Families praying at Wat Botum, Phnom Penh during P'chum Ben.
According to Theravada Buddhism devotees here in Cambodia, sometime in the 10th month of the Khmer calendar (September in Western calendar) every year, the spirits of their ancestors and departed ones will be released from their spiritual world to roam the world of the living for 15 days. These spirits will roam aimlessly on earth in search of their families and loved ones for a reason.
Sounds scary enough? Well, not really. If you start to imagine the images of gory looking spirits such as those portrayed in Asian horror movies coming to haunt mortals, you're dead wrong (no pun intended). P'chum Ben, in Khmer simply means gathering together to make offerings. In fact, this festival, which is also known as the Feast Festival for Ancestors or Festival of the Dead, are celebrated each year with a lot of pomp and circumstance, only in a quiet, respectful and polite manner.
Here, the Cambodians hold ceremonious rituals steep with old tradition in order to invite, receive and welcome them, even though some are regarded as pret (souls of criminals or those who have committed despicable sins of killing, robbing or maltreatment of parents while alive).
You see, Buddhism preaches that all living creatures are reincarnated but due to bad karma, some souls remain trapped in the spiritual world and only during these 15 days, they are allowed to be released to the mortal world in search of their living relatives who carry out prayers, meditation and performing offerings to the temple and monks, in order to help redeem their souls and be reincarnated. Thus, freeing them from the torment and misery of the spirit world and eternal damnation.
A little crash course on P'chum Ben at Wat Botum
In the last few days, I had the opportunity to visit a temple or pagoda as the locals refer as (Wat Botum) in Phnom Penh to observe and learn about the rituals. It is obviously a very significant event in the Cambodian calendar since three full days of public holidays are declared to commemorate this.
I have learned that P'chum Ben holds three significant purposes. Apart from "feeding" the pret, commonly known as hungry ghosts, it is a time for Buddhist monks to retreat in their pagodas for three months which coincides with the rainy season. During these three months, the monks are expected to engage in intense study and practise the dhamma (the teachings of Buddha). Also, because traditionally in the villages, agriculture lands became muddy as a result of torrential rains, the monks stayed in to stay away from stepping on crops. This "quarantine" period also enables teachers, students and the public to gather in one place in order to foster unity and bonding.
Another purpose is to provide an opportunity for family members to pay their respect to the deceased, pray and ask for the blessings of good health, prosperity and good fortune from their ancestors. By offering food and money to the monks and temples, it is hoped that they will receive good karma and redeem the sins of the hungry ghosts.
Cambodians take these rituals seriously as they believe that by not carrying out such obligations, it will anger their ancestors and in return, bad luck will befall them. However, in some ways, this festival is slowly becoming more symbolic and celebrated more for the purpose of family and community bonding.
"You want to know about Buddhism?"
When I was at the temple, I was a little bit apprehensive about my presence being a nuisance to the others. After all, I looked rather shabby while everyone else was dressed in their best. Women normally wear the traditional clothing of white long sleeves lacy top, ankle length silk sarong and silk scarf wrapped across the torso (see pictures above). Many carried with them bouquets of flowers, stalks of lotus flowers, food hampers or tiffin containers.
I was just holding my camera and poking my nose in every corner to take pictures and asking questions.
In the end, I had really nothing to worry about. People were warm, friendly and polite. In fact, they mostly left me alone and concentrated on what they were there for.
A man approached me after observing how intrigued I was with all the camaraderie in the temple. He asked me excitedly, "You want to know about Buddhism?" Slightly embarrassed, I told him that I am a Buddhist (which I am, on paper at least) but would appreciate if he could explain the significance of some of the rituals I observed in the temple. He looked pleased and with his limited English, struggled to explain to me what P'chum Ben is all about.
However, here are some of the things foreigners should observe in order not to cause any offence or discomfort to the locals while in the temple:
1) Greet the person in charge at the entrance of the temple (to earn brownie points, greet them with your palms facing and touching each other and hold them at chest level with a genuinely warm smile) and explain your intention for the visit. Always ask permission whether it is allowed to take pictures. In Cambodia, this is generally not a problem at all.
