Report: Piercing for Nine Emperor Gods

A religious holiday does not always equal fasting or ceremonies: during the vegetarian festival in Thailand, Taoist mediums walk on embers and pierce their cheeks with needles and swords.
Eva Rapoport

Born in Moscow. Taught philosophy and took interest in cultural studies. Several years ago moved to South East Asia to continue studying local culture in practice.

The Phuket annual vegetarian festival is not as much about abandoning meat-eating, as it is a religious holiday that prescribes other forms of abstinence, too: such as abstaining from swearing, drinking alcohol, or even wearing jewelry. The participants dress in white — a color that is a symbol of purity. On the eve of the holiday, and during the nine days that it lasts, many shops only sell clothes only in this color.

Nine is not a random number: the festival is dedicated to the Nine Emperor Gods worshipped by many Chinese diaspora communities across South East Asia. In Phuket, this holiday includes not only following the prescriptions and observing temple ceremonies, but also various feats of the local mediums. The legend says that all these rituals together helped Chinese immigrants get rid of the epidemic that struck their island community about 200 years ago.

It is believed that during the ceremonies spirits or even lower deities of the Taoist pantheon enter the bodies of mediums. This helps them do wonderful and frightening things without feeling any pain or fear. The program of the festival traditionally includes walking on embers, climbing up a ladder made of sharp blades, being tried with hot wax, boiling oil, or exploding firecrackers.

It is believed that during the ceremonies spirits enter the bodies of mediums, that’s why they don’t feel any pain or fear.

The most memorable part of the festival are various metal objects that the mediums use to pierce their cheeks or skin in other parts of their face and body. They parade along the streets, blessing the locals who line up on the side of the road and stop to let them take pictures.

Although many mediums do enter the state of a trance (they are supported and led by caring assistants), most of them are fully conscious. And although the local storytellers insist that after the festival the wounds heal miraculously, easily and quickly, the faces of many experienced mediums show distinct scars.

The festival combines serious a religious background and a number of colorful processions that get larger and larger each year. The spectacle allows for attracting new followers who have long included not only the descendants of Chinese migrants.


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