The self-mortification rites of the annual Phuket Vegetarian Festival are one of Thailand’s most spectacular and bizarre traditions. Dan White explains why so many otherwise ordinary Thais pierce their flesh with a variety of terrifying objects in their search for purification and atonement.
Religion comes in many forms. Some are magnificent, some reflective and some brutal. Once a year here on Phuket Island in Thailand religion goes off the rails all together in shamanistic rituals of gore and explosives that sees shopkeepers, lawyers, travel agents, bus drivers and students descend to a level of surrealistic self mutilation that tests all definitions of worship.
I am standing on the damp streets of Phuket town at dawn in front of a beautifully ornate Chinese temple. The gongs are beaten and the bells are rung. The rooms of the temple and the temple-yard are heavy with smoke from ancient, holy statues.
Men gather on one side of the alter, women on the other.
Presently, the Spirits announce their arrival. Facial expressions change. The devotees start to twitch. One after another the participants shift from being ordinary people to being mediators of the Nine Emperor Gods. One after another they walk, hop or run out into the yard, where a team of helpers is ready to pierce their faces and bodies with the knives and skewers.
One by one they stand in line, enchanted, enlightened or in ecstasy, bobbing up and down, uttering squeaks and dribbling saliva while waiting their turn to have their flesh sliced and mutilated.
The piercing itself is being done with surgical precision.
What drives normally sane and restrained people to such extremes is the desire for absolute purity.
For nine days at the beginning of ‘Taoist lent’ the descendents of Chinese immigrants abstain from eating all meat and dairy products. They devote themselves to the purification of the soul culminating in acts of physical asceticism that involve gory feats of self mortification, walking through fire and climbing ladders with rungs of sharpened blades.
It takes two or three men to punch the metal and wood through the faces of their subjects. Many have such large and unwieldy objects pushed through their flesh that they need helpers on either side to aid them as they walk otherwise their skin would be completely shredded. The operations complete the devotees make their way out on to the streets.
Dressed in silk and running on bare feet, spirits possessed precede the mutilated. Trance like they stop for offerings proffered at street side shrines. They are nodding their heads, hopping up and down and squeaking like kittens. These are the voices of the spirits inside them. To me they look like a mass breakout from the local lunatic asylum, but they are not. They are ordinary townspeople and their rituals are deadly serious.
In the main body of the gathering procession one teenager with fashionably floppy hair has pierced his face with a huge model jet fighter made of Coca-Cola cans. Further on a charming looking couple have a complete bicycle sticking through their cheeks. Another man has been rather more practical. Fearing rain perhaps, he has the shaft of an open umbrella sticking through his face.
Figure after figure trudges past each one sporting ever more creative piercings using ever more bizarre objects. Multiple skewers at all angles through face neck and body, tongues transfixed by iron bars or sliced with saws. Maybe the most peculiar are those who have chosen to gauge a hole in their cheeks and then pierce the wound with branches of leafy foliage.
It all started in 1825 when a Chinese travelling theatre troupe came to Phuket to perform for immigrant tin miners. The actors were struck down by a mysterious epidemic. No medicine would cure the disease. The entertainers blamed their illness on the fact that they had failed to pay proper respect to the nine emperor Gods of Taoism. Unfortunately they had no priests who knew how to perform the ceremonies that would placate the Gods. They were forced to send word back to their homes in Fujian in China. Eventually messengers returned to Phuket with the correct manual and the performers were able to resurrect their ancient spiritual crafts. It is no surprise that the origins of the Vegetarian Festival lie in theatre.
As a penance for their sins the actors adopted a strict vegetarian diet to propitiate the deities of Kiu Hong Tai Te and Youk Hong Ta Te and were cured. The villagers were impressed and decided to follow the example of their theatrical visitors. They built ornate temples in thanks to the deities and these beautiful temples are still the base camps for devotees during the festivities. It is here that you see men piercing, cutting and mutilating their friends before they step out onto the streets of the town.
Besides fasting devotees must abstain from sexual intercourse, killing, quarrelling, telling lies and, bizarrely, staying in hotels during the three weeks before the festival starts. These restrictions are all designed to strengthen them before they are possessed by the Emperor Gods.
After the procession of blood and gore comes the procession of ear splitting noise. Hooded youths carry huge shrines and effigies on their shoulders. Everywhere around people fling deafening fire crackers that whizz and boom at extraordinary volume. The acrid smell of gunpowder perfumes the smoke and ash that shrouds the air. It feels like a re enactment of the first day of the Somme and it is amazing that no one is injured or incinerated.
And as the last float is carried aloft into the distance the town falls deathly quiet. It is still only 7.30 in the morning and the street cleaners arrive, sweeping up mounds of dust and debris.
At the start of the working day it is as if all this had never happened. I wander into a travel agents to buy a ticket out. Sitting opposite me is a beautifully manicured Thai woman in her early twenties with coiffured hair and wearing a fetching and fashionable, cream coloured trouser suit. As she busies herself at the computer making my reservation and printing out my ticket I notice the stigmata of the Emperor Gods on her cheeks and her image comes back to me. Only two hours before she had been walking through town with an iron bar through her face. Now, like the whole community, she has returned to the twenty first century and resumed her life of mundane tasks….. Shopping, watching TV and working at her job.
As I make my way through town I notice others. The taxi driver too has the small wounds that betray his morning’s activities. The man who sells me a newspaper smiles at me which must be painful since both cheeks are marked by neat round scabs. I must look disturbed. He looks concerned. “Sabaa di mai?” He asks me. “Are you okay?” in Thai. “Sabaa di,” I answer him. “Yes I am okay.” He grins and carries on with his day.