2) Dressed decently. Albeit looking shabby, I made sure that I wore long sleeves and pants.
3) Remove your shoes or slippers or hats before entering the temple.
4) Keep a low profile and be as quiet and polite as possible.
5) When sitting down on the floor (there are no chairs in the temple), crossing one's legs is a faux pas. If you notice all the statues of Buddha, he is sitting cross-legged and so for the Buddhists, only Buddha is allowed to do that and us, mere mortals, should always sit with our legs tugged together by the side or under our weight.
6) Make a donation to the temple even if it is only a small amount. This is seen as highly respectful and hence will be equally appreciated.
Now, once I was in the temple, I felt loss because many things seemed to be happening at the same time. There were numerous groups of people at different sections catering to different tasks or rituals. As groups of family thronged in progressively, they all went through what appeared to be sequence of rituals to be followed at a time.
Some monks were stationed at different places, either to collect the offerings of money or food or to offer blessings to families. There were a group of monks sitting by the side of the temple, chanting prayers. The sound was pleasant and gave a calming effect in addition to the aromatic smell of incense burning in almost every part of the temple.
In fact, these ceremonies are being conducted every single day for fifteen days which then culminates in a larger scale on the last three days. However, during the days leading up to P'chum Ben (15th day), referred to as Kann Ben (hosting in Khmer), families take turn to host services at the temple.
Prior to such services, families make a series of careful preparation which include taking out the urns of ancestors traditionally kept in the pagodas to be polished and brought to the viheara (the main chanting room of the temple). Names of ancestors and the departed ones are recorded on an invitation list in order to allow the spirit to receive the offerings. Without an invitation, the spirit is unable to find his or her living family.
The host family and guests will then join the monks in the viheara to meditate and chant. Monks then pass on the Buddha's teachings as well as blessings and guidance to those present. During this time, Buddhists reaffirm the five precepts of Buddhism; 1) refrain from destroying living creatures, 2) refrain from stealing 3) refrain from sexual misconduct, 4) refrain from inappropriate speech such as lying, malicious words, etc. and 5) refrain from the intoxication of drugs and alcohol.
A feast not to be missed
At the back of the temple, a group of women and children attended to the distribution of food brought by families in metal tiffin containers, while being supervised by a group of elderly women. It was a colourful and mouth-watering display of rice, bread, soup, fish, vegetables, fruits and of course the inevitable seasonal num onsam (cylindrical cake of glutinous rice stuffed with a mixture of pork and other ingredients wrapped in banana leaves, only available during P'chum Ben).
Other items such as saffron robes, dried or preserved food, umbrella, toiletries (referred to as the four necessities) were offered to the monks in brightly wrapped packages.
I squatted by the food display to take some pictures and silently prayed that nobody would think that I was showing too much interest on the food offerings. Occasionally, I tried to talk to some women to find out what the food was for and what they were but all of them shook their head and smiled politely, indicating they didn't understand English. Ah well, there is always the internet to help me with some research.
More spiritual rituals
When I stepped out from the temple, I saw women and children taking turns to sprinkle handfuls of uncooked rice on a mound of rice on the floor already formed by previous visitors (see pictures above). Money and small paper effigies were stuck into the mound. Apparently, these uncooked rice thrown on the floor are reserved for the pret and considered not "worthy" enough. They were separated from other cooked rice scooped into alms bowls situated in another corner of the temple's exterior.
A row of about 30 black alms bowls were arranged meticulously on a wooden table, sheltered from the wind and sun by a tent made up of pieces of sheer saffron cloth creating a rather spiritual atmosphere. A plastic saffron coloured plate was placed in front of each bowl to collect money (see pictures below).
At the table, devotees would queue up and one by one, distributed cooked rice from their tiffin containers, one spoonful for each bowl, not more, not less. When they were finished with the rice, they would then distribute money in fresh new notes (usually 1,000 riel, about USD0.25) by dropping them on the plastic plates.
