Words by Rena Lim
For a month from August 11, the gates of hell will be thrown open and the spirits will roam freely in our spiritual realm. But then again the Hungry Ghost Festival – celebrated on the seventh day of the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar – is anything but ordinary. For the Chinese community in Penang, these free spirits must be entertained and fed, and the rituals to appease them and provide for their needs can turn into quite a spectacle.
The state-wide spectacle has turned this worship festival into a tourist attraction in culturally rich Georgetown. It is a community collective effort. In every district, the residents get together to raise funds to stage Chinese opera performances followed by stage shows to entertain the spirits at night.
Songstresses belt out Chinese Cantopop and evergreen and their scantily-dressed attire surely got oglers to stay on for a little while more.
Burnt offerings and plates of food and fruits are displayed on makeshift altars at every street corner and back alley. To invite the spirits to feed on the delicacies, devotees burn joss sticks and bow in supplication before the altar.
For good measure, devotees also burn hell bank notes to supplement the spiritual coffers. At local Taoist and Buddhist temples and markets, these spirits take physical form in the shape of colourful effigies which evoke that spooky feelings.
While effigies do look scary with long tongues sticking out and eyes popping out of faces, the worship is never about Satan or King of Hades. It is believed to be the work of Goddess of Mercy reminding humans not to do evil.
There are two known origins to the Hungry Ghost Festival – one Taoist and the other Buddhist.
In Taoism, it is called Zhong Yuan Jie. According to Taoist belief, the universe is made up of three essential elements – heaven, earth and water – known collectively as San Yuan. These are represented by the Three Great Official Emperors (San Guan Da Di) who are second only to the Great Jade Emperor.
The festival is in honour of one of the three official emperors – Lord Qing Xu – who was born on the 15th day of the seventh month. It is believed that during the festival, he descends on Earth to perform his duties, which entail identifying the good and bad individuals and decide whether or not to pardon them for sins committed, or to bring fortune to devotees and misfortune to the sinners.
The Buddhists call it the Ulabhama Festival or Yu Lan Pen Jie. The celebration is in honour of Maudgalyana, and ordained monk who used his clairvoyance to trace his dearly departed parents. On seeing his mother reborn in the Realm of Hungry Ghosts he took it upon himself to ease her sufferings by feeding the hungry spirits.
On Buddha’s advice, he placed food on a clean plate, recited a mantra seven times and called out to the spirits. With his help, his mother was later reborn as a human.
For the Buddhists, the festival is a day of filial piety. Monks still recite the mantra as they prepare vegetarian food that the devotees partake. They also pray to help these souls reach a higher realm through rebirth.
HUNGRY GHOST FESTIVALS IN OTHER COUNTRIES
Besides Malaysia, the annual Hungry Ghost Festival is celebrated by the Chinese communities in other parts of Asia, such as Thailand, Japan, Vietnam and Cambodia.
Por Tor/ Praet in Thailand
In Thailand, the festival – known locally as Por Tor or Praet – is most commonly celebrated in Phuket. The locals believe that as the gates of hell open, it is also the time to perform rituals for their deceased loved ones. Special food and flowers with incense are offered to the spirits at various shrines. An essential item is the large red turtle-shape cake, a symbol of good luck and success. These cakes are usually left in the temples to gain merit points for the loved ones.
Chūgen and O-bon in Japan
The Chūgen has its origin in Taoist roots. It was once marked with offerings to the ancestral spirits, but later evolved into a ritual of presenting gifts to superiors and colleagues.
The O-bon, based on Buddhist traditions, is a time for families to get together to clean their ancestors’ graves. This culminates in a carnival of games, food and rides. Once the fun is over, paper lanterns are floated down the river to return the ancestors to their spiritual world.
Tết Trung Nguyên in Vietnam
During this month-long festival in Vietnam, devotees release birds and fish to earn merit points. They also offer food to homeless souls. This is also the time to pardon the condemned souls.
Pchum Ben in Cambodia
Also known as Ancestors Day, the Pchum Ben is a festival that spans 15 days. It begins with a celebration on the 15th day of the 10th month of the Khmer calendar. This is when Cambodians pay their respects to their dearly departed going back up to seven generations. Monks are invited to chant sutras for the whole night to prepare for the opening of the gates of hell.
The Cambodians will offer food to the hungry spirits who would by then by roaming the streets.