The witches, ghosts and monsters will very soon be walking amongst us — on the 31st of October, to be specific.
As Halloween — a day with its origins rooted in the Celtic festival of Samhain, which is now known more popularly as an American holiday — draws closer, let us journey through other similar festivals that honours the dead and are celebrated in Asia.
Hungry Ghost Festival
The Hungry Ghost Festival is the most popular Halloween-like festival in Asia, especially in China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia. With its roots in Taoism and Buddhism, Hungry Ghost Festival is celebrated in the seventh month of the Chinese Lunar calendar, also known as the Ghost Month. It is believed that during the first 14 days of this month, the gates of hell open, and spirits are freed to visit the living.
During this period, the living honours the dead by burning incense and offerings, preparing food, and in some countries, like Singapore, performances, known as “getai”, which includes music and dance, are put up for the spirits to enjoy. It is common to see offerings, such as paper money, hell notes, lavish paper depictions of cars, houses, and more, burnt for the spirits. At the end of the month, when the gates of hell are believed to be closed, the living will burn more offerings for the spirits to use in their afterlife. Monks will also perform chants to encourage the spirits to return to their world.
Similar to the Hungry Ghost Festival, the Japanese have their own ways of honouring their ancestors. Rooted in the Buddhist religion, Obon is usually commemorated for three days on the 15th day of the 7th month of the solar calendar. During this period, ancestral spirits are welcomed back into the homes, and offerings are placed at the altars and graves. Obon is celebrated with traditional dances, lighting up lanterns to be placed at the front of the house, and even fireworks in some areas to welcome the spirits back and to send them off when the Obon period is over.
Traditionally celebrated by the Cambodians, Pchum Ben is a 15-days Buddhist festival marked on the 15th day of the 10th month in the Khmer calendar. The idea behind Pchum Ben is to honour the ancestors and for families that are still living to gather for reunions. During Pchum Ben, it is believed that the spirits return to Earth to receive offerings from the living, to get some relief from the torments of hell. These spirits will visit the pagodas, where their relatives would have placed dedicated food and offerings for them and would bless them upon receiving these offerings. However, things can take a darker twist if the spirits do not receive any offerings or food from their living relatives and curse them.
In India, Pitru Paksha is commemorated by the Hindus for their ancestors and souls who may not have found peace in death. For between 15 to 16 days, it is believed that their ancestors will come and visit the living to give blessings to their families. Various rites and rituals will be performed, such as holy baths, preparation of specific food to be offered to their ancestors, and prayers. The specially prepared food will be offered to animals, such as cows, birds and dogs, and priests and family members. It is believed that if a crow shows up and eats the food, the offerings are considered to have been accepted by the spirits.
Celebrated by the Hindu Balinese, Galungan is commemorated every 210 days for ten days. These festivities are symbolic of two reasons: to honour their ancestors who visited the Earth during that period and celebrate the victory of good over evil (dharma over adharma). The Balinese celebrate the event with much enthusiasm and colours, with the sacrifices of pigs and chicken, preparing feasts, having get-togethers with their families, and enjoying themselves. The ancestors are also honoured through prayer rituals, with the living making promises to continue honouring their linage and committing to a better tomorrow.
These festivals are just some of the many that are celebrated in Asia to honour the departed. While some are commemorated in strict adherence to traditions, others have evolved to include colourful festivities for the living to enjoy. It is interesting to note that some of these events have also taken a digital spin, especially due to COVID restrictions, as monks and priests connect with their followers through digital platforms to perform rites and rituals!
JapanSingaporeIndonesiaChinaIndiaMalaysiaHong KongCambodiaHalloween in AsiaHungry Ghost FestivalPchum Ben CambodiaPitru Pashka IndiaGalungan Bali