Monday, August 11, 2014

Hungry Ghost Festival

I'm out of the U.S. again. After Singapore, I returned home to Virginia for seven weeks, before leaving again for new adventures in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan. I arrived around the beginning of the Hungry Ghost Festival, which is celebrated by Chinese communities around the world. Basically, some believe that the ghosts of ancestors come out during this month and in order to appease the ghosts, their living descendants have to offer them food and entertainment. I have seen people burning incense and offering small platters of snacks along streets in front of homes and businesses. There are a few superstitions surrounding this month - apparently you are not supposed to travel or move house. Oops!

Then I visited a large and famous temple called Longshan Temple to see some major festivities. The temple is a pretty big tourist attraction and has its own MRT station, but on the day I visited it wasn't swarming with international visitors, but full of locals paying respects to their ancestors' ghosts. 

The temple during the Hungry Ghost Festival is quite an elaborate and lavish affair. There are tables upon tables of various foods, from prepared meats and fruits to processed snacks and drinks. Upon entering the atrium, we saw tables full of whole cooked ducks and fish. 

There were pork parts (I think they were pork knuckles) decorated to look like bunnies.

Small dishes full of various dried foods, like red dates and wood-ear mushrooms, were also displayed prominently alongside stir-fried noodles and bottles of beer.

I'm unclear if there are clear rules about what can and cannot be offered to the ghosts. There was quite a diverse and seemingly random array of edibles, as can be seen below - boxes of sodas and biscuits, breads, chips. Some were perishable, some not, others seemed like they were half-eaten or already opened. It was a confusing but interesting assortment!

The strong smell of incense and its smokey haze filled the air in the temple, adding to the muggy heat of the summer afternoon. The intense heat was no joke - temperatures have been in the 90s since I've been here! Some days have had a "real feel" temperature of over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (adding in humidity and sun exposure to the air temperature).

The summer heat didn't seem to stop anyone from attending the ceremony at the temple. There were people of all ages praying and holding out incense sticks, from old wizened aunties in flowery flannel pants to young teenage boys with their earphones plugged in to their iPods. People were also reading from little books. I saw a few other tourists roaming around in the crowded temple with big DSLR cameras, but they were far outnumbered on this festival day.

Inside the main temple was some sort of ritual ceremony. Several monks were arrayed inside, playing traditional music and chanting and reading off of books. They used microphones in order to be heard by the mass of people in front and around the temple.

Some people crowded in at the front of the temple where they could see the monks sitting inside, others stood around the outside perimeter of the building, following along the chanting with their own books. There were segments where everyone broke into song.

At about 6PM there was a mass exodus of people out of the temple complex. Perhaps that is when the ceremony ended for the day. Around Longshan Temple are several popular night markets, and it seemed that they were extra crowded due to the influx of temple visitors. It was fun to come to the temple on such an interesting day and observe the local traditions. 

1 comment:

  1. This is really great information! Wonderful pictures, too! If you'd like a few step-by-step tutorials for these customs, like folding joss paper or making a floating lotus flower lantern, check out the guide I just finished: