Vegetative states

For Phuket's 'possessed' mah song, self-mutilation is an annual rite of passage. But as their acts of torture grow more bold, some fear the Vegetarian Festival is straying too far from tradition

β€˜I normally use sharp steel skewers or swords to stab my cheeks,” said Thitipong Saisutthikul. β€œIt does not cause me any pain, as I am not conscious when this happens.”

NO PAIN: A devotee with horns pierced through his cheeks takes part in a street procession. The festival features face-piercing, spirit mediums and strict vegetarianism.

For 51 weeks of the year, Mr Thitipong, 26, is deputy manager of a hotel on Phuket. For the other week, he is a mah song, one of hundreds on Phuket who take part in various rituals of self-mutilation for the island’s annual Vegetarian Festival.

“I resisted being a mah song for five years before I surrendered,” he told Spectrum early last week, as the annual festival, also known as Tesagan Gin Jay or Jia Chai, kicked off. “To become a mah song, you have to be chosen by a phra [an angel spirit], and I was chosen.”

Each Taoist shrine in Phuket has a number of mah song, who devotees believe are possessed by these angels. Local people believe that angels visit the mah song each year to bless them and remove evil from the community.

The festival parades, which involve various forms of self-mutilation — including piercing of the face; slashing of the limbs, chest, stomach and tongue with swords, axes and knives, and fire walking — are supposed to show the mah song suffering for the misfortunes of all local people.

“We believe that we were doomed to die already, but a phra chose to help us and use our body to sacrifice for the good of the people,” Mr Thitipong said. “This is the core of the ceremony and the reason why mah song torture themselves.”

MAKING OF A MAH SONG

ELABORATE: A mah song and his child, left, with Thitipong Saisutthikul, deputy manager of a hotel in Phuket.

Mr Thitipong recalled the first time he was possessed by his Phra, known as Ong Sun Tai Sai, six years ago.

“I was chilling out in my house and suddenly my body was paralysed,” he said. “I was frozen like that for a few hours until I lost consciousness and started speaking Chinese. I was told afterwards that I spoke Chinese and wrote the name of my phra and I have taken on this duty ever since.”

Mr Thitipong said he began using sharp objects to pierce his face during the Vegetarian Festival, but has stuck closely to the traditional tools of self-mutilation.

"There are some weapons that are mentioned in the traditional legend, such as sharp steel skewers and swords, but many people have now started using new objects such as parts of wheels, branches, guns or even bicycle parts to pierce their face with," he said.

"I do not agree with that. I do not think it is appropriate, and it is about fashion more than tradition. It seems like some people want to be famous from the different tools they use."

He said a group of mah song has launched a campaign trying to tell others to stick to the legend. Some shrines in Phuket have also banned the use of non-traditional tools.

Mr Thitipong added that although the festival has changed a lot from when he was young, he is glad to see more people interested in the festival.

"It is good to see people coming from other provinces and other countries to join the festival and ceremonies. Though they may not understand it completely, being involved will give them at least good health and merit."

BLADE RUNNERS AND TOP GUNS: Above and below, while traditionally using metal rods and swords, some of Phuket’s mah song have turned to more unorthodox objects to use for self-mutilation.

FEEL NO PAIN

Mr Thitipong said that on the day of the parade, a mah song will begin by travelling to their shrine and waiting until their phra possesses them.

They will soon fall into a trance-like state as the angel takes over their body. At this point, volunteers at the shrine will bring them to sit, clean their cheeks with alcohol and use sharp steel rods of varying size to pierce a hole in each cheek. After that, a weapon of the mah song's choosing will be pushed through the holes in both cheeks.

During the parade, the mah song travel through the streets of Phuket receiving alms and offering blessings to local households.

When they return to their shrine, a medical team will help remove the weapons from the mah song's cheeks. The mah song are still possessed at this point, and claim to feel no pain.

After the wounds are cleaned and closed, a ceremony is held to bring the phra out of the mah song's body, at which point they will regain consciousness.

Mr Thitipong said he was apprehensive the first time he participated in a parade. But he insisted he could not feel anything until his angel left his body and his wounds were closed.

"I never feel bad about having scars on my face or feeling pain after the ceremony," he said. "I realise that I have been chosen and I am honoured to do this duty to help the people."

BATTLE OF EGOS

all the attractions : Xiao Long Bao in colourful cartoon patterns delight children on the walking street with their parents.

Sirikul Salee, 47, has lived on Phuket her whole life. Now working as a tour guide, she said she has witnessed the ceremony every year and has witnessed its evolution from local ritual to internationally recognised tourist attraction.

"When I was young, the ceremony was very simple but very spiritual at the same time," she said.

As Phuket's reputation as a tourism destination grew, so too did the Vegetarian Festival, and participants have changed their ways to appeal to an international audience.

"Before, there were not many show-offs among the mah song," Ms Sirikul said. "The parades of mah song with weapons was not much of a spectacle like it is today.

"There were only knives or swords, or they would shower themselves with boiling oil, but it is more extreme nowadays and mah song have started using more equipment such as umbrellas, shotguns or car wheels [to put through their faces]."

She said the festival's fame had brought many benefits to the island, but had also destroyed its original roots.

"There are many more people interested in this ceremony than there were in the past," she said.

"But the torture rite has changed a lot also. Local people can notice those who are possessed — their eyes look resentful and empty, and they appear in a trance. But some mah song in the present time can be seen clearly looking directly at the cameras." The competition for mah song warriors to outdo each other with more bizarre tools of torture has also created greater safety risks. "People who were mah song in the past did not torture themselves this much, and the number of people who received severe injuries was a lot less," Ms Sirikul added.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Good for HEALTH: A shop selling green vegetables for those taking part in the festival.

For many local business owners, the festival has been a boon, and every year permanent and temporary vegetarian restaurants can rake in huge sums of money.

"We make around 60,000 baht per day during these nine festival days," said Luksamme Noi-Onpo, a volunteer worker from a restaurant run by the Rassamee Santi Dhamma foundation.

"The main purpose is to prevent killing and the consumption of meat. Thirty years ago, when this restaurant first opened, there were a only a small number of people who understood. Now there are a lot more vegetarians as people are more concern about their health."

Mrs Luksamee stressed that the restaurant is not profit driven, and all the staff members except the cooks are volunteers.

"The money we get from selling food will be used to purchase the next batch of ingredients."

LOOK-A-LIKE: Deep fried vegetable protein which tastes like meat but keeps the festival’s vegetarians on track.

Although the look and taste of the vegetarian food on offer has improved in recent years, most restaurants attempt to use various products to replicate the taste and texture of meat rather than to showcase the versatility of vegetables. This may not match with the idea of trying to cut meat from people's minds, but Mrs Luksamee said it was still a good start for beginners.

Claims have circulated in the past that unscrupulous restaurateurs adding real meat to their dishes to make it more attractive to patrons. Mrs Luksamee admitted there is "a strong competition among vegetarian restaurants" on the island, although almost all remain honest.

"I understand that it may look and taste more like meat, but I don't think that affects the core of the festival," she said. "People who eat vegetable protein for a while will gradually turn off real meat and become a complete vegetarian." n

PAYING RESPECTS: People light candles and pray at a shrine in the early evening.

CRUISING FOR snacks: One of the many walking street markets during the vegetarian festival.

About the author

Writer: Nattha Thepbamrung