The Vegetarian Festival

The Phuket Vegetarian Festival (เทศกาลกินเจ ๕ วัน Tesagarn Gin Jae 9 Wan) is the island’s largest religious celebration. For nine days of the ninth month of the lunar calendar, the San Jao Chui Tui at Ranong Road becomes the centre of a myriad of religious activities. There are various prayer offerings, a parade of mediums and astrologers, loud firecrackers and generally, a wonderful celebration of colours.

But few farang tourists are aware that the Phuket Vegetarian Festival or the Kiu Ong Tai Yeah is the highlight of every Chinese community in Southeast Asia. It does not matter whether you are in Phuket, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore or Semarang; for every nine days of the ninth month of the lunar calendar, the Chinese community gathers to pay homage to the Nine Sons of Queen of Heaven (Chao Meh Thien Hou).

Sedan Chairs for the Nine Emperor Gods

The Nine Sons or The Nine Emperor Gods are believed to preside over blessings, life and death, and peace and harmony on Earth. With a syncretism of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism, the focus of rituals acts as a channel between the celestial and terrestrial beings for the salvation and protection of mankind.

Although my family members are fervently Buddhist, we still pay homage to the Nine Emperor God. Perhaps this is a mark of respect of our Chinese ancestry, and according to Chinese beliefs, it is a thanksgiving prayer for a safe journey from China to the South Seas of Nanyang.

Every year, we would make our prayer offerings to Kiu Ong Yeah at either the Penang’s Burma Road Temple or Kuala Lumpur’s Nan Thien Kwang temple in Ampang. For my family, It has become somewhat of a yearly pilgrimage

This year is no different, we made our offerings, and I did my Fong Wong Sang or Releasing of Life at the temple. Maybe, I believe in combining my Buddhist beliefs into this traditional Chinese prayer.

Being Chinese, the worship of Taoist Deities is not uncommon But I also see this in a Buddhist’ light. I believe that the Nine Emperor Gods are Bodhisattvas manifesting themselves in the form of the planets in our solar system. Perhaps, that is the beauty of Buddhism — being a Buddhist does not exclude me from being a Taoist or a Confucianist concurrently.

Nonetheless, for the uninitiated, the Vegetarian Festival can be very gruesome and at times rather frightening. I remember, as a small kid, I was traumatized by the festival in Penang’s Burmah Rd. The fire walking, the lashing of the whips, and the self-mortification was something that I just couldn’t accept. Perhaps the idea of hurting’s one own body is so foreign in the Buddhist belief.

Only later, I realized all this is about the power of the Nine Emperor Gods. For the uninitiated these Chao Jeen (Chinese Gods) are reputedly very high deities, and the worship of these Gods come with their own pantang-larang……. Just make sure you follow all the guidelines, or your sembahyang hajat will not come true…….

Cleanliness of the body during the festival
Wear white during the festival
Behave physically and mentally
Avoid eating meat
Avoid sex
Avoid alcohol
People in mourning should not participate
Pregnant women and menstruating women should not attend ceremonies

It will be another year before I make my pilgrimage to the Ampang’s Nan Thien Kwang. Perhaps by then, my sembahyang hajat/ adistharn / wishful prayer would be answer……….………

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