Qingming (Tomb Sweeping Day), Tangra, Kolkata
Qingming (Tomb Sweeping Day)
Tangra (New Chinatown), Kolkata
Also see: My blog post on Calcutta (Kolkata) Chinatown
Qingming or the Tomb Sweeping Day is held on the 15 th day after the spring equinox and normally falls on 5 or 6 April.
On this day the Chinese pay tribute to their ancestors by cleaning the tombs and offering elaborate food spread in front of the graves. It can be considered as the Chinese version of the All Souls’ Day.
According to legend Quingming is part of the Cold Food Festival introduced by Duke Wen of Jin, who wasthe ruler of the state of Jin during 636 to 628 BC. During his years of exile Jie Zitui had loyally followed him. It is even said that once he even cut meat from his own thigh to provide the Duke with soup.
When Wen returned to power, Jie considered his services no longer required and resigned. Although Duke Wen was generous in rewarding those who had helped him in his time of need, he long passed over Jie, who had moved into the forest with his mother.
Duke Wen went to the forest in 636 BC but could not find them. He then ordered his men to set fire to the forest in order to force Jie out. When Jie and his mother were killed instead, the duke was overcome with remorse and ordered three days without fire to honor Jie’s memory. This led to the Cold Food Festival. The city erected over the former forest is still called Jiexiu (Jie’s rest).
The present celebration of Qingming is credited to the Emperor Xuanzong. Wealthy citizens in China were reportedly holding too many extravagant and ostentatiously expensive ceremonies in honor of their ancestors.
In AD 732, Emperor Xuanzong sought to curb this practice by declaring that such respects could be , formally paid only once a year, on Qingming, which coincided with the second day of the Cold Food festival.
Today apart from Qingmin the Chinese also pay tribute to their death on the occasion of Hungry Ghost Festival or Zhongyuan Festival.
Both these festivals are 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 and Tomb Sweeping Festival. Choong Ye Thong Cemetery is the largest and the grandest of the six cemeteries of Tangra.
The Qingming festival generally falls on 4 or 5 April and since it is not a holiday in India, the Kolkata Chinese shift the celebrations to the nearest Sunday. In 2017 5 April was a Sunday and the festival was held as per schedule and I was there to witness the grand spectacle at the Choong Ye Thong Cemetery in Tangra (New Chinatown).
Elaboratee food spreads were led in front of the graves. the spread consisted of exotic fruits and nuts, wines and bear bottles, candies, boiled vegetable, meat & fish. 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.
Today many of the Kolkata Chinese prefer to cremate their dead and the after cremation the ashes are stored in Chinese Temples or Monasteries. Hsuan Tsang Monastery in Paschim Chowbaga is one such monastery.
The ashes are kept in vaults, resembling bank lockers. The used chambers, containing the ashes in a urn, are sealed off and name of the deceased written in Chinese along with the year of death.
On the occasion of Qingming the Kolkata Chinese visits the Hsuan Tsang Monastery and elaborate food spreads are lead down in front of the respective chambers.
With more and more Chinese leaving for greener pastures the Chinese festival like Qingming are loosing their essence. With the revival of the Calcutta (Kolkata) Chinatown on the cards, we can hope that these festivals will be restored to their former glory.