Pchum Ben- Cambodia’s Own Festival

 

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Wat Onalum during Pchum Ben

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The skies turn deep blue with fluffy clouds scattered here and there, the air is filled with festivities; yes, it’s Pchum Ben (Ancestors’ Day) time. Cambodian culture and history fascinated me with the passage of time and I found immense joy in learning more about the customs and traditions of this culturally rich land. This is my third year of Pchum Ben experience. First Pchum Ben had happened soon after our move to the Kingdom of Cambodia and the festival failed to arouse much interest in me as my stubborn, rebelling mind was struggling to accept the change of place; I missed the charming Saigon dearly. Slowly my interest in this country and its people took new dimensions and I could find beauty and joy in the architecture, the customs and traditions, the clouds, the birds, the sun rises and sunsets, the landscape and everything around me. Cambodia is a land of many festivals and Pchum Ben, a 15 day long festival, is a unique one. Pchum Ben, celebrated as per the Khmer lunar calendar, is a religiously and culturally significant festival of the country. The festival starts with the waning moon and ends with the waxing moon of the 10th month of the Khmer calender. Usually it falls in mid September or early October.

 

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Young and Old visit the pagoda with cooked food, rice, money

flowers, incense sticks, candles and so on

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This festival is a time for reunion of family members; it is also a festival of remembrance, rituals and celebration. Pchum Ben is celebrated in memory of the deceased relatives, to pay respects to them, please them and receive blessings from them. The king of Death, Yama allows the deceased souls (‘preta’ or the ‘hungry ghosts’) to visit their relatives on Earth. Like Hindus,  Buddhists too believe in reincarnation (also in karma and nirvana). Those people with bad karma go to hell and they wait to enter the cycle of reincarnation. The offerings made by the living ones will make it easy for the souls to enter this cycle. The relatives of the deceased indulge in giving selfless offerings during these 15 days (for some souls the visit to earth is temporary, but some other souls receive purgation after the fifteen days). By doing good karma they help the departed to lessen the degree of their sufferings. People make sure that the spirits are fed well and left the earth without cursing the living.

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Solemn atmosphere at the pagodas- praying for the souls

A reunion time too

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Receiving blessings- the priest sprays holy water.

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Offerings or Ben (which is believed to be derived from the Sanskrit word ‘pinda’) made of rice balls mixed with sesame seeds (Bai Ben) and sticky rice balls with coconut milk, banana, moong bean etc are prepared for the spirits. This very nature of the custom has a striking similarity to the Hindu custom of ‘pitru bali’. The Bai Ben or the rice balls with sesame seeds, the Cambodians offer their spirits, are very much the same as the ‘Thilodakam’ (rice balls with sesame seeds) Hindus offer the souls of their loved ones on the Shradham day. Hindus believe that one year on earth is equal to one day in the spirit world, so by doing Shradham (offerings given annually on the day a dear one departed from this world) the relatives are feeding them every day. In Kerala ‘pitrubali’ is performed on ‘Karkidaka Vaavu’ too, the Amavasi (no moon) day that falls in August-September, when dakshinayana period begins. It is generally believed that if you honour the departed on this day they are easily pacified and pleased. Since Hinduism is generally a way of life, there are no hard and fast rules that you should believe or follow these rituals. Cambodians faithfully observe their beliefs and rituals every year. The act of Pchum (gathering together) reaffirms and strengthens the relationship among the living too.

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Night view of the river side during Pchum Ben

During the last three days of this festival majority of the Cambodians religiously visit their provinces and give offerings at the local pagodas. They wear their traditional clothes, mostly white and silk. There are mass gatherings at the pagodas on the fifteenth day. Rice balls or Bai ben are thrown around for the hapless souls with no relatives alive. Looking back, the Cambodian history has this black phase of Khmer Rouge reign when many families were wiped out from the face of the earth. This very well justifies their belief in wandering spirits!

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Feeding the spirits

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Preparing food for the monks during this fortnight is a major part of Pchum Ben. People prepare rice and many delicacies and carry them to the pagodas; this would eventually bring ‘merits’ (merits or punya- Buddhists belive that good deeds, thoughts and actions bring them merit points and a percentage of this is transferred to the spirits of their ancestors) to them.

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A Khmer food-carrier and other goodies for the monks

Incense sticks, oil, flowers,uncooked rice, grocery are all offerings. The dead souls are believed to visit seven pagodas and during Pchum Ben, the Khmer people visit as many pagodas possible for them. I was a little hesitant to click the photo of the monks gathered inside the pagoda (though the Cambodians never find it a sign of disrespect).

There are many legends and stories related to the origin of Pchum Ben. One very reliable one  says that in ancient days the Buddhist monks who had to go on foot to seek alms, had to face the adverse weather conditions during the heavy rainy season. King Jayavarman who was a strong supporter of Buddhism sympathized with the monks and appealed to the people to provide the pagodas with food and other stock during Pchum Ben and there by earn merits .

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 Rice heap resembling Mt.Meru (small sand mounds are also seen)

Pagodas receive money as offerings

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Sticky rice cakes(Nom Ansom) are a special delicacy people prepare for the monks. These are rice cakes wrapped in banana leaves. These rice cakes stay fresh for more than a month and need no refrigeration even in the tropical climate. Rice cake rolls wrapped in banana leaves are steamed with various ingredients. Nom Ansom Cheik is the sweet one with palm sugar, grated coconut and banana inside. Nom Kom is with moong beans and palm sugar and Nom Ansom Cheruk is with pork inside! (Buddhists in this part of the world eat meat) Pagodas receive a lot of money during the festive season. The donations are used for the renovation of the pagodas, welfare of the needy, construction of schools and so on.

Sticky rice cakes made with rice flour, coconut and palm sugar wrapped in banana leaves

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All these honouring feasts for the ancestors prompt me repeat  ‘Blessed are ye the spirits of Cambodia!  Your descendants respect you well (‘Blessed are you the spirits of Cambodia https://rethyravi.wordpress.com/2013/12/17/144/).

I sincerely wish and believe that with the same earnestness people treat and regard their Old. This year too people are celebrating Pchum Ben with the usual verve and zeal. Most of the shops, markets and restaurants would be closed for three days  and people are thronging at the pagodas.

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Buddha idols at Wat Langka, Phnom Pemh

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At Wat Onalum

Buddha outside Wat Svay Pope, Phnom Penh

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Pchum Ben offerings at a pagoda on Bokor mountains

Another surprise during this Pchum Ben was to see a big banner depicting some characters- Shravan Kumar, his blind and old parents, Ram, Sita, Laxman- from the epic Ramayana, outside this pagoda. To my disappointment I could not understand the relevance of this episode from the classic.

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The next in line of festivals is Bon Om Touk or the Water Festival in November, which marks the change in the flow of Tonle Sap River. After a gap of three years the festival is back in Phnom Penh. Looking forward to this magnificent festival.

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