On the 15th day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar, Chinese people around the world traditionally celebrate the Hungry Ghost Festival—a time when spirits, including those of their deceased ancestors, visit the living, and the dead are venerated.
This year, the festival was celebrated on August 12. (In parts of southern China, the occasion falls on the 14th day of the lunar calendar, corresponding to August 11.) In accordance with Buddhist and Daoist tradition, the entire month of August was observed as Ghost Month: Celebrants believe the ghosts of certain ancestors leave the nether regions and roam the earth during this monthlong period in search of food and entertainment.
These aren’t just any ghosts, though, but the ghosts of ancestors whose descendants forgot to pay tribute to them after they departed or those whose last rites were not properly performed. Perceived as having long necks as thin as needles—a sign that their families have not fed them or that they are unable to swallow as a form of punishment—the ghosts become the focus of rituals to release them from their suffering.
The mythic origins of the Hungry Ghost Festival (also known as the Ghost Festival) lie in the Mahayana Buddhist scripture known as the Yulanpen or Ullambana Sutra. According to it, a disciple of the Buddha named Maudgalyayana secured his mother’s release from hell by offering food to monks. The monks then “transfer” the karmic merit of that action to the deceased ancestors.
In the Indian city of Kolkata, ethnic Chinese residents celebrate Hungry Ghost Festival in the community’s cemeteries on the Sunday closest to the 15th day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar. This year, different Chinese clans celebrated the occasion on different Sundays as heavy monsoon rains battered the city, flooding low-lying cemeteries.
Plates bearing exotic fruits and nuts, meat, fish, boiled vegetables and sweets are placed in front of ancestors’ graves, along with wine and beer.
Celebrants offer prayers to their ancestors and light incense sticks and red candles (red is an auspicious color in Chinese culture). They also burn “ghost money” made of joss paper. Setting such notes ablaze is believed to be the only way to send money to ancestors.
Two weeks after the festival, celebrants light lotus-shaped lanterns and set them afloat on water to guide the lost souls of ancestors and other ghosts and ensure that they make their way back to the spirit realm.
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