Vegetarian Festival


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Vegetarian Festival (Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods)

Type of Holiday: Religious (Buddhist)
Date of Observation: September-October; first nine days of the ninth Chinese lunar month
Where Celebrated: Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and by Chinese communities elsewhere
Symbols and Customs: Blade Ladder-Climbing, Fasting/Vegetarianism, FireWalking, Lantern-Raising Ceremony, Self-Mutilation, Wayang Performances, White Clothing

ORIGINS

The Vegetarian Festival, also known as the Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods, is part of the traditions of Buddhism, one of the four largest religious families in the world. Buddhism is based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama (c. 563-483 B . C . E .), who came to be known as Buddha, or "The Enlightened One." The basic tenets of Buddhism can be summarized in the Four Noble Truths and the EightVegetarian Festival

fold Path. The Four Noble Truths are 1) the truth and reality of suffering; 2) suffering is caused by desire; 3) the way to end suffering is to end desire; and 4) the Eightfold Path shows the way to end suffering. The Eightfold Path consists of 1) right view or right understanding; 2) right thoughts and aspirations; 3) right speech; 4) right conduct and action; 5) right way of life; 6) right effort; 7) right mindfulness; and 8) right contemplation.

What is known in Thailand as the Vegetarian Festival and in Singapore as the Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods has its roots in China, where star-worship was well established by the time of the Han Dynasty (202 B . C . E .-220 C . E .). The seven stars of the Big Dipper and two other nearby stars, invisible to the human eye, were deities referred to as the Nine Great Emperors or Nine Emperor Gods, and it was believed that they controlled the destiny of mortals.

In 1825, when a traveling Chinese opera company visited Phuket, the largest of the islands in Thailand, to entertain the Chinese who were working in the tin mines there, a terrible epidemic of malaria broke out, and many people lost their lives. The Chinese decided they had brought this fate upon themselves because they had forgotten that it was the ninth lunar month, a period during which they normally paid tribute to the Nine Emperor Gods by abstaining from eating meat or killing animals. When the members of the opera company purified their bodies by fasting and adhering to a strict vegetarian diet (see FASTING /VEGETARIANISM ), the epidemic miraculously came to an end. Thereafter, everyone in the Chinese community made sure they honored these gods during the first nine days of the ninth lunar month, which usually falls in late September and early October.

This festival is still widely observed in Phuket, where it is called the Vegetarian Festival. Members of the Chinese Buddhist community celebrate by avoiding not only meat but also sex and alcoholic drinks. They abstain from killing any living thing, arguing, lying, and any other activities that are not in keeping with their efforts to purify themselves in both body and mind. They put on WHITE CLOTHING , attend WAYANG or Chinese opera performances, and participate in various acts of SELF MUTILATION , which are both horrifying and fascinating to watch. Most of the ceremonies associated with the festival take place in Phuket's Chinese temples, and the dense smoke from the fires, candles, and burning incense in these temples helps the self-mutilators achieve the trancelike state that will protect them from harm.

A farewell procession is held on the ninth and last day of the festival, when images of the Nine Emperor Gods are carried through the streets, accompanied by those who have mutilated themselves to prove their devotion. An urn filled with burning benzoin (a gum resin), which was ignited on the first day of the festival and has been kept in a private place in the temple ever since, is also carried in the procession, usually to the waterfront where it is emptied into the sea in a symbolic farewell to the Nine Emperor Gods as they return to heaven.

SYMBOLS AND CUSTOMS

Blade Ladder-Climbing

One of the more impressive acts of SELF MUTILATION that can be seen during the Phuket Vegetarian Festival is performed on the seventh night. Hundreds of young men climb forty-foot-high ladders with extremely sharp rungs that are erected outside the Chinese temples. While most are in a trance that protects them from serious injury, there are always a few whose feet are badly cut.

Fasting/Vegetarianism

The custom of fasting dates back to about 3000 B . C . E . in China, when it was believed to be the key to longevity. It was not widely practiced, however, until Buddhism came to China during the reign of the Eastern Han Dynasty Emperor Ming (58-76 C . E .).