The ritual didn't end here. There was one more place to visit before I called it a day.
Looking for some kindness and compassion
Close to the tent, a group of scruffy looking children were gathered around a rectangular wooden fence, some holding paper effigies while others tiffin bowls filled with sand. There were also women sitting on the bare tarmac, nursing their babies in the heat of the sun. These women and children are either homeless or beggars.
They were there to attend to this corner where devotees sprinkled sand and water on 5 conical sand formations on the floor (perhaps indicating ashes to signify the dead), offered prayers and then dropped money into the alms bowls by the side of the sand formation. Paper effigies and burning incense were also stuck into the sand (see pictures below).
When the people were done with this ritual, the women and children would gather around them and reached out to their generosity and kindness. At other times, these beggars are usually ignored but not today. Today, it is an opportunity for people to do some charity and to earn good karma.
Some of the boys tried to sell me paper effigies and they were rather persistent. I politely refused since I had no use for them. Cute little girls of about 4 or 5 years old tugged at my ankles, giving me those puppy looks which could melt anyone's hearts.
Unfortunately for them, my heart has been hardened from the years spent in countries worse off. Please do not get me wrong. It is still a heart wrenching sight to see these children and mothers struggling to make ends meet but I would rather give them food so that they could directly benefit from them rather than having to pass on the money to someone above, which is often the case.
I would like to have a fish, please.
On my way out, I was greeted with a more uplifting atmosphere. A man was selling ice lollies to children at the entrance of the temple. He had this old bicycle with all sorts of traditional contraptions and bottles of brightly coloured syrups to flavour the the lollies (see pictures below). He was very popular as children gathered around him, waiting patiently for their turns to bite into the sweet tasting cold crunchy ice, the ultimate cure for a hot day.
I watched him as he skilfully grated a large cube of ice on a grater attached to a bar on the bicycle. He then scooped the ice up from the bottom of the grater, filled them up in a plastic cup, followed by pouring in the syrup and finished off with a quick trickle of condensed milk. On demand, he would sometimes create beautifully shaped ice lollies; a bird or fish from metal moulds. It was really a delightful sight and I became obsessed with photographing his work of ice sculpture.
He was a good sport because as soon as he saw me taking an obvious interest in what he did, he would pose for me with the end product of a brightly coloured iced bird of paradise. My eyes would sparkle brightly and I couldn't stop grinning from ear to ear. The people watching from a distant would all laugh at my expression in amusement.
Then with the help from a young woman, who fortunately speaks Mandarin, I asked the man for his name. In Khmer, he told the woman that he didn't want his name to be known. Alright then, fair enough. So I asked her to ask the man how long has he been doing this for a living. He told her, 25 years!
I then asked the woman whether what the man does is common in Phnom Penh and she told me that they are all over the city. I hope such charming tradition will continue to thrive in the city for a long time.
In return for his good spirit, I bought a cup of ice from him. I was tempted to request for a fish but I thought, let's not steal the fun from the children. Let them retain their right to have something special.
More than just a feast for the spirit, it is also food for their souls
I left the temple feeling glad that I had made the effort to crawl out of bed early that morning. While eating my crunchy ice as I walked slowly towards the Royal Palace, I felt that my life has been enriched by simply taking an interest to learn about the different culture and tradition practiced by the locals here in Cambodia. While being a non-practicing Buddhist, I had never really taken an interest to learn about the traditions that come with it. It took me a journey to Cambodia to finally learn a little bit about it.
I have also learned that human beings possess great tenacity to move on and start afresh. By preserving such tradition, they also gain some form of peace in remembering the millions of people who died as a result of the cruel Khmer Rouge regime. We may not understand or agree with these practices due to our own beliefs or principles but if it provides them with a sense of comfort and peace, why not?
By making offerings, they learn to reconcile with the past and hope for a better future.
Above all, they continue to cherish the memory of their past in the presence of their living loved ones. Such is the spirit of P'chum Ben (again, no pun intended!).
Written on 1 October 2008.