Hungry Ghost Festival, Singapore Overview

The Hungry Ghost Festival is a religiously significant festival in Singapore that takes place during the seventh month of the lunar calendar. It is a month-long festival in which Buddhist and Taoist devotees perform rituals and offer prayers and foods to the wandering spirits. During this month, the living pay tribute to the deceased ones and the entire Lion City becomes lively with entertainment shows and traditional events.

Also known as the Yulan Festival, Gui Jie, or the Zhongyuan Jie, this festival is an attestation to the fact that the hyper-modern city is still in touch with its rituals and traditions. Devotees and curious travellers are bound to have a grand time at this festival. With joss sticks filling up the air with fragrance to papier-mâché items burning all over Chinatown, there are numerous ways in which the Hungry Ghost Festival offers a unique experience to all the visitors. Along with that, the ritualistic food offerings and entertainment shows are also worth exploring. During this festival, the locals abide by a set of rules as there are many taboos associated with this traditional festival.

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Hungry Ghost Festival Dates 2020

The Hungry Ghost Festival takes place during the 7th month of the lunar calendar, also referred to as the Ghost Month. On the 15th of the 7th month, the devotees celebrate Ghost Day.

Dates for 2020
2 September 2020

Origin of Hungry Ghost Festival

The origins of the Hungry Ghost Festival is derived from the Yulanpen Sutra of the apocryphal Mahayana Scripture and travel back as far as the 5th Century BC. As per the scripture, Moggallana seeks a solution from the Buddha to relieve the distress endured by his deceased mother as a hungry ghost. Reborn into the Netherlands due to her misdeeds, she was perennially hungry but could not eat, either because her food pipe would contract, or because whatever food she touched, would burst into flames.

To this, the Buddha replied that if Moggallana offers food to the monks and nuns after their retreat from the summer journey, they will pray for the benefit of seven generations of his deceased ancestors. In Moggallana's case, his mother was elevated from a hungry ghost residing in the Avici to a dog adopted by a wealthy family. She was further elevated to human status after her son presented new robes and food to 500 monks.

Hungry ghost festival
Effigy burning during the festival (Source)


Traditions and Rituals
Through this month-long festival, Buddhists and Taoists perform a variety of rituals to appease the dead and wandering spirits. From prayers to purification rituals, there are plenty of traditions that the devotees perform. As part of the tradition, devotees enjoy dinner with their families while keeping a few chairs empty at the dinner table for the deceased ones. After the family dinner, they perform the appeasement ceremonies outside their houses by setting up altars and laying the offerings for the wandering spirits. The last ritual involves releasing the printed paper lanterns in the sky and floating lanterns in the streams to guide the wandering spirits to the underworld. 

Offerings are crucial parts of this ancient tradition in which people pay tribute to the dead. Through the month, people place offerings by the roadside and at the temples. People offer food items like raw noodles, fruits, peanuts, uncut meats, rice, pastries place them as offerings outside their houses. They build papier mache mobile phones, cars, and houses and burn them along with joss paper, popularly referred to as ghost money, to ensure the deceased ones have a prosperous afterlife. 

Hungry ghost festival
People burning joss paper as part of the festival ritual (Source)
What may very well be considered as the highlight of the Hungry Ghost Festival is the Getai, literally translating to 'song stage'. In addition to pleasing the phantoms with money and food, the Singaporeans also arrange for boisterous, entertaining performances for them. A grand stage is jazzed up with psychedelic LED lights for live shows which include melodious songs, exceptional operas, lively dances, excellent puppet shows and farcical stand-up comedy. In keeping with the traditions, the first row of the chairs arranged for the audience are kept empty as they are said to be occupied by the ghosts.

Hungry ghost festival
Getai or the Song Stage is a major highlight of Hungry Ghost Festival (Source)

Dos & Dont's of Hungry Ghost Festival

The citizens of Singapore take a number of precautions during the Hungry Ghost Festival to abstain from unleashing the wrath of the wraiths. During this month, they keep away from a few things which might bring them misfortune. The things mentioned below are exclusively not allowed during the Hungry Ghost Festival:

1. House Renovations or Relocation
It is believed that renovating or relocating a house may lead to crossing paths with the ghosts. Somehow, the project may prove unsuccessful thus bringing the people misfortune. That is why all kinds of house improvements are kept on hold until the festival is over.

2. Swimming Pools
During the Hungry Ghost Festival, swimming is firmly looked down upon, since it is believed that the spirits will pull down the innocent swimmer to replace their own spirits with the latter in order to get an opportunity for reincarnation.

3. Killing Insects
This may probably be the most eldritch superstition of all. The spirits of the deceased are said to take refuge inside insects, and hence, if a person by chance attempts to kill an insect, they may unknowingly end up smacking their own ancestor. Eerie, isn't it?

4. New Beginnings
The Hungry Ghost Festival is altogether a bad time for beginnings. Getting married, embarking on a journey, starting a business are frowned upon. It is a firm belief that setting out for a new phase in life during this month is sure to bring ill fortune and bad luck.

Hungry ghost festival

Places to Visit

During the Hungry Ghost Festival, different parts of Singapore are abuzz with celebrations. However, the main action takes place in Chinatown. From the temples, shrines, to the streets, every part of Chinatown becomes lively with the rituals. Travellers can take guided tours offered by the Chinatown Business Association to gain insight into the religious and spiritual significance of this festival. Here are some of the places you can visit to experience the best of the Hungry Ghost Festival. 

Buddha Tooth Relic Temple & Museum
Buddhist devotees visit the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple & Museum during the month-long festival for purification rituals and religious services to honour the deceased ones. Head to the temple to witness the grandiosity of the Hungry Ghost Festival. 

Lorong Koo Chye Sheng Hong Temple
This Taoist temple is a must-visit destination during the Hungry Ghost festival. Here you can enjoy various special performances as well as the local cuisine, vegetarian bee hoon. At the temple, an auction of unlucky items attracts huge crowds during the time of the festival. 

Singapore Buddhist Lodge 
Buddhist devotees flock in huge numbers to the Singapore Buddhist Lodge to honour their deceased friends and family members. They pray for the souls of the dead ones and offer food. Visit the place to get to experience the spiritual side of the Hungry Ghost festival.

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