Once a year, the Lion City comes alive with the spirits of the dead. Sounds contradictory? Well, maybe it is. On the seventh month of the Lunar Calendar, the Hungry Ghost Festival is celebrated throughout Singapore to satiate the spirits who are believed to come back to the land of the living.
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. On the fifteenth day of the Lunar Month, the realm of the hell down below is believed to open along with the realm of the living. Being trapped between the spiritual realm and the living world, the spirits of the deceased are unable to eat or drink. Hence, they revisit their former homes to seek food for a month. After all, nothing beats hunger, right?
Tale behind the Hungry Ghost Festival
The origins of the Hungry Ghost Festival are 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.
How is the Hungry Ghost Festival Celebrated?
The sweet scent of incense fills the air, papier-mâché models are built and burnt, stray fires light up the dark alleys, and delicious food adorns the altars outside houses. To a person who is not familiar with the rituals of this festival, taking it all in at once may be a bit of a challenge. However, these are the very rites which make the festival stand out from the rest.
The hungry ghosts with ravenous appetite throng the living world to eat to their fill and to receive the presents offered to them. These ghosts from the underworld are said to be the ones who did not receive any religious tribute after their deaths. To compensate for this failure, the family members of these spirits offer prayers, burn papier-mâché houses, mobile phones, televisions, cars, and joss paper money to please them and ascertain a prosperous afterlife. In addition to the delectable food items offered to the ghosts regularly at home as well as in the streets, a grand feast is also hosted for them on the fourteenth day of the month. On this day, people bring in a variety of dishes like special cakes, rice, roasted meat and fruits, and offer them to sate the ghosts and ward off any bad luck that may be making its way towards them. To guide the wanderers back to the afterlife, paper boats and lit lotus-shaped lanterns are set afloat in streams and seas which is a sight to behold in itself.
Revelling with the Revenants
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.
Be Vigilant with the Visitors
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.
When do the Hungry Ghosts Step in?
The seventh month of the Lunar Calendar, also referred to as the Ghost Month, is entirely dedicated to the spirits of the dead. The fifteenth day of this month is regarded as the Ghost Day. As for 2018, the Ghost Festival falls on the 25th of August.
The Hungry Ghost Festival is held throughout the Lion City and primarily in and around Chinatown. The Chinatown MRT Station is right at the heart of the district. Also, Clarke Quay, Raffles Place, Tanjong Pagar and Outram Park are all just a short walk away from Chinatown.
Witnessing the spine-chilling, supernatural Hungry Ghost Festival should definitely be on your wishlist. With lavish feasts, vivacious merriment and unconventional rituals, you are bound to have an unforgettable experience. So save the date, celebrate, and come back with many stories to tell!