KRABI  TRAVEL

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History


The Vegetarian Festival parade is one of Krabi’s most interesting ceremonies. It’s a spectacle of color, movement, sound, and a display of strong spiritual beliefs.


The Festival is celebrated by Thais of Chinese ancestry, and is the major annual Chinese ceremony in southern Thailand. It takes place during the first 9 days of the 9th Chinese lunar month (late September or October). Throughout Chinese history, this Divine Nine period has held importance, and is celebrated in various forms with devotion to a number of Taoist and Mahayana Buddhist deities.

 

The purpose of the Festival can be summarized in several ways. From a spiritual perspective, it is the vehicle for an annual renewal of cosmic power. Human life, both individual and communal, is rejuvenated with the ability to relieve suffering and conflict. From a practical viewpoint, the goal is to purify soul and body in order to cure sickness, confer luck, and ensure prosperity and long life.


In Thailand, many people have heard about the same ceremonies in Phuket, but don’t know that the combined parade in Krabi is larger as the one in Phuket with the same practices, almost no tourists, and easier access to the action. In 2014, over 70 Chinese temples in Krabi participated in the parade of thousands of Devotees, Mediums, and the Gods, which lasted over 4 hours. Together with spectators, the parade drew 10,000 participants to the center of Krabi Town. The Krabi combined parade is the newest in the south, but has grown quickly to be the biggest because all the temple's combine for a parade.


The origins and development of the Vegetarian Festivals in southern Thailand are complex, having been shaped by multiple cultural influences. In its current form, the Festival is uniquely southern Sino-Thai (with mostly Hokkien influences), and the one in Krabi mirrors those in the nearby provinces of Phuket, Phang Nga, Ranong, and Trang. The event is directly related to the Nine Emperor Gods Festival celebrated by many ethnic Chinese around the world and in other parts of the Thailand.


Most explanations state that the Vegetarian Festival was started in Katu, Phuket in 1825 by a group of Chinese Ngiew (traditional opera) players who fell ill and started a successful 9-day cleansing ritual that required a strict vegan diet. The thousands of Chinese merchants and tin miners in Phuket took up the practice as an annual event after one Phuket devotee went to China to bring back some important ritualistic objects and scriptures.


This explanation disregards thousands of years of past traditions and other cultural elements added over the 186 years of the southern Thai festival. What started in Phuket was based on ancient Chinese traditions modified over the centuries by Taoist, Confucian, and Mahayana Buddhism beliefs.


It is highly likely that the tradition was influenced by practices of the large Hokkien Chinese community (from Fujian Province) along the Andaman coast. The major Hokkien Chinese migration to Malacca in Malaysia took place in the 15th Century. These diaspora Chinese moved up the coast to Penang, and later to Phuket. In the 1800s more Chinese from Fujian immigrated to work in the tin mines of Penang, Phang-Nga, and Phuket, which were closely linked by trade by that time. These were a mix of high status merchants with poorer workers and fishermen, so their traditions combined a folk aspect and the more educated classical ‘Imperial’ customs.


It so happened that the opera troupe’s fasting in Phuket coincided with the first 9 days of the 9th Chinese month, and this matches the dates of an ancient Taoist tradition of devotion to the Nine Emperor Gods of the Taoist pantheon. It’s clear that the troupe was following long-standing practices—they did not invent something new—and the Chinese of Phuket had considerable understanding of Taoism and Mahayana Buddhism. Almost certainly, there were already devotees in southern Thailand who followed the annual traditions. At the time, Phuket had a large number of overseas Chinese, so there was a ‘critical mass’ of interested people to keep the old-country traditions alive.


The mythology and practices related to the Nine Gods are not uniformly understood, and interpretations are different among various ethnic Chinese clans. In some places, celebration of Double Nine is the primary focus (9th day of 9th month). For others, it is the Nine Emperor Gods Festival—Jiuhuangye (1st through 9th days of 9th month). In southern Thailand and Krabi, it is the Vegetarian Festival.


There is much secrecy around the ceremony and the identity of the Nine Gods. It is probably that this is the result of keeping certain religious activities ‘out-of-sight’ in communities that were ethnic minorities and subject to prejudice and political persecution. It also helps to perpetuate the mystery and power of these deities.


There are multiple interpretations of the Nine Gods origin. Below are two that are prevalent along the western coast of Thailand and Malaysia.


The Classical interpretation: During the Chinese Qin and Han Dynasties (the century before the Birth of Christ), an ancient practice of devotion to 9 stars (7 visible and 2 supposedly hidden) of the Big Dipper/Plough in the Ursula Major constellation developed into a veneration of 9 humanized Emperor Gods. These particular Northern Stars have long been at the center of Chinese cosmology and have great importance.


