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Vegetarian Festival in Koh Phuket Island
It is unknown for certain, when this event took place the first time, but for sure it was introduced by the Chinese minority of the island. They first came to work in the tin mines at Ban Get Hie of Phuket, but within a short period they had earned enviable prosperity. Depending on legend, a drama troupe from China was invited to provide amusement but after one year of daily performances several actors as well as local people fell ill. If this was a mysterious fever or the prevalent malaria in the southwestern part of the island is not handed down. The troupe members supposed that they were punished for neglecting their religious rites while staying on Phuket and decided to turn completely vegetarian for nine days to purify both, body and mind, a ceremony they remembered from their native country. It is the same reason, that induces the Chinese population, nowadays, to take part in the Vegetarian Festival. Following the buddhism belief they gain great merits in their faith and free themselves of spiritual troubles. So this festival, that brought the recovery of actors and local people more than 100 years ago is repeated every year, since an emissary of the Chinese community was sent to South China. During his stay in Kwangsai he learnt to install the Holy Smoke and the Holy Plate together with the Holy Scriptures and other Vegetarian Rites. The indespensable religious objects were brought to Phuket in a triumphal procession.
A few days before the start of the festival on the first day of the ninth Chinese lunar month, foodstalls are erected around the main Chinese temples. Here,as well as in most restaurants throughout the city excellent vegetarian dishes will be served during the following nine days. In a nightly ceremony the nine Emperor Gods are invited to be the patrons of the event. Two similar magic stones are thrown. Is one showing its flat side up and the other its rounded side the nine gods have accepted the invitation and the festival can start. Early in the morning many people are passing through the temple area, to bless their dishes in the incense rising from black metal censers. Yellow signs fixed to the handles of the bowls mark it as vegetarian food. Most believers are dressed in white and from this day on this will be the predominant colour in the streets of Phuket Town also. By clothing in white they show their intention to mantain a strict vegetarian diet and abstain from meet, alcohol and sex for nine days and nights.
For the first days it is not really obvious, that something is happening but in the early morning of the fifth day in front of every shop a small altar is set up to appease the gods. Employees of banks and hotels are covering tables of immense size with red tablecloth, teapots, fruits and flowers are arranged, joss sticks are lighted and the fragrance of incense fills the air. Phuket Town is waiting for the first street procession. The numerous children, dressed in the shirts of the different festival sponsors are followed by the religious participants. In addition to the strict vegetarian diet they have spent most of their time meditating in one of the Chinese maintemples. They are now clothed in colourful shirts and trousers, showing a spiderís web as a symbol, that they are acting as a medium of the gods. They are posessed and while some pierce their tongue or ears with bicycle spokes or barbed wire, others need two helpers to hold up the long rods that are perforating their cheeks and heavy from the decorating fruits.
Unaware of the crowd around they are directed by their inner spirit from altar to altar. They are drinking tea out of small pots and blessing the offerings, pineapples, oranges and other fruits, which they hand to the persons standing around. With deep respect they were taken, they will bring luck. Small carts with drums are now passing along the road, followed by sedans with pictures and images of the most important gods seated upon. Firecrackers, not single ones, hundreds put together to chains of two and more metres and fixed to long bamboopoles are exploding overhead. The incredible sound burns away all impurities and misfortunes from the participants. With the staccato of the fireworks the carriers of the sedans, turn around faster and faster, the smell of powder is blowing through the streets and makes breathing difficult.
The same evening, foodstalls are set up beside the mainroad to the airport, cars are stopping on the road side and white dressed people are crossing the street without looking for the traffic jam. Here, in fromt of Tha Ruea Shrine a mountain of charcoal was kindled some hours ago. Now, after the sun has set, this mountain is glowing in the dark. At the entrance to the temple a crowd is gathering. Joss sticks are lighted in dozens and whole families are moving inside while outside the glowing charcoal is spread over a bigger area by using a long plank. Showers of sparks diffuse a ghostly light and several times the heavy plank is catching fire. A lady in golden dress, representing the Chinese god Guam Ihn blesses the temple area with her flag and sprays holy water. And then the first one is crossing barefooted the heat, reaching the soft wet ground unhurt. Accompanied by the monotonous sound of drums and cymbals more and more follow: some anxious with long steps,shouting and swinging the flag the others. Some of the white clothed spectators join spontaneously and return with no signs of burning on their soles. After all have crossed the heat is extinguished. Clouds of white steam are rising in the air, mixing with the white of the clothes of those who are still lighting joss sticks in front of the temple entrance.
The next morning street procession again, but starting from another Chinese temple. The morning traffic is still passing along the small altars, later these streets will be closed. Alarming, how the long spears, some up to 4 metres, are transported by motorbike through the morning rush hour. Today the procession is followed by two big dragons and in the evening these two animals with their red glowing eyes are the attraction again, when they were dancing around the circle in the center of town. But the main event of this evening is around the corner in a small temple, only to be found if one knows it, 10 or 15 metres high is the ladder that is erected in the templeground, fixed to all sides by steelwires. The dense crowd observes, how the razorsharp steps are fixed, each one torn to the necessary height with a twisted basket. Dialogues are in the air, they have problems to fix some of them, finally a discussion about the mistake and then they go on. Meanwhile the participants pay respect in front of a small altar in front of the temple and then everything is ready. One after the other, climbs the "bloody ladder", some anxious, others with transfigured face, but all with some kind of paper in their hand or between their teeth: red signs for good luck on a yellow ground. Reaching the top, most of them tear it and throw it from the platform. Down in the crowd people try to catch the lucky pieces. Carefully climbing down again, stretching out the feet for the next step, everybody returned to the ground without any injury.
The last holy ceremony has passed. Two days later, the ninth day, people attend the last street procession: the last minute-long sequence of firecrackers and in the evening the Farewell to the nine Emperor Gods, untill they are invited again.