Veneration for Gods and Ancestors takes on a whole new meaning at Phuket’s Vegetarian Festival, AKA the Nine Emperor Gods Festival, where walking on fire or driving a brace of swords through your cheeks is the height of religious devotion.
Thailand‘s nine-day Vegetarian Festival in the tourist island of Phuket is a spectacular — and bloody — Chinese Taoist procession in which devotees, in accordance with tradition purify themselves in public displays of self-mutilation. Believing they are mediums to the Taoist gods, participants enter a trance like state devoid of any anaesthetics and go about in earnest impaling their own and their friends cheeks, arms, face, legs and backs. The instruments with which they do this cover everything from syringes to much larger objects such as guitars, guns and even garden umbrellas. But it doesn’t stop at piercing, as other favourites include the partial skinning of devotees (the skin is not removed, just cut and flipped over); the slashing of limbs, chest, stomachs and especially tongues; bloodletting; firewalking; the removal of tissue (normally limited to cysts) and the intentional explosion of fire crackers that are wrapped onto the body.
Organised in order to welcome nine high-ranking deities/Star Lords to earth, those who are participating in the festival dress all in white and abstain from eating meat, poultry, seafood, and dairy products for the duration of the event – hence the inspiration to Westernise the name into the more manageable Vegetarian Festival. As it is the Nine Emperor Gods (of whom the festival is held in honour of) responsibility to preside over the movement of the planets and coordinate the small issue of mortal life and death, it is believed that by honouring these Gods, disciples can prolong life, eliminate calamities, and absolves sins and past debts of oneself and their families. But in a somewhat paganistic revelation, the Gods (also known as the aforementioned Star Lords) do in fact have a physical and real presence all year round – for they are none other than the nine stars that make up the constellation known as ‘The Big Dipper of the North’.
Now flooded with tourists who flock in to watch the gruesome spectacle, (it is only pregnant women who are forbidden to watch any of the rituals because they are considered impure), it is still not an event for the faint of heart; In 2011 some 74 people were seriously injured and one death was reported. And in an amazing turn of events, it seems that it is not even the self-harming that gets people, but rather, it is the countries crippling fire cracker addiction that sends most casualties to hospital. An event to add to the bucket list perhaps?