Their mother was the Mother North Star (Polaris), or Dou Mu Yuan Jun. She was an important deity in her own right, but over the centuries was supplanted in some traditions by Guanyin, a Bodhisattva (aspirant to enlightenment) of Mahayana Buddhism. Their father, also once a major deity, faded in importance over time.


These Nine Emperor Gods are the Star Lords who control the movement of stars and planets and coordinate mortal life-and-death issues. They descend to earth from their home in the stars on the eve of the first new moon of the 9th month and stay for 9 days. During some periods of Chinese history, veneration of these gods was exclusive to the Imperial Household, with private citizens prohibited from any devotional participation.


The vernacular Hokkien mythology: Nine brothers from a fishing village in Fujian Province helped the last prince of the Ming Dynasty flee to the southern coast of Thailand via Yunnan. During their journey, nine northern stars guided them. After their arrival, the prince and 9 brothers disappeared, ascending to the heavens, leaving behind 9 censers (incense urns) floating on the sea. The Spirits of the 9 Divine Brothers make a yearly tour of the South Seas to visit the Chinese descendants of the brothers. This journey takes place during the initial 9 days of the 9th month.


The traditions followed in Krabi seem to be a complex combination of the Classical and Hokkien versions of Nine Emperor Gods Festival where boundaries between Taoism and Buddhism have become blurred. There are some rituals that are common across most of the Divine Nine celebrations. The specific practices may vary, but the basic form is the same:


  • Welcoming the Nine Gods
  • Worshiping the Gods
  • Trances & Spirit Mediums
  • Purification Rituals
  • Luck Rituals


There are rituals that occur only at the temple, and there are times when the devotees travel to enact their rituals before the wider community, and at altars set up by individuals in front of their homes or businesses. In Krabi, each temple makes its own visits on specified days, and once during the Festival, all the temples combine for one parade (3rd or 4th day of the Festival) where the strength of their combined spiritual forces can have a beneficial impact on the people and territory of Krabi. This massing of temples is impressive.

 

The wearing of white cotton garments and abstinence from eating meat is universally practiced. Other practices, like fire walking and sword-stair climbing on the 8th day are common, but the mortification of the flesh is characteristic of the western Andaman coast of the Malay Peninsula. The more extreme types of mutilation are specific to the southern Thai Vegetarian Festival where separation over time and distance, and a multi-ethnic environment, has resulted in the most deviation from the original forms of the celebration.


What has changed the most in the southern Thailand version is severe self-mortification where devotee Spirit Mediums pierce their flesh, flagellate their bodies, or cut their tongues.


Historic beliefs probably meshed with Hindu practices resulting in the current form. Mortification practices can be seen in some Hindu ceremonies such as the Thaipusam as practiced by ethnic Tamils. How and when this aspect of the ceremonies were integrated into the Phuket Festival is not documented, but they have become a major part of the present-day ceremonies.


Given the close historical connections between Thai and Indian cultures, and the spread of Hindus along the west coast of the Malay Peninsula, the Hindu influence is not unexpected. Penang in Malaysia, which is a major center of overseas Chinese culture, observes the Nine Emperor Gods Festival with ritualized body piercing also (of a less extreme nature). This community is physically close to that of the Tamils of the Malay Peninsula, so transferring some cultural practices over many years would not be unexpected. Also, during the 1800s, the Chinese communities of Phuket and Penang were in constant contact. Thus these practices could have been transferred along the Andaman Coast.


KRABI CEREMONIES


Each temple’s rituals throughout the Festival are not exactly the same, but there are common elements. The first of these is the receiving or welcoming of the Nine Gods. On the eve of the first day of the 9th month in the Chinese calendar, many Sino-Thais in Krabi go to a Chinese temple to begin the Festival. The purpose of the entire Festival is ritual cleansing for good health and prosperity, and to pay homage to the Gods for good luck to oneself and to the community.


Many devotees take a formal vow to follow the Festival requirements for the 9 days. Their pledge covers 10 points:


  • Keep the body clean
  • Keep kitchen utensils clean and separate for vegetarian meals only
  • Wear white in the spirit of cleanliness of body, mind, and spirit
  • Exhibit devoted propriety and decorum both physically and mentally
  • Eat only ‘Jeh’ vegan food*
  • Abstain from sexual activity
  • Abstain from alcohol
  • Confirm that one is not in mourning
  • Confirm that one is not pregnant
  • Confirm that one is not menstruating


(*The Jeh vegan rules are more restrictive than most. Certain pungent foods are also prohibited: garlic, onions, cilantro, sweet basil and Chinese parsley cannot be eaten. Strictly, Jeh food can only be prepared at a temple with the appropriate rituals, but few followers in Krabi follow with such strictness. In addition, pure practices prohibit the use of leather, jewelry, or any adornment during the Festival.)


