Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival, Chinese All Souls’ Day
Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival
Chinese Equivalent of the All Souls’ Day
Also see: My blog post on Calcutta (Kolkata) Chinatown
The gates of Hell have opened and the ghost are out to dine on the exotic feast laid out in makeshift tables in front of their horse – shoe shaped graves. Its the the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival, the Chinese version of the all souls’ day.
According to ancient Chinese tradition the seventh month of the Chinese calender is known as the Ghost Month. The gates of Hell are said to be open through out the month. Ghosts and spirits are said to roam the earth looking out for food and entertainment.
These ghosts are believed to be ancestors of those who forgot to pay tribute to them after they died, or those who were never given a proper ritual send-off. They have long needle-thin necks because they have not been fed by their family. Family members offer prayers to their deceased relatives, and offer food and drink.
Although Buddhist in origin, many of the rituals of the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival are Taoists in nature.
The month long festival is celebrated in three stages. On the first day of the month, ancestors are honored with offerings of food, incense, and ghost money – paper money which is burned so the spirits can use it.
The 15th day of the Ghost Month (which is a full moon day) is the Ghost Festival, sometimes called Hungry Ghost Festival. This is the day when the spirits are in high gear. It’s important to give them a sumptuous feast, to please them and to bring luck to the family. Taoists and Buddhists perform ceremonies on this day to ease the sufferings of the deceased.
The last day of the month is when the Gates of Hell are closed up again. The chants of Taoist priests inform the spirits that it’s time to return, and as they are confined once again to the underworld, they let out an unearthly wail of lament.
Celebrated by Chinese through out the world the and the Chinatown in Calcutta (Kolkata) is no exception.
The Chinese settlement of Calcutta dates back to the late 18th century when a Chinese trader, Tong Achew settled near present day Budge Budge.
The then Governor General of India Warren Hastings offered Achew land and he set up a sugar mill complete with a sugar plantation. Achew soon brought a band of Chinese workers for his sugar project. But Achew died soon after & his mill was soon abandoned. The Chinese also deserted the place, which later came to be known as Achipur, after Achew.
Although first dwindling in number the Chinese still form an integral part of the Calcutta’s diversified heritage and houses two Chinatowns at Tiretta Bazar (Old Chinatown) and Tangra (New Chinatown). Tangra also houses six Chines cemeteries, the centre of attraction during the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival. Choong Ye Thong is the largest and the grandest of the six cemeteries of Tangra.
The Choong Ye Thong club one of the largest of the Calcutta Chinatown club also own the Choong Ye Thong Temple at Meredith Street and also the Tian Hau Templ, which is among the six Chinese Temples of Tiretta Bazar.
In 2013 the Chinese Hungry Ghost Day was scheduled on 20 Aug. The Chinese of Calcutta (Kolkata) scheduled the celebration according to their own convenience. The Lees of the Choong Ye Thong club celebrated the day on 11 Aug. (Sunday). I was specially invited by my Calcutta (Kolkata) Chinese friend Dominic Lee, who have been my friend, philosopher and guide in unlocking the secrets of Calcutta Chinatown.
The event was scheduled to begin at 7 am and I reached the Choong Ye Thong cemetery about 15 minutes before the scheduled time.
It was the height of monsoon and the ground of the cemetery was muddy with puddles of water, which submerged some of the graves partially.
The Chinese were yet to arrive but the several of the local boys were engaged in cleaning the graves. One by one the Chinese started arriving and candles and incense sticks were lit in front of the graves.
The banquet spread was also laid out on make shift tables, some of which were raised above the accumulated water level by the help of bricks.
The banquet consisted of exotic fruits and nuts, wines and bear bottles, candies, boiled vegetable, meat & fish and not to mention the whole roasted pig!!!!
The rituals continue with the chants from holy Chinese religious text occasionally interrupted by the burst of fire crackers (Kali Patka).
The rituals also includes the burning of Ghost Money or Joss Paper. This is not actual money but have some resemblance with the notes used in the game of monopoly. According to Chinese belief the burning this money is the only option of sending the money to their deceased ancestors.
The festival ends with the distribution good luck money to the local children, who had a tiring day in cleaning up the graves. These children also provide a helping hand in carrying out the rituals of the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival.
They are also given some portions of the food. The rest of the food is carried to the respective clubs for consumption.
Sadly the spectacular event of Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival is over within two hours, but its only a shadow of the event that was held decades ago in Calcutta. The night time event of catching a ghost in a bamboo basket has long stopped.
Today the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival is a major tourist attraction in cities like Hong Kong, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. Food stall and concert like performance have turned the age old Chinese festival into a major tourist draw.
With the revival of the Calcutta (Kolkata) Chinatown on the cards, can the age old Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival be turned into a tourist attraction!!!!