The annual festival of Pchum Ben has begun, and to help our readers understand
a little more about its origins and meanings, Charlotte McDonald-Gibson peers
behind the spiritual curtain.
You had better watch out for the next week or so - tormented souls who have been
languishing in hell all year have been let out and are roaming Cam-bodia's streets,
paddy fields and temples looking for gifts from relatives to help them get by in
Woe betide any family who neglects their demands. It is said that the mournful spirits
will bring misfortune upon any living relatives who fail to leave offerings at a
temple during the two-week Pchum Ben festival, which began September 22.
"Cambodians believe that when their ancestors die the spirits live on,"
says Miech Ponn, assistant at the Buddhist Institute's Custom Commission. "During
the Pchum Ben festival the spirits leave hell to get food from their relatives. If
they do not find food they curse the families."
It is a deeply rooted belief, he says, and across the country people will flock to
the temples to appease the souls of dead ancestors with offerings of food.
The Pchum Ben tradition is said to date back to ancient times, when Buddha decided
to make life easier for monks during their three-month wet season retreat.
"In the rainy season the monks could not go out from house to house to collect
food," says Ponn. "So instead people brought food to the monks."
Pchum Ben evolved to become the celebration of the dead it is today. The Venerable
Yos Hut Khemacaro of Wat Langka says honoring of ancestors is ingrained in Buddha's
"It is about reverence and gratitude to old benefactors," says Khemacaro."[The
monks] listen and they meditate on behalf of the people's dead relatives. They ...
make wishes for the family who bring food and offerings. They hope that the deceased
will be happy."
Across the globe the concept of honoring the dead is not uncommon. In Mexico parades
descend on graveyards every November to offer sugar skulls to the departed in a festival
that ends with an all-night party.
Lithuanians used to give beer and banquets to their expired relatives during the
Festival of the Dead, although nowadays the deceased have to make do with a few candles.
And if you happen to be an unhappy spirit resident in Taiwan, you can emerge from
the fires of misery for a week and listen to non-stop opera while gorging on lavish
feasts, before returning to the underworld with a pocketful of paper money.
So Pchum Ben is not unique, but it seems the spirits of the dead in Cambodia are
more demanding then their ghostly friends abroad - though recent indications are
that they have become more accommodating.
Tradition states that relatives should leave offerings at seven different pagodas,
but the deceased seem to have compromised on that.
"Nowadays you don't have to go to seven pagodas," said Ponn. "The
spirits will be happy if they find food in just one."
So what delicacies tickle the taste buds of the supernatural? Ponn says the departed
will happily munch on fruits and soup, but are particularly fond of sticky rice with
sesame, and a cake made of rice wrapped in banana leaves, known as Ansom cake.
And it seems earthly vices are also common beyond the grave - other popular offerings
are wine and cigarettes.
The festivities come to a climax on October 7.
"The monks will have breakfast and lunch where they eat the food to deliver
it to the dead spirits. They will also chant," says Ponn.
Pchum Ben ends when families return home from the pagoda and the spirits retire once
again to the fiery depths. In some places, families will float the spirits of long-gone
loved ones back to hell in a boat made from banana tree bark.
But until that time, beware when wandering the streets after dusk.
"Normally the people who live in hell only come out at night," says Ponn.
"Because they are naked, they must travel in the dark."