Phuket’s Vegetarian Festival, also known as Jia Chai, originally started in 1825 when the governor of Thalang, a district in the north of the Phuket Province, moved the island’s principal town to a tin mining jungle town occupied by Chinese miners. A traveling Chinese opera company happened to be passing through town to perform for the miners. Suddenly, the traveling opera troupe fell sick from an unknown malady.
In an attempt to fend off the sickness, the traveling Chinese kept to a strict vegetarian diet to honor two of their emperor gods. And believe it or not, it worked! This interested the locals, who wanted to know what steps had been taken to rid themselves of the disease. It came that ritual vegetarianism and it’s associated spiritual ceremonies were embraced enthusiastically. And thus the Vegetarian Festival began.
The festival would begin on the first evening of the ninth lunar month and would continue until the ninth evening. There are a series of rituals associated with the Vegetarian Festival. Among them are:
- The Tall Lantern Pole Raising Ritual, or the Invitation Ritual, where a great pole is raised at each temple as an invitation for the gods to descend from heaven.Photo credit: VrisPhuket / Shutterstock.com
- The Chanting of the Taoist North Star Canon, which takes place twice a day after the gods have been invited down to the shrines.Photo credit: Gail Palethorpe / Shutterstock.com
- The Street Procession is the most spectacular event of the Vegetarian Festival, which became iconic of the festival as a whole. It provides an opportunity for the general public to set up altars in front of their homes decorated with Chinese embroideries, candles, incense sticks, flowers, fruit, sweets and tea. This allows the people to receive blessings from the gods by means of the spirit mediums.Photo credit: Bule Sky Studio / Shutterstock.com
- Firecrackers are also used widely throughout the entirety of the festival. They are believed to help welcome the Nine Emperor Gods by lighting them before the sedan chairs.
Photo credit: Banana Republic images / Shutterstock.com
- On the sixth day, festival goers take part in a fire-walking ritual. The fire is thought to overcome impurity and repel evil influence. It’s believed that only those that are pure and cleansed will be protected from being seriously harmed.Photo credit: inner sense / Shutterstock.com
- The festival culminates at midnight of the ninth day with the farewell ritual. The gods are bid farewell at the lantern pole and seen back to heaven.
Due to the intercalary month in the Chinese lunar calendar, there will be two commemorations of the Phuket Vegetarian Festival in 2014. The first will take place from September 24 – October 2, 2014. And the second will take place October 24 – November 1, 2014.