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Self-mutilation for virtue

AFP
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The Vegetarian Fest in Thailand gets bloody at times

A devotee of the Chinese Jui Tui Shrine has his cheeks pierced with metal rods carrying religious figurines. He was one of the participants of a procession as part of the annual vegetarian festival held last week in Phuket.Photo: AFP
A devotee of the Chinese Jui Tui Shrine has his cheeks pierced with metal rods carrying religious figurines. He was one of the participants of a procession as part of the annual vegetarian festival held last week in Phuket.Photo: AFP

Walking on fire or driving a brace of swords through your cheeks may not be activities most commonly associated with vegetarianism. But for participants of one Thai festival it's the height of religious devotion.

Thailand's nine-day Vegetarian Festival in the tourist island of Phuket is a spectacular – and bloody – Chinese Taoist procession in which devotees purify themselves in public displays of self-mutilation.

"It is not a trick, it is real, real bodies," said Chanchai Doungjit, director of the Tourism Authority of Thailand in Phuket.

"It is believed that pure men can walk on fire without getting burned," he said.

Thousands of people, almost all dressed in white, lined the procession route last week to pay their respects and receive blessings.

These participants believe they become possessed by spirits and, imbued with the power of otherworldly beings, are able to skewer their bodies and faces with a variety of imaginative implements, including guns, guitars and garden umbrellas. The aim is to rid the area of evil spirits and thus bring good fortune to local communities.

"Even children can watch it," said Chanchai, but added that "they might find it frightening and might wonder why the mediums have to torture themselves".

The Vegetarian Festival honours Chinese gods and is thought to have begun in 1825 in Phuket, which has a sizeable ethnic Chinese population. During the festival, celebrants refrain from vice and maintain a vegetarian diet.AFP

On the spot

Before the street procession during the festival, mediums put themselves into a trance and begin leaping through the temple before being escorted to an area for facial piercing. White-gloved assistants insert a large spike into their cheeks to make a hole big enough to insert the desired object – be it swords, rods or guns – to be placed through the face.


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