Every year the touristy paradise of Phuket (Thailand) holds a hidden anthropological gem: the Taoist-rooted Nine Emperor Gods Festival also known as “Vegetarian Festival”.
Originally born in China, the festival is a holy worship of the nine gods, who are the main protectors of the whole universe, in order to invoke and welcome them.
In Thailand the biggest Chinese-Taoist community of the world, the Peranakans, celebrates their cultural roots during this festival in a more “carnivalesque” way comparing with other asian countries like Malaysia and Indonesia. In Phuket many devotees perform unusual rituals upon themselves like impaling through cheeks, slashing of limbs, chanting and dancing to reach a state of trance, walking barefoot from the temple to the sea, where the tradition says the Gods will arrive.
As a professional photo reporter who lived in Asia for many years, I had the long-awaited opportunity to cover from the inside this complex ritual.
During the nine days of the festival everyone dresses in white, do not eat meat, drink alcohol, and have sex.
In the early hours of the day, within the backcountry temples, the ritual begins: the percussive sound of drums and chants, the Ma Song (the participants who prepare to volunteer their bodies to the gods) fall in trance and get pierced. Only virgin men and women can be a “Ma” , which literally means “horse”, where the gods use the body of the Ma song as a vehicle to the terrain world.
This practice is a mixture of veneration for their gods and ancestors, to display their devotion to their beliefs.
Despite the initial shock of shooting so close to the subjects, a state of general kindness and calm came over slowly and for days or weeks after frequently the devotees appear exceptionally calm and focused in their day-to-day activities after the festival is completed.