The Chinese/Thai Je Vegetarian Festival
Monday the 1st of October 2016 sees the start of the annual Thai-Chinese religious festival commonly known as “Je”. This is Taoist religious festival of self-denial and purification in honour of the Nine Emperor Gods. According to Taoist belief the Nine Emperor Gods govern the movements of the stars and heavens and comprise seven main stars of the Ursa Major or Big Dipper constellation as well as two fainter nearby stars.
Commencing at the beginning of the ninth Chinese lunar month, The festival goes on for nine days, one day for each of the Emperor Gods and participants in the festival must refrain from a number of activities during this period.
Observers of Je are prohibited from eating meat, fish or dairy produce. In fact the dietary restrictions also prohibit any “strong smelling foods” so even vegetables like garlic and onion may not be consumed, nor can coriander. Ginger is OK but shallots aren’t. it’s pretty hard to figure out what’s allowed or not sometimes.
Additionally participants may not drink alcohol or have sex, and strict observers wear only white clothing. Individuals are prohibited from taking part in the festival if they are in a period of mourning or are pregnant or menstruating; unclean apparently.
The Thai interpretation of the Je festival that is practised in Phuket is the best known around the world. There many people volunteer themselves as “Ma Song”, effectively offering their bodies as vessels for divine possession. They enter a trance-like state during which their bodies are often pierced with skewers, knives, spears and all manner of pointy things. There is much bloodshed and the images can look as if the “Ma Song” are suffering but the trance state is apparently so intense that they report feeling no pain. Preparation is meticulous, all involvement is voluntary, and those who take part report feeling a calm and serene state of mind in the period after the festival. It sure makes for a great spectacle though. Interestingly this physical side of the festival is only practised on Phuket and it is thought to be an amalgamation of the original Chinese festival with the Indian festival of Thaipusam, which has similarly spiky observances.
Fortunately or otherwise depending where you are situated on the squeamishness/bloodlust continuum you won’t see such extreme acts by Koh Chang’s Je celebrants. What you are more likely to spot are a large number of local restaurants offering special Je menus. They use the striking yellow and red symbol pictured to advertise the fact and local shops and supermarkets will display similarly marked Je-friendly produce. The food on offer is worth a try. It focuses strongly on Chinese tastes and flavours. There’s lots of shitake and other mushrooms, fermented soy beans add complexity of flavour, meat-textured tofu features in place of meat and of course there are vegetables galore. Why not give a Je meal a try for a change? The break from meat consumption undoubtedly has positive health effects in common with the fasts that are a part of so many worldwide religious observances.
Chilli is still allowed of course. This is Thailand remember, the home of spicy food. Nobody here could ever deny themselves Chilli could they?