A procession leaves from the temple with the spirit Mediums to receive the Gods at the seaside (or riverside in Krabi Town). A temporary shrine is set up at the beach/waterside and an intricate ceremony conducted to prepare to host the Gods. Images of the deities that are resident at each temple are taken in sedan chairs.

Images of the Nine Gods are never made and displayed—possibly because they never reside on earth, but only visit temporarily. The mystery surrounding the Nine Gods and their hidden character is unique in Taoism to this set of deities.


A group of Spirit Mediums, called Song Mah (entranced horses in Thai), all men dressed in white will wade into the water to receive the Nine Gods. These Mediums are soldiers of 5 spirit armies that guard the 4 cardinal points of earth (North, South, East, and West) plus the center. The commanders of the spirit armies are represented by 5 large colored, umbrella-like cloth vessels on poles—black (north), red (south), green (east), white (west), and yellow (center)—carried high by some of the Song Mah.


The spirit armies and their generals grew out of rebellious time during the Qing dynasty when Han Chinese were trying to depose the 'alien' Manchurian rulers. Sacred brotherhoods developed (Triads) that used the power of the spirit armies to influence their communities.


These secret societies permeated Chinese communities in Malaya during the British colonial rule, and it is probable that they developed in Phuket also. In recent years, a secret society was discovered training high school students in Krabi how to enter into trances. As a result of this history, there are many aspects of the ceremonies that remain secret, and the role of secret societies not know to outsiders.


The details of the welcoming ceremony are among those kept secret, but it appears that the Mediums make pledges to the Nine Gods. At this point, it is also revealed which of the Nine Gods will act as the leader during the ceremonies. This is never divulged to anyone outside of the small Medium group. Once the spirits of the Nine Gods have been received, a slow procession wends back to the temple.


At the temple gate, all the devotees step over a pail of water and an urn of burning wood. This is a purification ritual related to the Taoist Yin and Yang concept of achieving balance in the natural world. Yin is represented by water and Yang by fire. At the temple, the Nine Gods are installed. An altar is set up with 9 sets of fruits. Urns of burning wood and incense are prominent. Selected Mediums and temple officials perform another secret ceremony, and then the devotees are invited to receive blessings.


The ceremonies of the eve of the 1st day are spectacular and profoundly spiritual, representing centuries of Chinese traditions and their holding power even when transported to overseas Chinese living in another culture and interpreted from a different perspective.


Ceremonies and rituals take place over the duration of the festival. On midnight of the eve of the first day, 9 oil lanterns are lit and hung high above the temple on very tall bamboo poles. These indicate that the Nine Gods are in residence 9 (and allude to their origin high in the skies). They are taken down on noon of the 9th day before conducting the farewell ceremony.


During some of the 9 days, the temple organized processions into the community to give them an opportunity to make merit, gain luck from the Nine Gods, and to conduct purification rituals for the community. The Spirit Mediums are active during these rites.


There are three types of Mediums in the Krabi ceremonies.


The Spirit Medium soldiers protect the Nine Gods and the community. While in trances, they prove their strength and purity by dancing on large strings of exploding Chinese firecrackers (500 or 1,000 per string), or hanging them around their bodies. Their purpose is to ward off any evil influences and personally take on divine punishments on behalf of the community at large.


A 2nd group of Spirit Mediums also allow themselves to be possessed by deities. They may be male or female and usually have traditional Chinese colored robes or aprons. They enter into trances and take on the character of their particular deity as the spirit enters them. Secrecy surrounding the role of the these Mediums and their practices shrouds some of the meaning of the rituals, but it appears that the spirits of the Nine Gods are never involved in the possession entrancement. Rather, it is the spirits of other deities, especially those specific to a particular temple, that are manifested. One of their main roles is too cleanse an area—to expel impurity and dirt that is associated with ghost and spirits. This will ensure the health of the community over the next year.


While in trances, the Spirit Medium dance with unique movements, and many participate in the mutilation practices. Some carry demon-whips of braided cloth to chase away and bad spirits. Some pierce their body with lances and other items, mostly through a cheek. (The fact that some piercings now include things like satellite dishes, fire extinguishers, and other odd items, takes the ceremonies far from their original form.) There is little blood, but a display of discipline, focus, and strength. They have to endure any discomfort and carry the weight for the length of the parade—up to 4 hours.


Another common practice is to cut the tongue with knives, swords, and razor blades. These Mediums usually group together and actively cut themselves at key points along the parade. They stop and sit or crouch on the ground. Blood flows freely. There seems to be some connection with the concept and role of the spirit soldiers as most of the instruments used relate to military weapons (lances and swords). There is also an old tradition is China around blood contracts and the belief that Spirit Generals need blood to sustain their existence.