Fasting during the Vegetarian Festival is not the same thing as starvation; it entails a strict avoidance of meat, eggs, chicken, and seafood, and sometimes vegetables with strong odors, such as onions and garlic, and certain spices. Some people are so fastidious about their vegetarianism during the festival that they use a different set of dishes for serving meals. The fasting can begin as much as several weeks before the festival itself and is regarded as an essential form of preparation for the trials of SELF MUTILATION that follow.

Fire-Walking

One of the forms of SELF MUTILATION performed during the Vegetarian Festival occurs in the evening outside the temple, where beds of hot charcoal fifteen or more feet in diameter are waiting. Those who have prepared themselves mentally and spiritually are able to walk over the hot coals barefoot without getting burned.

Lantern-Raising Ceremony

In Phuket, the lantern-raising ceremony is performed in the evening before the nine-day festival begins. A lantern with nine wicks, symbolic of the Nine Emperor Gods and hanging from a bamboo pole to which leaves and branches are still attached, is raised to the top of a post made from the trunk of a tree. Once the lantern has been lit and raised, it symbolizes the arrival of the Emperor Gods, which means that the festival itself can begin.

Self-Mutilation

It is the self-mutilation rituals that have made the Vegetarian Festival in Phuket a major tourist attraction in recent years. Those who have been preparing for this for Vegetarian Festival

weeks allow their faces to be pierced, usually through the cheek, by sharp objects such as knives, skewers, or shards of glass. Larger objects such as swords, umbrellas, chains, and poles have also been used. Sometimes several self-mutilators will be pierced by the same length of steel wire, forming a kind of human necklace, and sometimes rods that are several feet long with heavy objects attached to the ends are forced through the cheeks of the willing volunteers. The piercing itself is done with the utmost care, using antiseptic gloves and piercing tools that have been cleaned and sterilized. These people believe that the Nine Emperor Gods inhabit their bodies during the festival, which enables them to endure these hideous acts of self-mutilation. When they are able to do so successfully, they say it's proof of the Emperor Gods' power.

FIRE WALKING and BLADE LADDER CLIMBING are other forms of self-mutilation associated with the festival. "Human pincushions" can also be seen, with thousands of small pins piercing their necks, shoulders, and backs.

Wayang Performances

Chinese opera, known as wayang, is quite different from the elaborate theater productions associated with opera in Europe and the United States. It is usually performed in a much more casual setting, either on the street or in a temporary theater that has been set up outdoors. The stories are usually based on ancient legends with which everyone is familiar, and the actors wear colorful, ornate costumes and heavy makeup. Performances can last two days or even longer.

The wayang performances that take place during the Vegetarian Festival in Phuket are a reminder of how the festival originated-when a visiting Chinese opera troupe brought illness and death upon the local population because they failed to pay tribute to their own Emperor Gods while traveling away from home.

White Clothing

The white clothing people wear during the Vegetarian Festival is a symbol of the purity they are striving to achieve by observing a strict vegetarian diet and by engaging in acts of SELF MUTILATION .

FURTHER READING

Freeman, Dave, et al. 100 Things to Do Before You Die: Travel Events You Just Can't Miss. Dallas: Taylor Pub. Co., 1999. MacDonald, Margaret R., ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992.

WEB SITE

Phuket Vegetarian Festival www.phuketvegetarian.com

Vegetarian Festival

September-October; first nine days of ninth lunar month
The Vegetarian Festival is an annual nine-day affair observed on the island of Phuket off southwestern Thailand by residents of Chinese ancestry. During the nine days, observers eat only vegetarian foods. The festival begins with a parade in which devotees wear white, and continues with ceremonies at temples, performances of special feats by ascetics, and acts of self-mortification—walking on hot coals, piercing the skin, and so on. The festival celebrates the beginning of the month called "Taoist Lent," when devout Chinese abstain from meat. It is thought, however, that the self-mortification acts are derived from the Hindu festival of Thaipusam.
CONTACTS:
Tourism Authority of Thailand
611 N. Larchmont Blvd., 1st Fl.
Los Angeles, CA 90004
800-842-4526 or 323-461-9814; fax: 323-461-9834
www.tourismthailand.org
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