KRABI  TRAVEL

 ?Vegetarian Festival
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HISTORY

The Vegetarian Festival, a spectacle of color, movement, sound, and a show of solidarity by the Sino-Thai community, is one of Krabi’s most interesting celebrations.

It is not a Disneyland fantasy, but represent centuries-old traditions and layers of cultural meaning. The rituals are complex and profoundly spiritual.

The Festival is celebrated by Thais of Chinese ancestry, and is the major annual Chinese lunar 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.

Many people have heard about the same ceremonies in Phuket, but don’t know that the combined temple parade in Krabi is larger than the one in Phuket with the same practices, almost no tourists, and easier access to the action. In 2011, 66 Chinese Temples in Krabi participated in the parade of thousands of Devotees, Mediums, and the Gods, which lasted over 3 hours. 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.

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 (Daoist), Confucian, and Mahayana Buddhism beliefs.

It is highly likely that the tradition was long celebrated by 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 and Phuket, which were closed linked by trade at that time. These were mostly poorer workers and fishermen, so their traditions had a folk aspect somewhat distinct from 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 that 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 probable 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 (including the southern Chinese during the Manchu Qing Dynasty. 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 or Bushel is some cultures) 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 Gods
  • Worshiping the Gods
  • Trances of the 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.

The wearing of white cotton garments and abstinence from eating meat is universally practiced. Other practices, like fire walking on the 8th day are common, but the mortification of the flesh is characteristic of the western 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 Phuket version is severe self-mortification where devotees 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 for 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 (relates to a Yin/Yang imbalance)
  • Confirm that one is not pregnant (relates to a Yin/Yang imbalance)
  • Confirm that one is not menstruating (relates to a Yin/Yang imbalance)

(*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. 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 and an intricate ceremony conducted to prepare to host the Gods. Images of the Taoist deities that are resident at each temple are taken in wooden Chinese sedan chairs.