The 3rd group of Spirit Mediums is the traditional mediums. They act as intermediates between a deity and individuals. They are dressed in costumes characteristic of their God, and display characteristic behavior and poses. (Again, none represent the Nine Gods.) These are the main Mediums for conferring the beneficial powers of the Gods. They visit the altars along the route and carry out rituals. They may drink some of the tea on the altar, and take pieces of fruit. Some write Chinese characters on paper or cloth and give them to the altar devotees to hand above the entrance to their house or shop. Sometime they give some of the fruit on an altar to an individual. This is especially auspicious.


During the Festival the temples are all open to visitors who can eat ‘Jeh’ meals for free. People sponsor these meals to make merit. By definition, Jeh food can only be prepared at temples where the kitchen and all utensils have been properly purified by temple priests. The practice is not so strict for most participants who are happy to eat at roadside stalls and temporary Jeh restaurants. Many visitors donate money to the temple, and it is during this period that most temples receive their largest donations.


On the 3rd or 4th day in Krabi, all the temples will combine for a grand procession of devotees, deities, Gods, and Mediums. The procession starts with a major ceremony of local dignitaries at Krabi’s Lak Muang shrine or city pillar which house the guardian spirits of the city. Lak Muang are found in most Thai towns.


This kick-off ceremony at the Lak Muang is interesting, and indicative of Thailand’s supremely integrative culture, because the Lak Muang derives from ancient Indian and Hindu practices. The pillar, or lingam (from Sanskrit), represents the Hindu God Shiva. At Hindu/Buddhist temples like Ankor Wat in Cambodia, the lingam is common. (Historically many people have interpreted the lingam to be a figurative penis associated with fertility. This is one of those common incorrect myths. See the section on the Lak Muang under Krabi Town Sights.)


At this ceremony the various spiritual strands of Thai culture come together: Taoism, Hinduism, Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, and animism.

Once the initial invocation is completed the parade begins. The procession is fascinating, full of color, sound, and meaning. For hours the various temple contingents (66 groups in 2011) walk through the center of Krabi. Firecrackers by the thousands are set off, with long strings exploding on the street. Devotees dance on top of the burning firecrackers, impervious to the noise, heat, and fire.

 

Mediums, in their trances, walk slowly with devotees helping them to keep cool with water or relieve some of the weight of heavy piercings by helping to hold whatever has been used: spears, tree branches, deer horns, grass cutters, small satellite dishes, fire extinguishers, and any number of other weird and wonderful items. Some continuously cut their tongues with razors and knives, bleeding copiously down their bare chests. They all visit the hundreds of altars along the way and carry out their rituals. Loud drums and cymbals accompany the celebrants. In spite of the display of mutilation and blood, the parade creates a feeling of happiness and hope for the spectators.

 

On the eve of the 8th day, devotees gather at the temple for a final purification ceremony. In some temples, it involves fire-walking. For those who have followed their pledges taken at the start of the Festival, there will be no pain or burning as the fire purifies the participant. Women do not participate in most temples because of a harmful conflict between their female Ying and the male Yang of the fire. The historic restriction applies only to women of childbearing age. Post-menopausal women could participate.

 

At most temples, the devotees ‘cross the bridge’. This may be an actual bridge or a virtual one, but the purpose is the final purification of mind and body. As they cross barefoot, holding 3 unlit incense sticks, the main Spirit Mediums bestow blessing in various forms: placing a red dot on the forehead, covering a devotee’s head with a special banner, or sprinkling water or flowers on him or her. At the end of the bridge, each devotee steps over a censer of burning wood. Again, the water represents the Ying element of the universe, and the fire the Yang.

 

On the 9th day the Nine Gods are returned to the sea where they will return to their home in the starts. This farewell ceremony is a mirror image of the welcoming one where the rituals are performed in a reverse order. Again secrecy surrounds the details of the ceremony. When the procession returns to the temple, the Mediums end their Festival induced trances, and the ceremonies end.

 

There are few places in the world where a person can view this form of the complex and profound ceremony associated with the Nine Emperor Gods, with centuries of history behind it, that includes the extreme forms of self-mutilation. All are along the western Andaman Coast of the Malay Peninsula. Visitors are welcome to participate in the 10-point pledge and maintain a vegan diet during the period. Photographs may be taken during daytime processions, but at night flashes are disruptive to the Mediums. At most temples, photos are prohibited, especially inside during ceremonies, and of symbols like the 9-light lanterns. These restrictions should be honored.

Parade Leader for One Temple Group
Cutting Tongue with Sword

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