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Posts Tagged ‘Hungry Ghost Festival’

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My entire childhood and that of my siblings as well as my cousins staying at 188 Hugh Low Street were spent listening to wakes and watching funerals and also observing the Hungry Ghost Festivals. This is hardly surprising considering our house is just across from Hume Street which is known to the locals as “Coffin Street.” Not a day passed without hearing the noises created on this street feared and avoided by most Ipoh residents.

At these funeral parlors, elaborate ceremonies are conducted for a few nights to commemorate the dead each year during the Ghost Month. Prayer sessions called Pu Tu in Cantonese are held. Pu Tu means universal deliverance or universal liberation from sufferings. It is believed hungry ghosts, like Mu Lian’s mother, need salvation through prayers.

As a child, I remember seeing rows and rows of long altars being set up outside these funeral parlors. All kinds of cakes, fruits and drinks were lavishly laid out. Heaps and heaps of paper offerings were scattered on the ground to be burned later as offerings to the wandering spirits who happened to pass by this eerie street.

A large paper effigy of the King of Hell about 20 feet high with two protruding fiery eyes was erected in the middle of Hume Street. Beside him stood the Cow Head and Horse Face who were the King’s generals. They looked equally tall and fearsome. A large paper ship was also constructed to carry the dead spirits to and fro to take part in the ceremony.

With my siblings and cousins, we watched from our windows in awe as Taoists priests in black ceremonial robes (with a large yin yang symbol on their backs) spat out some alcohol mixed with tea into a large fire pit fixed on the ground outside the funeral parlor. Chanting Taoists verses and holding a sword in one hand and a tablet bearing the names of the dead in another, they would jump over it and the fire would burst out into a big flame.

This act, called thew for, or jump over the fire, is an imitation of how Mu Lian descended to the deepest level of Hell (believed to be Level 18) to save his mother from suffering and helped her gain rebirth. The priests would repeat this many times throughout the night, each time to represent a dead person. These acts were carried out in the hope that they too, would gain salvation for the dead just like what Mu Lian did for his mother.

On the 14th night of the seventh month, after all the chanting of prayers and thew for were done, all paper items were burnt in a huge bonfire in the middle of the street. When everything was over and the crowd had dispersed, silence descended over Hume Street again. Stray dogs were seen foraging for food which the fire had not consumed.

The Hungry Ghost Festival comes to an end on the 30th night of the seventh month when the gate of Hell is closed again at the stroke of midnight. It coincides with the birthday of Earth Store Bodhisattva who is also known as Ti Tsang Wang Pusa in Chinese or Ksitigarbha in Sanskrit, the patron saint of all the dead. He is believed to have made a great vow to stay in Hell to guard the dead until it becomes empty one day.

It was during one of these Hungry Ghost Festivals that my story begins……

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Although the Hungry Ghost Festival has its origins in China, the practice of burning offerings such as paper money and paper clothes as well as laying out food on the roadsides for the wandering spirits actually started in this country some one hundred years ago.

According to one popular theory, an influx of poor Chinese came to Malaya to work in the mines during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They were mainly from the southern provinces of China. They dreamed of striking gold here before going back home for good. However, many fell sick and died due to very harsh working conditions in Malaya in the early days and could not return home in time to seek treatment. As a result, their families were not aware of their death and did not claim their bodies. Needless to say, they did not get a decent ceremony or a proper burial. It was believed this resulted in their becoming wandering or homeless spirits, forever not at peace, forever wandering in search of food and whatever their hearts desired.

In Taoism, it is believed that when a person dies, his soul still needs money, food and clothes in the next world to be comfortable. Because of this belief, the living burn paper offerings and many leave food on the roadside for these poor wandering spirits who could not return to their home villages in China. This later became a popular practice which persists till this day. It is like giving some money and food to the dead just as what we do to the living poor. These are acts of charity, only that the recipients are the dead. Now can you understand why many women folk squat by the roadsides or back alleys when night falls to offer paper money and clothes as well as food to these wandering spirits whom they politely address as “good brothers and sisters?”

Some Taoist temples also hold Chinese operas to entertain these wandering spirits. Rows and rows of long wooden benches are arranged for these guests and no humans dare to sit there as the audience is from the other world. Therefore, it will not be a surprise to see the opera troupe playing to an empty gallery……

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According to Grandma and Mom, it is believed that vengeful spirits will come back during this particular month to seek revenge. Those who have blood on their hands will not be able to sleep peacefully during the Ghost Month. They are afraid those they have killed will come back for them.

The Hungry Ghost Festival is also a time to observe many taboos or pantang larang, as the Malays call it. They first started as old wives tales but were later widely accepted and followed.

Those who had drowned would go back to the rivers, pools, ponds, lakes or seas to wait for their replacement while those who died on the roads would orchestrate some accidents so that their souls, trapped where they lost their lives, could be liberated. So, no swimming or night time driving, folks!

Grandma often scared us when we were kids by telling us that malicious spirits were lurking in many dark or quiet corners or under trees. We were not supposed to go out at night to places like parks or dark alleys as crossing the paths of these malicious spirits at such spots would bring dire consequences – they will make us fall sick.

Bright colored clothes are not allowed lest they attract the attention of wandering spirits. Red or yellow are strictly forbidden because these colors are believed to be their favorite colors. Auspicious celebrations like weddings or birthdays, moving house or starting a new business venture are not encouraged in this month because the Ghost Month is considered a yin month, a month when the evil forces are believed to be very strong.

Eating out at night at stalls where the food is hung up for all to see and choose is also strongly discouraged. A good example would be the stalls selling roast chicken or roast pork rice. Some people claimed they saw hungry ghosts licking the food with their long and fiery tongues. If you buy such food and eat them, chances are, you will get sick……

 

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Hungry Ghost Festival is here again. The whole of the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar which usually falls in the Gregorian calendar months of August or September is dedicated to this observance. Thus, the Chinese seventh month is also known as the Ghost Month. Among the Taoists, the Hungry Ghost Festival is known as Yue Lan Jie and among the Buddhists, it is called Ullambana.

This observance commemorates a very filial son called Mu Lian who managed to save his wicked mother from the deepest level of Hell. When Mu Lian wanted to leave home and become a monk, his widowed mother was very displeased with his decision and mocked him. She also committed wicked acts like killing dogs and then offering the meat to other monks who went to her house to beg for alms. A very conceited woman, she often jeered at beggars and chased them away whenever she came across them.

As a result, she became a ghost after her death. In his meditations, Mu Lian saw how his mother’s soul suffered in Hell. She could not eat anything because whatever food reached her mouth became fire, thus burning her tongue and throat. Nothing could reach her stomach and she became a hungry ghost, pleading to be helped out of this misery.

Seeing this, Mu Lian consulted his Master who advised him to do as many good deeds as possible to compensate for his mother’s misdeeds. He donated vegetarian food to thousands of poor people, chanted sutras (Buddhist verses) day and night, and released trapped animals. His collective good deeds finally touched the Buddha who quickly ordered the gates of Hell to be opened so that the dead could have a month’s respite. Mu Lian’s mother was eventually released from Hell and was given a higher rebirth.

From then on, the gate of Hell was believed to be opened each year on this particular month so that wandering spirits could roam the earth among the living…….

To Be Continued…

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