Vegetarian Festival: A Photo Essay

Just imagine.

A bonfire, shooting a cascade of sparks and flame towards the stars. The nine Chinese gods sit around it on their pedestals, lined up in celestial order. The light dances off their faces as they stare solemnly into the flame. Behind them, a group of Thai families laugh and shoot off firecrackers in true third-world celebratory style.

This is the scene I found myself in a few days ago.

I found a relatively comfortable patch of gravel, and waited, camera in hand, for the mah song to emerge.

The mah song are a group of unmarried men and women who purify themselves for the festival. Their role in the celebration is a bit strange. After being declared “pure” by the local priest, they go through a process in which they supposedly allow the spirits of the nine gods to inhabit their bodies as they fall into a trance. At the moment, the mah song are in the Chinese temple preparing for the fire walking ceremony.

Meanwhile, all is semi-organized chaos. Children skip around their elders, throwing firecrackers at eachother’s feet, women laugh and hoist babies, and teens jostle eachother good-naturedly. On top of it all, drums beat incessantly, throbbing with life. They give the night and flame a heartbeat of their own.

 At last, the mah song emerge, dancing and skipping on their way to the glowing stretch of coals.

Their heads shake constantly, their eyes have rolled up into their heads. Sweat pours over their bodies, leaving dark tattoos gleaming in the firelight. They are half naked, wearing only loose white pants rolled up to the knees, as well as a ceremonial apron. The mah song grunt and howl wildly. Then they cross the coals, proudly marching across with ease. Amazingly, none of them are injured.

Fire walking is just one of the things the mah song do over the course of the Vegetarian Festival. They also participate in many processions, during which they pierce their bodies with anything sharp enough to cut flesh. Honestly, although I’ve been searching for the words to describe this for quite a few days, nothing is coming to me. It is horrible, disgusting, and strange. The wrongness of it really hit home for me. There are so many things I will never understand about this world and those who inhabit it. That people would willingly destroy their bodies for religious purposes is among them. It simply does not make sense to me. Since I can’t describe it in a compelling enough way, I think the best way to give you a sense of the festival is to show you.

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