Thai Vegetarian Festival: The Nine Emperor Gods Festival

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 So from early morning, worshipers will enter a trance at their favourite shrine and pierce their cheek with the most extreme object possible: from a gas nozzle to a scale warship model or a car shock absorber… basically anything goes, the weirder, the better 

Every year on the 9th month of the Chinese lunar calendar, there is a nine day celebration known as the Nine Emperor Gods Festival. In Thailand, this festival is called thetsakan gin je (Thai: เทศกาลกินเจ) or “The Vegetarian Festival”. It is celebrated throughout the entire country, but the majority of festivities are located in Phuket (where about 35% of the population is Thai Chinese).
The apocraphyl origin is from the 19th century when a Chinese opera company travelled to Phuket to entertain a community of Chinese miners working in the area. As the story is told, the whole opera company grew sick from an unknown illness. A member of the troupe realized that they had neglected to pay homage to the Nine Emperor Gods at the beginning of the ninth lunar month, and immediately adhered to the observances associated with it, which included a strict vegetarian diet. They miraculously recovered and as a result the festival was begun to commemorate this event.
During the festival people keep a strict “je” diet with the aim to bring good luck to individual as well as to the community. It is actually a vegan festival as food is prepared without any animal products (i.e. no eggs, dairy, honey, fish sauce, oyster sauce, and shrimp paste). There are those that even leave out particularly strong ingredients like garlic and onion. Bright yellow flags with two red symbols (เจ) symbolising je are are hung from food stalls and restaurant facades to indicate that je food is for sale at their establishments. Technically, only food prepared in the sacred kitchen of the Chinese temple (in Thailand, called sarnjao ศาลเจ้า or um อ๊ำ) is je, as it must undergo a series of rituals before it can be given that name.


Despite this, the festival is far from austere and involves some stomach turning sights.  Masong ม้าทรง are the people who invite the spirits of gods to possess their bodies. Ma ม้า is the word for horse in Thai, and the name masong refers to how the spirits of the gods use the bodies of these people as one rides a horse. At temple, masong they undergo a series of rituals to protect them during which ritualised self-mutilation is practiced. This includes impaling their skin — from cheeks, arms, and faces to legs, backs, and tongues — with objects of varying size. Everything from needles and machetes to handguns and bull horns are used. Other practices include slashing their tongues with swords and knives, climbing ladders made of blades, firewalking, and standing up close to exploding fireworks. The masong tradition doesn’t exist in China and is believed to have been adopted from the Indian festival of Thaipusam.


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The 2018 Thai Vegetarian Festival will take place from October 8th to 17th. All Chinese shrines in Phuket participate in the festival, but if you want to see bigger celebrations, make sure you visit the major shrines (which include the five oldest).
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