Pchum Ben Festival in Cambodia
Annually celebrated nationwide, Pchum Ben is an exclusive Cambodian religious, social, cultural festival. It relies upon the belief in either karma or reincarnation, in which a large majority of Buddhist followers residing in Cambodia have so far involved. It is said that those with bad karma are unable to be reborn and become hungry ghosts trapped in the spirit world, whereas those having no bad karma can be reincarnated at death. In case, the person commits lots of good actions during lifetime, he/she can even go up to the heaven and live as a god with no reincarnation. This ceremony actually permits the spirits to take steps into a peaceful way in both life and death cycles, including reincarnation.
Through its colloquial name, the whole ceremony is called Pchum Ben by most Cambodian citizens, while in English it is denoted as Ancestor’s Day – the duration in which any souls are released from hell to find their living families and repent. The term “Pchum” in Khmer language is referred to “a meeting or gathering”, while the word “Ben” is defined as “a ball of something”, including rice or meat. In Angkorian era – the period when people obeyed animism, prior to Brahma or Buddhism, this ceremony took place.
Every year the actual dates for celebration, following the lunar calendar, are not the same. Nonetheless, something definitely similar is the duration for the entire ceremony celebration, which accurately lasts 15 days from nearly the end of September till early October. Day 1 to 14, which is regarded as Kan Ben, starts from the first day of the waning moon in Putrobut month, while Day 15, the last day of the ceremony, is called Ben Thom.
Within Kan Ben – 1st to 14th day, villagers make offerings – providing Buddhist monks with food plus candles at temples, while the great offering, in which all family members take flowers, and kids offer meal, sticky rice cake and gifts to the monks, is on 15th day. Mostly, Khmers travel to their hometowns for family gathering on the last four days of Pchum Ben since they are determined as public holidays throughout the country, while those born in the city just go to pagodas for praying. Some even indulge themselves; in addition to traditional activities, by visiting relatives’ houses or any resorts to melt their stress from work away, while the others just stay in till the end of the holiday.
What are Khmers supposed to do before, during and after the festival then? The night before the celebration, villagers usually come to nearby pagodas for decoration and preparation. And in the early morning prior to the arrival of dawn, during Pchum Ben, everyone cooks rice and, in their palms, forms Bay Bens – the balls of sticky rice with sesame; including various ingredients based upon local customs, cooked in coconut milk.
When everything is ready, any offerings, including Bay Bens, are taken to the temples. During the existence of the dawn, everyone starts to take part in a ceremony, which convenes the spirits of the dead, performed by the Monks at the Vihira. At a certain point within the ceremony, they all walk around the Vihira three times; scattering and throwing the Bay Bens on the ground to offer to ghosts.
Some afterwards return inside and participate in the monks’ chanting, while others stay outside in the pagoda compound; lighting candles and incenses and placing Bay Bens as well as other offerings to the Buddhist gods, the deceased whose families are absent and those who have no families to commemorate them. For ghosts with heavy sins, they cannot actually receive food during daytime at all; depending on the belief.
When morning appears, food is cooked, from simply to elaborately, by Khmer Buddhists and then taken to the pagodas. It is said that preparing food for the Buddhist monks is an act of merit transferring to relatives’ souls; also known as hungry ghosts. Those with jealousy, envy as well as greed within lifetime tend to become hungry ghosts after death. Many believe that the food can be transferred from the monks to their ancestors, while it is believed by some that those foods, during Pchum Ben, are transferred to the spirits directly. Providing food to hungry ghosts is also believed to ease any agony.
Besides forming, scattering and throwing Bay Bens, people even construct grains of rice and sand into five mounds, which are considered as Mount Meru – the area where Buddhist gods stay. When the morning passes, each individual then just comes back home and enjoys lunch with relatives. During night-time, Buddhist monks recite a protective prayer, while traditional music, like Yike and Lakhon Basac, is performed by Khmer artists.
During Kan Ben and Ben Thom, living families, albeit the difficult living situation afterwards, always try their best to provide as much food as plausible to the dead due to the belief that curses will be imposed on them by their relatives’ souls in case the spirits of the deceased cannot find them to obtain food at one among seven pagodas they have been to.
To sum up, Pchum Ben festival has a deep meaning in the hearts of each and every Khmer Buddhist. To keep this culture alive, the annual celebration of Pchum Ben is a must, while all the traditional activities must have been practiced from one generation to the other. Young people, as a matter of fact, are strongly encouraged to be a part of the festival rituals in order that they can obtain the knowledge on how to adhere the traditional activities, such as forming and scattering Bay Bens, visiting pagodas to make offerings and pray for luck, etc., at the end of the ceremony and keep on doing them for the future sake of their families.