Phuket Vegetarian Festival: A Colorful yet Gruesome Ritual Cleansing Practice

It’s that time of the year when the streets of Phuket spill over with revelers and joyous celebrators participating in the traditional cleansing ritual that lasts for ten days. Perhaps the most horrifying, yet fascinating, aspect of the Phuket Vegetarian Festival is the spectacle of various participants, also known as “mah song” (meaning “horses of the gods”) walking down the streets with various large, pointed, shiny and evidently dangerous instruments/weapons thrusting through their cheeks. Yes, “through their cheeks.” The origin of the Vegetarian Festival goes back a century and a half to a time when Phuket was populated by Chinese working in the tin mine. So huge was the Chinese population that to cater to their entertainment needs, Chinese opera performers were hired. During the Chinese ninth lunar month, there was an outbreak of an epidemic in Phuket that claimed several lives and the performers also fell severely ill. Finally, it was reasoned that this outbreak was caused because the Chinese community has forgotten to pay homage to the Nine Emperor Gods (Kiu Ong Iah) in the first nine days of the month. To propitiate the Gods, one of the performers was asked to go back to China and invite the Kiu Ong Iah to Phuket. The following year, to make sure that there was no repeat of the calamity of the previous year and to keep the Gods happy, the Chinese refrained from having meat and alcohol, and mended their behavior by not lying, cheating, killing, or having sex. The epidemic passed and since then every year, the people of Phuket have continued to celebrate this festival in order to keep their scores even with the almighty powers that be. Of course, as you can guess, the highlight of the festival are the mah songs who slice their tongues with knives and stick swords, even rifles, through their cheeks. It is believed that the more pain they feel during this festival, the more prosperity and success they will meet with in the coming year. The mah songs are carefully chosen and their role is to deflect evil from individual members of the community and bring good luck to it as a whole. If they are to be believed, they feel no pain as they parade the street for hours in a mutilated manner since they are “possessed” by the purifying spirits of the Nine Emperor Gods, who protect them from any harm or scarring. Like I said before, Fascinating! But, I sure as hell am happy that I am not a mah song. I have my own cleansing and purification ritual. It’s called a de-tox diet and that’s excruciating enough for me.
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