Monday, September 21, 2009

Thesakarn Dean Sip - Thai Hungry Ghost Festival

Short note: Those who are afraid of ghosts, don't worry because this entry does not contain any images of ghosts haha. However, if you spot anything unusual, just keep quiet and don't ask me anything, okay? You know why, don't you? *insert X-Files song*
The title means "Tenth Month Festival" in Thai.
Ching Plert 1
A man dressed as a hungry ghost (Picture from here.)
A couple of days ago, I joined my grandma and several family members to celebrate the Hungry Ghost Festival in the Bodi Lanka Ram Buddhist Temple in Assam Kumbang, Taiping. Hungry ghosts are the restless spirits of people who did not have a funeral. There is no one visiting their graves and they do not receive the gifts that their family would take to their ancestors to pay respects. They miss out on food and spirit money. To stop the ghosts causing problems for the living, many communities provide them with food to appease them. The ghosts feed first but the food does not disappear. Then the living eat the offerings and pray for good luck.
This festival is slightly different from the usual one celebrated by the Chinese community, as we do it in the Siamese way. There are two days of celebrations - Rap Pret and Song Pret. "Rap" means "to welcome", while "Song" means "to send-off"; "Pret" on the other hand, means "hungry ghosts" or "preta". Fifteen days separate the the two days and the latter is usually more exciting because people make offerings of food to the souls of the dead to appease them.
A day before Song Pret, my Mom and I went to get some banana leaves to make the food containers manually.
Banana leaves we got from the backyard of the temple.

Nowadays, people prefer to go for a more simple alternative by using plastic container; mooncake case, for example to replace these natural hand-made container. However, I still wanna preserve the original way of preparing them and I wanna keep the earth green (kononnya haha). Instead of using those plastic containers, I went over to my grandma's place to help her prepare the containers a day earlier.
There are a few process before the banana leaves are turned into rectangular boxes to place the food.
First, dip the banana leaves in hot water to soften the leaves.
Wipe them dry and cut the leaves into suitable sizes.
Fold them on both ends and clip them with staplers or toothpick to keep them in shape.
I tried my hands on them but kena lectured in the end haha.
The end products of the food container, which come in different sizes from S (for sambal) to XXL (for rice) haha.

The day started off with us going to the temple and bringing our home-cooked dish as offerings to the monks. Usually, there would be a lot of people who bring food there and the table would be full with all kinds of food, especially Thai food which are mostly super spicy.
You gotta try their sambal, super spicy until they can make your tears come out one.
This is just one table, there are four tables in total.
One whole big table of traditional kuih and deserts.
Later, they would start preparing the food to be offered to the preta. They usually put everything in one big box, and there would be different kind of dish placed inside. More often than not, they would cook the favourite food of their ancestors. My great grandmother loved sweet prawn a lot, so my mom prepared and brought it there.
Besides just dishes, there would be other stuff to go along like tobacco cigarette, cigar, daun sirih, buah pinang, etc. Since this would be a "sending-off" festival for the preta, packets of dried stuff like garlic, shallots, cooking spices, oil, shrimp paste, etc are also packed together so that the ancestors could "bring them back" to their other world.
Dried stuff packed inside a Cintan instant noodle plastic bag haha.
Rice, spices and even ajinomoto haha!

Preparing the food for the hungry ghosts.
Helping grandma to place the food inside the box.
Mom and aunt were there to join the fun too.
Bento set for the hungry ghost is done haha.

My second aunt came later with her three kids and after adding her kuih bahlu inside the bento box, we had a group picture.

