The annual Pchum Ben festival came to an end this week, as the cities filled again with people returning from their home towns. Despite the floods that have devastated large parts of the kingdom, Phnom Penh stood almost abandoned from Friday to Wednesday, as people travelled back to their villages to pay tribute to their ancestors and deceased relatives.
Every year, for fifteen days in the tenth month of the Khmer calendar, the barrier between this world and the next is believed to be weakened. The gates of hell are opened, spirits come to Earth, and the living are drawn to pagodas, where they make offerings of food and pray for lost loved ones.
The festival also has a strong charity aspect. The first fortnight of the holiday is called Kan Ben – a period in which villagers give donations to their local monasteries. In years gone by, families had to support monks for the entire festival, but now donations are meted out by one family per day. Offerings of food are also made to the spirit world, and are believed to alleviate the suffering of the dead.
The rites began as early as 4:00am, when people threw pellets of sticky rice around temples. People paced around their chosen pagoda three times, throwing rice balls into adjoining fields or shrubs as the Aja (the monk leading the ceremony) recited from the Dharma. It’s important that the rice lands on the ground – spirits from hell can’t eat food which is clean or well-prepared.
And according to Khmer lore, if you don’t find and help the spirits of your ancestors, you will get cursed by them.
“It is a real obligation to feed your ancestors, as well as a valuable Khmer cultural tradition,” said Sor Sarin, who holds the position of Aja at the Kong Mouch pagoda in Siem Reap.
“In ancient times, Khmer people chose this period of the year to hold the ceremony because it is the season of hunger: it is not yet time to begin farming, and the food in store has almost run out. So by helping the pagodas at this time, people will accrue a large amount of merit.”
In Kandal province, people celebrated Pchum Ben in a markedly different way – the annual buffalo race.
The race, called Bamboal Krobei in Khmer, is held at 6:00am every year, and draws spectators from all over the kingdom. Jockeys dress themselves and their water buffalos in traditional finery, and pray to the pagodas before racing their beasts around the track.
Pchum Ben is about respecting those who came before you, but it is also an invitation for self-reflection. One day, your own relatives and descendants will be praying for your spirit at a temple. So reflect on your deeds, think about your life and remember to cook food for the monks, and the spirits, at next year’s festival.