- It is part of the Vegetarian Festival at Bang Neow Shrine, Phuket, Thailand
Participants are island’s ethnic-Chinese who believe ritual will banish evil
They believe that the holes in their cheeks help them to purify themselves
Not only must they refuse meat but also sex, alcohol and other vices
They also walk on hot coals, climb ‘bladed’ ladders and take baths in hot oil
This Chinese spiritualist may soon realise he really has spiked his own guns by putting spikes in some guns and skewering his cheeks … especially when he takes a drink of water.
He is one of hundreds of vegetarians in southern Thailand who believe that piercing their faces with unusual objects while abstaining from meat will banish evil and give them peace of mind.
Each year thousands of people travel to the Bang Neow Shrine, on Phuket, to watch the bizarre vegetarian festival held by the ethnic-Chinese community of the island during the ninth lunar month of their homeland’s calendar.
After piercing their cheeks, lips or tongue, religious devotees thrust metal implements, often several at a time, through the holes to purify themselves.
Not only must they refuse meat during the Festival for Eating Vegetables, but also sex, alcohol and other vices.
Walking barefoot over hot coals, climbing ladders with bladed rungs and taking baths in hot oil are also part of the rituals done by entranced devotees.
They believe being in a trance gives them supernatural powers and the ability to endure these excruciating tortures for the common good.
Their suffering – they hope – draws evil out of the community around them and, in doing so, brings positive luck to their friends and village.
Photographer Christophe Archambault, who took the pictures for Agence France Presse, said: ‘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.
‘When you see it close up, it seems horribly painful. The penitents moan and groan, their faces scrunched into terrible grimaces. Blood is spurting everywhere.
‘Those inserting the objects wear rubber gloves, which they change between each “operation”. But apart from that, hygiene is completely nonexistent. Each procedure is pretty quick. Many penitents have scars — they are regulars.’
For those who do not wish to mutilate their faces, there are other ways to scare off dark powers.
The firework displays that take place during the festival – including the loudest and biggest, which rounds off matters on the final night – are also deemed to fend off evil spirits through sheer force of noise.
Archambault added: It’s deafening, it’s hard to breathe. Your hair is covered with little bits of exploded firecrackers and the air is heavy with the smell of gunpowder. Earplugs are essential if you don’t want to go deaf. A gas mask and protective eyewear are also essential but unfortunately this year I forgot to bring mine.’
The ten-day self-cleansing festival’s origins are almost as odd as its unusual rituals. It dates back to 1825, and the visit of a traveling Chinese theatre company to the Thai mining town of Get-Hoe.
When the touring actors succumbed to tropical fever in the jungle-clad region, they opted to keep to a strict vegetarian diet, hoping that this would please the gods – who would then relieve them of the illness.
The plan worked – and whether or not the thespians’ improved health was down to better diet than celestial intervention – the festival was born.