Hungry Ghost festival is a Chinese folk belief and is held on the 7th lunar month of the Chinese almanac calendar. This year, it is on the 1st of August. The Chinese folk belief says that the gate to the nether world is opened during this month and the spirits of the deceased will cross over and mingle with the living. Countries with Chinese population or where Chinese culture had historical influence will have some form of festivities to mark this ghostly holiday. (Malaysia,Singapore, Thailand Chinatown etc)
If you visit this part of Asia now, you will see food offerings being placed by the road on the 1st of the lunar month.(to welcome the spirits) The 15th of the lunar month (Grand festival) Last day of the month (to bid the spirits farewell) Elaborate tents are setup at various location with tables laden with food on the 15th.
Mahayana Buddhist believes that the Hungry ghost festival originated from a Buddhist event. In a Mahayana Sutra, the Ullambana Sutra; Arhat Maudgalyayana used his psychic ability to search for his deceased mother.To his dismay, he discovered that she had become a hungry ghost (Preta) after death. He asked Buddha for help and Buddha advised him to make offerings to the Sangha, then dedicate the merit to his mother. After Maudgalyayana did as told, his mother was freed from suffering. In the Buddhist way, one should do charitable deeds to benefit the deceased during the Ullambana Festival.
However, this story was integrated into Chinese Ancestral belief and voila! we have the Hungry Ghost Festival. A Chinese folk celebration.
In the Chinese Ancestral belief, the deceased live in another dimension. They have houses and society. Family relations continue. So when one dies, they meet all their past ancestors and live in the spirit world, in one big community. The living is responsible for honoring them and remembering them. This is done by worship and prayers. (This is not a Buddhist Belief)
In the Hungry Ghost festival, the living make food offerings to the spirits who does not have anybody to honor them.These spirits are like homeless people without a source of income. (This is a twisted definition of the Buddhist preta.) Thus. if a family line dies out or the descendent does not make offerings to their ancestors spirit, the entire ancestry line of spirits become hungry ghosts.
By offering food and spirit money to these homeless spirits, these spirits will become contented and will not create trouble for the living. The offering is therefore done outside the house. By the road or some other public area.
During the festival (Usually the 15th day), food will be placed on the table and spirits are invited to partake them. Low tables with sweets,tidbits and milk bottles for ghost children. It is believed that the spirit will consume the spiritual essence of food. After the ritual prayer, the physical food is either shared with the less fortunate or with family and friends. Spirit money is burned with the belief that the decease also need money. Some will also burn mock up version of televisions, Hifi, playstation,Prada bag, credit card etc (all made from paper!) it’s actually a kind of folk art.
Besides providing material comfort to these wandering spirits, you’ll also see live performance being put up to entertain the spirits. This are usually done via temporary stages with rows of chairs for the audience. The best seats (1st row), is meant for the spirits. No body will sit on them. The life audience will be seated from the second row onwards.
This naturally creates a very vibrant atmosphere for the living to mingle and socialise too.
In a way, this festival also help people find closure with the death of family members.
At home, ancestry worship also takes place during this month. It is believed that the recently deceased are with the family ancestors. By offering food, spirit money, replica items and prayers to them, one is supporting them and doing things for them. Ensuring that they have a good afterlife. So do not be surprise if you see people burning replica paper houses, luxurious cars, servants etc
As a tourist, taking picture is okay but there are certain taboo to observe.
Don’t cause inconvenience or distraction when people are praying. The candles and burning of joss paper creates nice silhouette but remember, some people may still be mourning.
Don’t ever mess with the offerings on the table or by the road. It may look more instagramable if you rearrange the table, but don’t do it!
Don’t dress up as ghost.This is not halloween.
Don’t sit on places that are meant for the spirits.
If you happen to be touring this part of the world at this time of the year, you’ll be more informed with what is going on with all this candles and incense by the road.
Have fun and travel safe.