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The Ghost Festival

Ullambana or the Ghost Festival is held during the seventh month of the Chinese calendar. During this month, the floodgates of the netherworld are opened up and spirits are free to roam the land of the living where they seek food and entertainment. Descendants pay homage to their deceased ancestors. Tribute is also paid to unknown wandering spirits to relieve their suffering. A large feast is held for the spirits on the fourteenth day of the seventh month, where offerings like joss paper, incense and paper effigies are burnt and food offered to appease the spirits and ward off bad luck. Lotus-shaped lanterns or candles are lit and set afloat in rivers and out onto the seas to symbolicly guide the lost souls of forgotten ancestors to the afterlife.

In some East Asian countries today, outdoor performances like traditional Chinese opera, dramas and concerts known as ‘Getai’ are held on makeshift stages. As a mark of respect, the first row of seats are always empty as they are especially reserved for the spirits. The shows are always on at night and at high volumes as the sound is believed to attract and appease the spirits.

For rituals, Buddhists and Taoists hold ceremonies to relieve spirits from suffering, Ceremonies and prayers are usually held in the late afternoon or at night (as it is believed that the spirits are released from the netherworld when the sun sets). Altars are built for the deceased and priests and monks alike perform rituals for the benefit of spirits. Incense, joss paper are burnt and food offered to appease the spirits. Monks and priests often throw rice or other small foods into the air in all directions to distribute them to the spirits.

When Is Hungry Ghost Festival Celebrated?

The Hungry Ghost Festival also known as Zhongyuan Festival or Ullambana is held on the 14th day of the seventh lunar month during the month-long Ghost Month.

What Is The Origin Of Hungry Ghost Festival?

Originally the Hungry Ghost Festival was a day to honor ancestors, but once Buddhism was introduced in China, the holiday was called Yu Lan Pen Festival, a Chinese transliteration of the Sanskrit term Ullambana.

Taoists refer to the festival as Zhong Yuan Jie. Both Buddhists and Taoists attribute the origin of the Hungry Ghost Festival to Buddhist scriptures.

One story of the Hungry Ghost Festival’s origin is that of one of the Buddha’s disciples, Mulian or Maudgalyayana. He tried to save his mother from hell where she had to compete with other hungry ghosts for food. When he tried to send his mother food, it would burst into flames, so the Buddha taught him to make food offerings to the ghosts to keep them from stealing his mother’s food.

Another version says Mulian traveled to hell on lunar July 15 to offer food and ask that his mother be released. His filial piety paid off and she was released, leading to the tradition of burning incense and offering food during the Hungry Ghost Festival.

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