Nine Emperor Gods Festival also known as Vegetarian Festival is a fascinating Taoist holiday celebrated by Chinese community on the Island of Phuket in Thailand. Devotees believe that Taoist gods descend to earth during the nine day long festival.
Before Phuket became a popular tourist destination, it was a centre for tin and opium trade since 17th century. Thousands of Chinese immigrated here to work, bringing with them their Taoist beliefs and establishing numerous temples and shrines.
The history of the festival dates back to the beginning of 19th century: according to a legend a troupe of Chinese artists who were visiting the island suddenly fell ill with then fatal malaria. Awaiting a miracle, they decided to follow a vegetarian diet and pray to the Nine Emperor Gods to ensure purification of the body and soul. To everyone’s amazement the group managed to recover completely.
To commemorate these events the people of Phuket organize a colorful and bizarre festival on the first day of the ninth month of Chinese lunar calendar. Participants adhere to strict vegetarian diet and commit to keep purity which means refraining from alcohol, sex, gambling as well as lies and violence.
A selected group of devotees known as Mah Song („the horses of gods”) invite the spirits of gods to possess their bodies. Only pure, unmarried men or women can become a Mah Song, they have to be accepted by the gods in advance, which can happen through a dream or a vision. While in trance they perform rituals of self-mutilation such as: piercing their cheeks with sharp objects, flagellation, walking on hot coals and climbing blade-ladders. The purpose of this practice is to display their devotion as well as to gain gods’ favour for their families and communities. Despite the fact that the piercing is performed without any anesthetic the Mah Song are believed to feel no pain and their wounds do not bleed and heal exceptionally fast. When in their trance state some are even known to start speaking Chinese, with no prior knowledge of the language.
Every day during the festival a loud procession goes through the streets Phuket town – the statues of gods are being carried on litters. Thousands of firecrackers explode around them – it is believed that the loud noise drives away evil spirits. Throngs of devotees wait along the parade route to make offerings of fruits and flowers to possessed mediums and receive their blessings. Incense are lit in the temples, which are places of meditation and contemplation where gods and spirits of ancestors are worshipped.
The festival ends with a huge night parade – devotees from all shrines join a street procession from Phuket Town to the sea at Saphan Hin to farewell the Nine Emperor Gods as they re-ascend to heaven.
Bartek Rubik – independent photographer documenting festivals, beliefs, ceremonies and rituals around the globe. Particularly interested in cultures of indigenous groups.
So far his assignments brought him to over 80 countries.
Curator: Karolina Krzywicka
We would inform you that photographs presented in the exhibition can be perceived as drastic.
The exhibition is not recommended for children younger than 12.