and cities will be strung with red Chinese lanterns and banners.
Although celebrated across the Kingdom, the Nine Emperor Gods festival, or Tesagan Gin Je to give it its Thai name, is most famously observed on the island of Phuket, which lies in the Andaman sea just off the Southwest coast of Thailand. Phuket is the largest of Thailand’s many islands and is actually connected to the mainland by way of two bridges, making it easy to get to. The reason that Phuket holds Thailand’s biggest celebrations of a Chinese vegetarian festival is partly due to the fact that at least 35% of the population on the island is Chinese, making it a natural location for the nine day event. The other reason is that although the actual origins of how the festival started are not completely known, it is thought by many that the festival began in Phuket in the 19th century when a wandering Chinese opera group who were performing on the island fell sick with malaria. To try and combat the disease the performers decided to follow a strict vegetarian diet whilst offering prayers to the Nine Emperor Gods to ask for their minds and bodies to be purified.
Much to the amazement of the Phuket locals, all the members of the opera group made a full recovery, and to celebrate their survival of this once fatal disease, a celebration was thrown to honour the gods and to thank them for their divine intervention. From these humble beginnings the Nine Emperor Gods festival has grown in to a huge annual gathering that is attended by thousands of people, with many participants coming from China, as well as other countries in Asia.
Clearly, from its origins being in the beating of malaria, the whole point of the Tesagan Gin Je festival is to purify, cleanse and heal one’s mind, body and spirit. For worshippers, a lot of the activity takes place in the island’s temples where ritual cleansing and prayers are the main focus. Anyone taking part in the ceremonies and observing the nine days of purification will dress only in white and they will refrain from eating not only meat and poultry but seafood and dairy produce too. If they are offering vegetarian or vegan snacks or dishes, restaurants and street food vendors will hang yellow flags or bunting with red Chinese characters or Thai lettering on them, which indicates that je – vegetarian – food is being cooked and sold there.
To sample the purest of the pure foods however, one will need to eat dishes prepared during a special ritual in one of the Chinese temple’s sacred kitchens. This is the food that will offer the greatest powers of healing and purification.
There are a number of rules for anyone who is seriously taking part in the cleansing ritual: they must keep themselves clean at all times during the festival, they should not share kitchen ware or utensils with those who are not participating in the cleanse and they should conduct themselves in an appropriate manner, both physically and mentally. As well as abstaining from meat and dairy, alcohol is also to be avoided, as is engaging in any kind of sexual act. Besides this, there are a number of people who are not allowed to attend the festival or the rituals, namely anyone undergoing a period of mourning, expecting mothers and females that are menstruating.
But Tesagan Gin Je is about more than just giving up meat for a week and a half and it is the sacred rituals and aesthetic displays that are performed at the Chinese shrines and temples, particularly in Phuket that have garnered the innocuous sounding ‘Phuket Vegetarian Festive’ worldwide fame and attention.
Devotees known as Mah Song will walk barefoot over hot coals, climb ladders that have blades instead of rungs and pierce their cheeks and tongues with swords, skewers and other household items. This really is not something for the faint of heart, or needless to say, for young children so do consider carefully whether you think you want to watch – or indeed participate! – in this somewhat gruesome aspect of the vegetarian festival.
The Mah Song believe that the Chinese gods will protect them from lasting harm, and they invite the spirits to possess their bodies to protect them. It is believed that due to this possession and protection, little blood is shed and no large scarring is left by these acts of self mutilation. In recent years, injuries have taken place however, with one death being reported in Phuket during the 2011 festival. Maybe somewhat surprisingly, most of these injuries were not caused by skewers through the tongues, but by firecrackers being carelessly let off among the busy crowds. Again this is something to take care of and avoid if possible.
This being Thailand, parades are a big part of the celebrations in Phuket and you’ll be able to watch the Mah Song as they walk the streets in a trance like state, displaying their elaborate costumes and their incredible piercings. It is not just the devoted who participate however, as hundreds of the locals will also join in with the activities such as running across the beds of hot coals and even climbing the bladed ladder.
