Hungry Ghost Festival in Thailand
- SWATHI RAMASWAMY
- UPDATED Sep 21, 2018
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On the full moon of the seventh lunar month of the Chinese calendar, many countries of South-east Asia lay out food for their family members. Oh! And did I mention that they are dead?
The Hungry Ghost Festival is originally a Chinese Festival where it is believed that the Gates of Hell are opened on the full moon of the seventh lunar month in the Chinese calendar. On this day, the spirit that had spent an eternity in Hell visits his/her family, hungry for food. The families are expected to lay down food to satiate the hunger of their deceased family member and also score a few points in the do-good meter. People generally lay out sumptuous food, paper, money, candles etc. to honour their dead.
The concept of the Hungry Ghost Festival originated from the Mahayana Buddhists but later spread in many South-Asian countries. It is believed that the hungry ghost has a giant skeleton-like figure, an elongated neck and a petite mouth. The purpose of the small mouth is to restrict the hunger of the ghost. These ghosts are said to be the spirits of those who died unnaturally or without being satisfied with life. The wise Chinese Tradition also indicates that drug addiction can turn one in a hungry ghost even while alive.
In Thailand, the festival is mainly celebrated as Por Tor in Phuket, Bang Neaw District and Chiang Mai. The Hungry Ghost Festival is mainly celebrated in the Chinese shrines in Thailand as it is essentially a Chinese festival observed by the Mahayana Buddhists along with the Theravada Buddhists. Here, the spirit is known as Praet. People put up meals and visit shrines with flowers and incense sticks to honour their deceased and help satiate their hunger. Some of the common scenes you can expect during the Por Tor in Thailand are:
1. A MEAL WITH THE EXISTING AND LATE FAMILY
The very essence of the Por Tor festival is to satiate the hunger of the deceased spirit. It is said that the Hungry Ghosts visit their family in search for food. In order to honour their presence, the family sets out an elaborate meal. This meal consists mainly of rice and an elaborate assorting or side dishes. The food is first offered to the deceased spirit. An incense stick burns near the table. The burning through of the incense indicates that the ghost has finished his meal. After that the whole family sits down to eat the sumptuous meal.
2. VISIT TO THE SHRINE
The Por Tor Festival in Thailand is mainly centred in the Chinese Shrines. In Phuket, the centre for the Por Tor Festival is the Por Tor Gong Shrine. It is decorated with panels showing the King of Hell, Por Tor. These panels show the vicious punishments given to sinful souls. Many people visit these shrines during the Por Tor festival with flowers and incense sticks to honour their dead.
The main offering that is unique to Phuket is the giant red turtle cake or the angku. This is a red cake made of rice flour and sugar and carved in the shape of a ceremonial turtle. They are available in most bakeries in Phuket. However, the turtle cake from the oldest bakery in the region, Keng Tin bakery, is the most popular. These cakes are available in different sizes and the price is based on the detailing on the cake. The small and simple cakes cost 100 bahts while the gorgeous cakes cost 50000 bahts.
The ceremonies in the shrine are much alike the ones conducted at home. The main event is to offer food to the Hungry Ghosts. The food includes the traditional rice meal along with the cake. Many people visit the shrine on this day to offer flowers and incense sticks or to simple watch the ceremonies.
Though a festival of only the Mahanayak Buddhists, this festival is not without its own pomp and show. In Phuket parades are organised every year. These colourful parades include Chinese figures and vibrant decorations. This year, two parades are organised to mark the Por Tor Festival. The first parade is arranged on 23rd August along the Bangkok Road. The procession will start from 11.30 a.m. and carry an image of the Por Tor God along the route to the Fresh Market.
After the Por Tor Festival on the 25th of August, the second parade will take place on 30th of August from the Queen Sirkit Park. The parade will proceed south along the Thepkrasattri Road and come to an end in the Por Tor Gong Shrine.
4. ALMS-GIVING CEREMONY
On 24th August, an alms-giving ceremony has been organised where 85 monks will be given alms on the Ranong Road market. The basic essence of the Por Tor Festival is to offer food to the needy. In spirit of that, the people give alms to the needy on this day.
5. OTHER ACTIVITIES
During the Por Tor Festival, the Ranong Road is a hub of various activities like dancing, singing, concerts and food stalls. Many shows take place in this place in the evenings thus making the week a festive one.
The Por Tor Festival is celebrated with much pomp and show in Thailand. Although it is mainly concentrated in the Chinese community, the festive mood spreads much further.