Before mid-day and lunch time, everyone would gather in the main hall to join the chanting with the Thai monks.
Just in case you're wondering why I sometimes follow the Siamese way at one time, then the Sinhalese way at another time, that is because my great grandfather is a Siamese, while my grandfather is a Sinhalese. Both still follow the Buddhist beliefs in their religious practices although there are some slight difference here and there. One of them is the way they chant as their slang is comparatively different from each other.
The main hall where devotees would join the monks to chant blessing verses.
The cone-shaped thingy on the left is actually one of the traditional kuih, something like kuih karai. According to beliefs, they are made really fine and thin because the hungry ghosts were too glutton when they were alive, hence their mouth turned too small in their after life. So, they make the kuih thin and fine to fit the hungry ghosts' mouth.
It is not unusual in Southeast Asia to see monks on the street early in the morning with their alms bowls, going from home to home to receive a small donation of rice or, occasionally, money. It is all part of the Theravada Buddhist tradition of "making merit", a ritual called "tak bat" which is one of the methods of merit's transfer in Buddhism.
But in Laos, this tradition is done a little differently. Instead of a small group of monks going out in the morning, tens or even hundreds of them go out at dawn, walking silently through the cobblestone streets. The Lao faithful line up, kneeling on straw mats or sitting on small stools, to give each monk a small portion of rice. It is a silent, beautiful tradition that has become one of the main tourist attraction in Laos (reference taken here).
In bigger towns or temple, this ritual is almost non-existance because there are devotees who would bring food to the temple.
Grandma lead everyone by making aspirations for one self and family members. She is the only one who knows how to chant the full verse in our family and sometimes, other people would joined us as well like in the picture because it is rare to find young generations who knows how to chant the whole verse.

Scooping three spoons of rice into each alms bowls while mentioning or visualising the name of the departed ones, in hope that they come and share the merits offered.
Once that is over, everyone placed their food to be offered to the ancestors around a table. They then lighted joss sticks and candles and started praying to satiate their dead relatives. Unlike the Chinese who make food offerings along roadsides and street corners, and outside houses to prevent hungry ghosts from entering residences theoretically, the Siamese joined the others and make their offerings within the compound of the temple.

Just like what the Chinese believe, the ghosts (more commonly known as "pret" among the Siamese) in question inspire both pity and fear. The spirits who roam the earth during this time have been denied access to Heaven for some reason, or have no descendants on earth to make offerings on their behalf. The former will look for any living being to take their place in Hell. The latter are starved from their year-long stint in Hell, and seek sustenance during their earthly furlough. The spirits of dead ancestors, though not as needy as the ghosts described above, are also celebrated by their living descendants during this time.

As you could see, some chose to place their food on the ground, rather than on the table because they fear that some of their ancestors are too weak to climb up the staircase haha. Yes, they are really considerate even though their ancestors are long dead. I am pretty sure they understand the nilai "bertimbang rasa" very well lol!

Offering food and praying to the ancestors.
What a big feast for the hungry ghosts lol!
Those in plastic bags are dried stuff for the ancestors to bring back.
This is a five-star food set. Damn big size and you can find almost everything to eat here haha!


Must pose at least once at the festival haha!

There is a kuih which is made of glutinous rice flour and brown sugar, in which it looks similar to dodol and they are wrapped in banana leaves. They believe the ancestors would need them as candles to lighten-up the way on their journey back.

If you notice, most of the people made two sets of food. That is because another bento set would be place outside the temple, by the roadside or underneath the trees. There is also a reason for that. They believe some ancestors are too afraid to enter the temple because when they were alive, they hardly prayed or stepped their foot into temples.
Bento set for the ancestors who prefer to eat it outside the temple.
Another spot would be underneath the trees because at least the ancestors do not need to eat under the hot sun.
I insisted on using more sheets of newspaper so that the ancestors could sit around the bento box and have their meal peacefully lol.
Mom, grandma and aunt praying to the ancestors.
Asking for blessings from the ancestors.

While people are praying to their ancestors, the monks had their lunch.
We do not have our lunch until the monks are done with their lunch, as a mark of respect. So, while waiting until we get to eat, we go around the temple and camwhored lol. When the monks had finished their lunch, the bowls of food will be distributed to everyone randomly and we would eat together at the food hall. It has been some time since I eat there, and to be able to eat so many kinds of local dish, especially the spicy yet delicious Thai food was just simply heaven.
In front of the Sinhalese temple.
Trips for devotees and their kids to Penang and Thailand.
Respect your parents.
Having lunch together with the rest.
Different species of grasses for goat's consumption haha.
Traditional kueh such as ketupat, lemang, banana in glutinous rice, sweetened black glutinous rice etc.
After lunch, everyone returned to the main hall to chant blessing verses, led by the Siamese monks. Halfway through, papers written with the names of the departed ones are burned, followed by a "water pouring ceremony" led by the laity, symbolically transferring apportion of the merit to the ancestors. Besides offering prayers to the souls of deceased ancestors and welfare of their parents, people carry offerings such as food, medicine and clothes for monks aa well.

