Tesagan Gin Je
Phuket's Nine Emperor Gods Festival
Phuket sounds like it’s under siege, with firecrackers going off continually and smoke rising everywhere. People walk by with all manner of piercings through their cheeks and skin, blood dripping down their backs from self flagellation with axes and blood streaming down their chests. But all is well and this is the time of Phuket’s most important festival.
Phuket’s Vegetarian festival began in 1825, when the island’s principal town moved to Kathu, a tin mining district still covered by jungle where fever was rife. A Chinese traveling opera company came to perform for the miners. When the whole opera company grew sick they kept to a vegetarian diet to honour two of the Emperor Gods and the sickness disappeared. The reason for the recovery, they discovered, was the ritual vegetarianism with its accompanying ceremonies. The annual festival began.
Today over a third of the 600,000 population of Phuket are Thai Chinese. The festival takes place during the first nine days of the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar (late September or October). The festival is a devotion to the Nine Emperor Gods with the purification of individuals and communal spaces. Devotees wear white clothing and stick to a strict form of vegetarianism called Je, which is anything other than meat, poultry, seafood, dairy produce and food with a strong smell like garlic. It should be prepared in the sacred kitchen of a Chinese temple and undergone a series of rituals.
There are many ceremonies during the festival and throughout there are fireworks and drums - the louder the better, because the noise drives away evil spirits. Ma Song, or mediums, are devotees whom the gods enter during the festival. They manifest supernatural powers and perform self-mutilation in order to move evil from individuals onto themselves, and to bring their community good luck.
The festival is changing and several of the local leaders of the shrines are concerned about over commercialisation with corporate sponsorship as well as a focus on business and individual profit, especially through food that is not Je. There is also some concern as to the motivation of some of the people taking part. Is it in devotion to the gods or to their peers? The people I met were devoted to the festival and were very welcoming into their homes, their lives and patient in helping me understand what their very special festival meant to them.