Vegetarian festival or “Jia Chai” (in Chinese Hokkian) is a tradition that has been deeply inherited in Phuket since around 1825-1857. Many things have changed according to times and situations, like this year, religious rituals have to be adjusted due to covid-19 regulations.
These religious rituals are traditions that have been practiced continuously and are valuable in cultural aspects. These photos from the Jui Tui Tao Bo Geng Foundation reflect the devotion of Phuket people towards the vegetarian festival and how the festival is carried on from generation to generation.
The Street Procession of Ma-Song
Another important religious ritual of the vegetarian festival is called Ew-Geng, which is the street procession of Ma-song around the town. A crowd of worshippers dress in all-white costumes and wait for the parade on both sides of the road. Some might set up the altar for Taoist deities or even participate in the procession.
The street procession of Ma-Song or ‘Ew-Geng’ means the respectful invitation of the incense smoke and holy fire from Jiang xi province, China which took place for the first time in Phuket in 1825.
The procession consists of Ma-Song or Gi-Tong using sharp weapons to torture themselves as a significance of sacrifice to the community, along with the sound of drum rolls and exploding firecrackers.
The spiritual parade ends with “Tua-Lian” or “A palanquin” which looks like a miniature version of a Chinese temple. This palanquin is believed to be a residence of the Nine Emperor Gods’ spirits (Jiu-Huang-Da-Di), hence local worshippers bow down with respect when they see it.
Though the regulation of covid-19 has led to the reduction of religious events, the street procession carries on the tradition by using vehicles instead of pedestrian like usual.
As soon as the drum rolls, it is the signal for “Ma-Song”, or the mediums of Chinese gods and goddesses from different shrines across the town to show their phenomenal superpower, dance and give their believers blessing. This is a highlight of the street procession that everyone anticipates.
It is believed that in order to become ‘Ma-Song’, one must be selected by the deities. The tutelary goddess of the sea ‘Ma Jor Bo’, the main god of the festival ‘Tian Du Yuan Shuai’, the familiar ‘Guan Yin’ and other deities would choose their own medium of communication. These devoted Ma-Songs will be the ones to present in the ceremonies during the festival on their behalf and help out their believers from sorrow.
Partially, the deities would choose those who are moribund but have a lot of good karma, hence being a Ma-song is seen as the chance to prolong one’s life. In some cases, one becomes Ma-song because the ancestor expires it on to them.
It was long claimed that during the procession some ‘Ma-Songs’ can give a full blessing in Chinese all of sudden, despite never having learned the language.
Moreover, self-mutilation by piercing with sharp items, small god statues, umbrellas and other kinds of weapons creates both excitement and gruesomeness for visitors. In a year, there are countless tourists who travel across the globe just to attend this invaluable cultural festival.
Piercing through parts of their bodies is a form of supernatural power exhibition of the Chinese deities that possessed them. Some believe that these Ma songs sacrifice their bodies to take away bad fortune and karma on behalf of the worshippers.
The Rising of Go-Teng pole
The clamorous sounds of exploding firecrackers evokes the noisy and carnival-like atmosphere in the shrine throughout the vegetarian festival. Exciting and jaw-dropping religious events are performed by different shrines that have lasted many lives.
The main event that signals the beginning of the vegetarian festival is the Rising of Go-Teng pole or the lantern pole of the Nine Emperor Gods. Back in the days, before 5 pm, there was a little child banging a Chinese gong, calling everyone to gather at the shrine to help each other to pull the pole up. Once the pole was up, the lantern would be raised to the top to invite the spirits of the deities.
Annually, Phuket starts the vegetarian festival by raising the Go-teng pole, despite the covid-19 pandemic. This year will be the first time in history, the Rising of Go-teng pole will be held as a virtual event so the world can experience this traditional ritual in a form of “New Normal”.
Apart from this, the festival is filled with exciting spiritual events which leaves both local and foreigner visitors in wonder such as fire-walking, ladder of sharp blades climbing, the exorcising, the street procession and the departure of deities.
“Tua Lian” or “The palanquin”
In the middle of noisy exploded firecrackers and the blessing from Ma-Songs across the streets, the most significant of Ew-Geng or the street procession is the presence of ‘Tua Lian’ or ‘The palanquin’.
Tua Lian is a scale-down Chinese temple that requires bearers and is always presented at the end of the parade. The literal meaning of Tua Lian is a big chariot for an emperor, hence people always bow down to pay their respects.
The top of a palanquin is decorated with Chinese style coronet and 5 colors flag to symbolize the 5 heaven armed forces where the Nine Emperor Gods enshrine.
“Tua Lian” from Jui Tui Shrine from unknown year as shown in the picture above, reflects the significance of the vegetarian festival which is deeply inherited in the community.
Chinese gods and goddesses
Every time the vegetarian festival rolls around, shrines in Phuket will be packed with believers dressed in all-white outfits who come to pray to the Chinese deities for good fortunes.
Paying homage to Chinese deities during the vegetarian festival is another highlight. Thai-Chinese people believe that visiting and praying at the shrine in this period of time would bring extra good fortune and prosperity, as well as cast away bad luck. Locals take the worship of Chinese deities very seriously. Shrines in Phuket contain different gods and goddesses who have different specialities.
For instance, if you wish to empower your authority or want your business to blow up, you would have to visit ‘Guan Yu’ at Sa Pum Shrine. However, if you wish to have a little one or meet your soulmate, then you would have to visit ‘Granny Pud Jor’ and ‘Granny Zhu Sheng Niang Niang’ at Pud Jor Shrine.