The Buddha says that the greatest gift one can confer on one's dead ancestors is to perform 'acts of merit' and to transfer these merits so acquired. The Buddha also says that those who give also receive the fruits of their deeds. The Buddha encouraged those who did good deeds such as offering alms to holy men, to transfer the merits which they received to their departed ones. Alms should be given in the name of the departed by recalling to mind such things as, "When he was alive, he gave me this wealth; he did this for me; he was my relative, my companion, etc. (Tirokuddha Sutta T Khuddakapatha). There is no use weeping, feeling sorry, lamenting and bewailing; such attitudes are of no consequence to the departed ones. .
Offering food and daily necessity stuff to the monks.
Burning the papers with names of the departed ones, hoping that the "merits" would be transferred to the ancestors.

Transferring merits to the departed is based on the popular belief that on a person's death, his "merits" and "demerits" are weighed against one another and his destiny determined, his actions determined whether he is to be reborn in a sphere of happiness or a realm of woe. The belief is that the departed one might have gone to the world of the departed spirits. The beings in these lower forms of existence cannot generate fresh merits, and have to live on with the merits which are earned from this world.
Those who did not harm others and who performed many good deeds during their life time, will certainly have the chance to be reborn in a happy place. Such persons do not required the help of living relatives. However, those who have no chance to be reborn in a happy abode are always waiting to receive merits from their living relatives to offset their deficiency and to enable them to be born in a happy abode. Those who are reborn in an unfortunate spirit form could be released from their suffering condition through the transferring of merits to them by friends and relatives who do some meritorious deeds.

The "water pouring ceremony", also known as "suat nam".

The origin and the significance of transference of merit is open to scholarly debate. Although this ancient custom still exists today in many Buddhists countries, very few Buddhists who follow this ancient custom have understood the meaning of transference of merits and the proper way to do that.
Some people are simply wasting time and money on meaningless ceremonies and performances in memory of departed ones. These people do not realise that it is impossible to help the departed ones simply by building big graveyards, tombs, paper-houses and other paraphernalia. Neither is it possible to help the departed by burning joss-sticks, joss-paper, etc.; nor is it possible to help the departed by slaughtering animals and offering them along with other kinds of food. Also one should not waste by burning things used by the departed ones on the assumption that the deceased persons would somehow benefit by the act, when such articles can in fact be distributed among the needy.
The only way to help the departed ones is to do some meritorious deeds in a religious way in memory of them. The meritorious deeds include such acts as giving alms to others, building schools, temples, orphanages, libraries, hospitals, printing religious books for free distribution and similar charitable deeds.
In each food boxes, people will "hide" some coins in between the food. This family is too rich as their coins are so obvious haha.
The followers of the Buddha should act wisely and should not follow anything blindly. While others pray to god for the departed ones, Buddhists radiate their loving-kindness directly to them. By doing meritorious deeds, they can transfer the merits to their beloved ones for their well-being.
This is the best way of remembering and giving real honour to and perpetuating the names of the departed ones. In their state of happiness, the departed ones will reciprocate their blessings on their living relatives. It is, therefore, the duty of relatives to remember their departed ones by transferring merits and by radiating loving-kindness directly to them (taken here).
Kids were waiting for something "exciting" that would happen in a few more minutes.
While the elderly are inside the main hall chnating, kids would usually go out first and gather around the table which has the food offered to the ancestors. The reason is because once the chanting is done, everyone will rush and grab those food, no matter whose food because they believe they would be blessed by the ancestors if they eat those offered food. Besides, the kids would be the most excited one because they would search for coins placed inside the food boxes.
The real fact is that it is just a form of act to make the festival more interesting and joyful.
All were ready, just waiting for the cue haha.
I still remember when I was small, I was among the kids who would be rushing out from the main hall once they finished chanting and go around the food boxes in search of the coins. On a lucky day, I could earn a few ringgits, just in a matter of seconds haha.
This time however, I was busy taking pictures and videos, but I still managed to "save" one of our two boxes. The ones placed outside the temple was not there anymore when I went to look for it. Already kena robbed haha!
The elderly prefer to take back the dried stuff.
The not-so-elderly would look for ketupats and other dry kuih haha.
In just a matter of few seconds, the table turned empty.
Clean and clear.
I think the living beings are more hungry than the hungry ghosts haha.


