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Jia Chai - Phuket, Thailand - image courtesy APF

If Wassily Kandinsky’s feel for yellow rings wrong, then get thee to Phuket, Thailand, to the Vegetarian Festival, where yellow is warm, calm and very violent.

Held in the first nine days of the ninth lunar month, in honour of the Jade Emperor and the Nine Emperor Gods, the Festival of Jia Chai is known for the practice among devotees of ritualised self-mutilation.

While mortification rituals are as old as god itself, those particular to the Jia Chai originate in 1865, when the local Chinese community, tin miners in the main, devastated by ‘fever’, probably malaria, was saved by a travelling opera company’s emergency recourse to a strict vegetarian diet and to a variety of associated acts of purification.

Devotee - image courtesy Reuters / Dario Pignatelli

The festival begins on the first night, at midnight, with the gods descending from heaven by way of a holy pole. The following nine days are filled with ceremony. Processions carrying representative gods in sedan chairs make their way through streets lined with yellow flags. The flags are signs that the food on sale is pure vegetarian. Everyone wears white.

A god called Pak Tai – Supreme Emperor of the Dark Realm – watches over the dead, and over the Ma Song, the devotees, in whom warrior and warrior horse spirits temporarily reside. Possessed, the devotees pass objects – metal rods, knives, swords, umbrellas, exhaust pipes, bicycles, guns – through their cheeks and tongues. They climb bladed ladders. They walk on fire coals. They bathe in hot oil. Yellow headdresses and yellow T-shirts stand out against the smoke.

The reaction to all this is predictable. Visitors are stunned, amazed at the feats of the Ma Song. For local Taoists, it is normal. The so-called ‘entranced horses’ are, for the rest of the year, their brothers, their sisters, their parents and children. During the festival they are gods, devil catchers. They are cleansing themselves. They are making peace with animals. They are living in heaven and in hell. They are making things all good.

Procession - image David Longstreath / EPA

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Written by FreeState

February 10, 2012 at 1:04 pm

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