According to tradition, the Vegetarian Festival originated in Kathu/Phuket. Phuket was formerly a jungle island, inhabited by a few families who lived from fishing. The rise of Phuket began with immigrant South Chinese who knew how to capitalize on the rich tin deposits.
Kathu was considered the center of the tin trade. As if enticed by a true gold rush, the majority of neighboring provinces were also afflicted by knights of fortune.
The south of Thailand, especially Phuket, did not have much to offer apart from its beauty. The then “poorhouse of Thailand” experienced an enormous upswing through the tin production. The hard work was mainly done by Chinese workers, attracting wandering theater groups from China who helped to relieve the homesickness by the performances.
One such entertainment group made a guest appearance in Kathu around 1830. Just at the time of a feast that is considered to be the highlight in the homeland they have left, namely to celebrate and worship the emperor gods. It always takes place on the 9th day of the 9th month in the lunar calendar. The outbreak of an epidemic also effected that ensemble. Far away from home one had forgotten to fast exactly on this day of the gods and regarded the sinister happening as punishment for it. In order to limit further damage, a master of ceremonies was invited from China to make up for this omission. The associated fasting period contributed to the containment of the disease. It is pure gratitude to the gods that we owe the preservation of this colorful spectacle to this day.
It is unique in the world and has undergone great transformation overtime. A procedure lasting several weeks has emerged from the ritual of gratitude, which now reveals all facets of the Asian world of gods. In Thailand people are now celebrating it everywhere under the name “Tesakan Khin Che“.
It was not difficult to lift up one’s own gods in this orgy of god transformation and strict asceticism. The main actors of all performances and ceremonies are the “Mah Song“. They are the chosen ones who serve as media for the divine spirits during the festival and expose their bodies to great stress through self-mortification. Like Jesus in Christianity, they draw upon themselves all suffering to bring happiness and health to the people.
The “Mah Song” is chosen by gods. They communicate through messages to the family. The gods are asking for permission to appeal. What kind of mom would say no to that? Because in society the “Mah Song” is highly honored. The called are often not quite so happy, for carrying the gods within can also be a burden. In interviews you quickly realize that they now live in another world to which they have to get used. They also feel and think in everyday life on a level that sometimes makes them uncanny themselves. As a living spirit on earth, they see things that are hidden from their fellow human beings. Society always seeks its closeness in order to be “healed”. At the festivals, these spirit people are an obvious focal point. Small altars are built in front of the houses and people bow before them to be touched by the prayer flag of the chosen ones on their heads. This ritual makes the touched believe they are part of the good spirit.
The “Mah Songs” have contributed to making the Vegetarian Festival one of the most dangerous events in the world. Driven through by broadswords, thick metal pipes, buffalo horns, bicycles, body parts, sharp knives and other threatening objects, they dance in deep trance on the streets. It doesn’t only look dangerous if they saw each other’s tongues or maltreat each other’s back with sharp axes. Assisting doctors are constantly in the immediate vicinity to monitor self-mutilations. Also dangerous are the many fire crackers flying around. Poor visibility due to constant burning also restricts safety. When photographing, the greatest caution is required and one should keep a proper distance. A gigantic spectacle is offered, when these maltreated bodies run long distances at night over glowing coals or climb on ladders from swords.
The Vegetarian Festival also attracts its visitors because of the bright white robes worn by the thousands of people who submit to the obligatory laws of Lent. As long as you are dressed in white, meat, alcohol and sex are absolutely taboo at this time. In addition, one praises oneself only good deeds and never to lie. Excluded from participation in the festival are all people who are physically unstable and women who are menstruating or pregnant. In general, absolute personal hygiene applies to all participants. Mourning communities are also undesirable.