fufu said...

one very interesting entry calvin!! i didnt know we have such festival in malaysia (more specific in taiping) =p well i saw a very awesome tat bak when i was travelling in laos... :) i bought sticky rice and laos kuih for the monks too...

KOKahKOK said...

looks interesting.... nice post this one....dun put newspaper for the ancestor to seat la...put chair or carpert next time :)

Kae Vin said...

wow long post.

like i said, you can take photo everywhere and blogged about anything.

next time ur blog can be used as a reference for people's assignment like 'Kebudayaan Malaysia' or watsoever XD

then u can start collecting money XD

calvin said...

@ fufu:
i have been going to this festival since i'm a little boy, but never really went to find out about its significance. i hope this could be something new to everyone who has never seen it.

i guess you're able to relate that "tak bat" ritual since you have seen it yourself. some of the monks in thailand, myanmar, vietnam and laos can be really poor as they rely solely on the food by the public.

calvin said...

@ kokahkok:
haha, later the living human being steal the expensive chair and carpets lah =P

calvin said...

@ kae vin:
yes, it is indeed a lengthy post, but you can actually skip some "serious" part. i just wanna record them down and maybe serve as extra info for interested people =)

and yes, i have gotten used to weird stares i got at awkward situations and random times and places when i take pictures, so it is not a problem to me anymore xD

you will be the first one i will collect money from then haha =P

TZ said...

wow! i din know Siamese also have Hungry Ghost Festival... thanks for the information.

calvin said...

@ tz:
they are also human, aren't they? but i wonder if all the hungry ghosts speak a common language xD

sakura said...

wow~eye-opening post u've got here..
nv knew there's s'thing like this..

very detailed post- can c in future if there's any references for cultural subjects (sila rujuk kepada ;)

calvin said...

@ sakura:
i know not many people have ever heard or seen this festival, so that is the reason i made this as a blog entry to share with the rest =)

i'd be more than happy if people were to use this as reference. don't worry, i will not charge any service charge, just credit me will do ;)

A. Lu said...

Very interesting post! Good for reference to some interested researchers. Even I knew most of the traditions u mentioned here which are very similar ones followed by the Burmese or Chinese in Burma, I never read about them collectively as u spent great deal of times to write clearly here. I do appreciate your effort which would never be wasted! Good job, Calvin!

calvin said...

@ a. lu:
reading comments like this from you guys makes me feel my effort to come out with such a lengthy post is worthwhile.

i guess no matter where you go, the rituals and ceremonies are similar to each other, if not exactly the same. i have been attending this festival since i am small, but never had the chance to record them down. if i do not do it, this tradition might extinct just like that.

thanks again for your kind comments.

A. Lu said...

But I just wonder why and how young guy like u takes great interest on s/t like this! U shame me. It's hard, very hard! nowadays to find s/o like you. It must be your mom and Ah-mahs who should have equal credits. I can't appreciate enough your thoughtfulness.
Good luck with your study in Japan. I'll be catching up with your interesting posts for 3 yrs-span. I don't know I can do that or not!

calvin said...

@ a. lu:
i know it is uncommon for young people these days to be interested in this kind of stuff, but i am one of those weird ones haha xD

there were a few parts where i referred to my grandma and mom for the information that i wasn't really sure.

thanks again and enjoy the remaining of my posts. you can slowly take your time to go though those posts, although i must warn you first that some are really crappy ones haha =P

Unknown said...

m from india and i really loved the way you pinned down the whole festival in a written form..........
i would love to see some more real good posts in the future

calvin said...

@ anshu:
hi anshu, great to see someone all the way from india here!
i'm glad that you enjoyed reading the entries.
thanks again!