So if none of this has put you off and you’re still tempted to head for Phuket next October for some good vegetarian food, where can you expect to see the bulk of the activity? There are over 40 Chinese shrines and six Chinese temples dotted around the island and ceremonies and rituals will take place in and around all of them. The main temple, however, is in Phuket Town, near the fresh vegetable and meat market, and is called the Jui Tui Shrine. Four of the other big shrines, which are also actually the oldest in Phuket, are the Put Jaw, Bang Niew, Cherng Talay and Kathu shrines. They are also in Phuket Town with the exception of Cherng Talay which is in the island’s Thalang district, and the Kathu shrine, which is in Kathu district.
The festival’s opening event is the raising of the Lantern Pole which signifies to the nine emperor gods that the festival is about to start. Once this approximately ten meter tall pole is raised the participants believe that the Hindu god Shiva will descend upon the event imbuing the proceedings with spiritual power.
Over the next couple of days the Chinese Thai locals will take their household gods to their temple along with offerings of food and drink. This is believed to ‘recharge’ the gods and give them an injection of the extra spiritual energy that is floating around the temples at this special time of year. As a tourist, you will be able to watch these rituals and nobody should mind if you join in by lighting the incense sticks or candles that are placed around the household gods.
Of course, this is Thailand – the land where people love to eat! – and this being predominantly a food festival, means that you would be very unlucky to go hungry during your visit. If you like your meals to contain some meat and can’t envisage having green Thai chicken curry without the chicken, don’t worry as you’ll still be able to find your meaty favourites, however vegetarians and vegans will be delighted at the range of foods suddenly available to them. It is not actually very easy to tell which dishes are vegetarian and which are not, especially on street food carts, as soybean and protein substitutes are used to replicate the meat found in normal Thai dishes and they both look and taste almost identical to their carnivorous counterparts. All you need to do is look for the yellow and red flags though and you can be assured that the food on that stall or in that restaurant will be vegetarian.
So, you’ve watched some stomach churning acts of self flagellation and mutilation, you’ve followed that up, perhaps unwisely, with a traditional Thai vegetarian feast, you’ve strayed from the path of righteousness by not being able to resist the cold (and incredibly strong) local Chang beer and you’re looking for something else to do in Phuket. Well as luck would have it, Phuket has a wealth of things to do and is a beautiful island to explore by both scooter and bicycle. Bustling Phuket Town will either delight you with its heady mix of beach, bars, tattoo shops, souvenir shops and pirate DVD sellers, or, on the other hand, it might well exhaust you and make you want to jump on the first plane home. But don’t beat a hasty retreat just yet for Phuket, although heavily commercialized in places, still has some patches of solitude and some of those famously deserted, white sandy beaches that Thailand is justifiably famous for.
How about a day trip to Phang Nga Bay? This stunning, deep green bay with its sheer limestone cliffs that rise out of the water are a photographers dream. The bay was brought to prominence by a certain secret agent who shall only be referred to here as 007, but it is entirely possible you’ll experience a sense of de ja vu when your boat heads for the famous ‘James Bond Island’. Back on dry land, the 45 meter high, white Big Buddha, which is visible from most of the south of Phuket, sits on the top of the Nakkerd Hills looking benevolently down over the areas of Chalong, Kata and Rawai. The drive up takes you through leafy roads, past small wooden restaurant houses, groups of street dogs and even the odd elephant. It’s an interesting drive and you’ll no doubt end up stopping several times along the way to admire the coastal views from various points.
Finally, if you’ve spent your days lazing on the beach (and quite rightly so!) and feel the need for a spot of action, why not go and see a Muay Thai boxing match? Watching Muay Thai is an experience in itself and you’ll definitely feel the energy of both the crowd and the fighters. The traditions surrounding Muay Thai help make it an unforgettable night, with the boxers entering the ring to traditional Thai music, bowing to the corners and accepting garlands of flowers around their necks before the fight starts. You can watch a Thai boxing match at either Saphan Hin Stadium in Phuket Town, which holds regular matches, or at the camp at Patong Beach.
Whether you’re visiting Phuket specifically to participate in, or attend, the vegetarian festival or whether you just happen to find yourself on the island during the nine days that it runs for, it’s sure to make your trip to this varied, entertaining and very beautiful part of Thailand all the more memorable.