Crossing the Bridge for Purification
OK, one more post about the Phuket vegetarian festival ... On the very last evening of the festival, October 5th, we all headed into Kathu village again. We'd just been there on the morning of the 4th to witness faces pierced by swords, guns, skewers and long metal rods and a procession through a million firecrackers. The noise and the bizarre rituals are part of the festival, but there's a lot more to it, a very deep tradition and history which I am sure can't be fully understood unless you are really part of it. We are just observers. The evening of the 5th, with a light rain falling showed what the vegetarian festival means here. It seemed like the whole population was there, queuing round the streets of Kathu village waiting to get into the shrine and cross the bridge for purification.
The photo above shows the ladies queue. I'd not been to see this ceremony before and it too a while to realise the was also a men's queue which was on the other side of the shrine. The men and ladies entered the shrine by different doorways.
Waiting patiently in the rain. Everyone was wearing white. I know that during the festival, many people wear white, but on a normal evening at the shrine during the preceding week, not everyone is in white. On this last night, to cross the bridge, you have to wear white. I had not found "the bridge" yet. It seemed difficult to get through the crowd and close to the shrine. I was not even sure if we (non pure) people would be allowed near. I imagined a bolt of lightning striking us down, away ye impure people!
(above) Mum, are we there yet? Not yet ... Patience is a virtue in any language or religion. You may see in the pictures, each person is holding a little package of what looks like some spring onions. I have read that this is wrapped in some paper with the persons name written on it. I need to ask someone the exact significance of this, but it's all to do with purity and carrying a bit of greenery into the shrine make sense.
Here's the front of the queue (almost). The last few yards, up the steps and into the shrine. It was quite a crush actually! But everyone was good natured. Lots of smiles. I'm not going to argue with the doubters and the cynics. The "Land of Smiles" may have been adopted as a tourism slogan, and you may well find some worn out smiles in the main tourist areas. But I think most people can sense when a smile is real. Smiles in the shrine were real.
But what is "The Bridge"? Well, I managed to sneak up some side stairs outside the shrine, though the entrance was gated, I gave my best "sorry, can I take a photo" smile and a big Wai to the old man who seemed to be guarding the entrance. From this viewpoint, and by leaning around a marble pillar, I could see this...
One of 2 ceremonial "bridges" set up inside the shrine. One for men, one for women, each one flanked by half a dozen Ma Song, the entranced devotees who are said to have the spirits of the gods inside them during the festival. The Ma Song bless and hand each person a piece of string symbolising good luck. The atmosphere in the shrine is smoky and noisy with drums being played in the background. Those crossing the bridge bow and pray. Dad (or grandad?) carries his boy over the bridge. Not sure the young boy appreciates it just yet. I am sure he will.
This evening in Kathu was very interesting, very enjoyable, there was a real sense of community and togetherness here, the people believe in their traditions and believe that crossing the bridge will give them luck. I saw a couple of foreigners crossing the bridge too. I am thinking next year that my wife and I will take the festival a little more seriously, no meat, no beers, make ourselves clean, and we'll cross the bridge too. In the grounds of the temple before we headed home we met a man who we'd talked to 10 days earlier at the opening ceremony. We'd also seen him striding out of the village just as we arrived on the 4th October, he was the lead Ma Song in the procession. He'd been pierced by a number of spikes, nothing too scary. And on this last night he showed his scars which would quickly heal up, but the memory remains and next year we'll see him again.
More stories from the 2011 Phuket Vegetarian Festival