Vu Lan Festival…of Spirit Month and Faith

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Vietnam is celebrating the month long festival of the hungry ghosts or Vu Lan festival now. Vu Lan which is also called Trung Nguyen, is closely connected to the Asian tradition of ancestral worship. In some of the other Asian countries too ‘All Souls Day’ falls on the full moon day or 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar. It is a time for remembering the departed souls and also a reminder to honour one’s parents.

Many Taoists and Buddhists believe that it is the duty of the living to appease the departed by offering food and effigies of daily used items to make their afterlife comfortable. Vu Lan is considered the second prominent traditional festival after Tet. It is interesting to know that “Vu Lan” is a Sanskrit-Chinese phonetic transcription of Ullambana (also called Vu Lan Bon). It means salvation or deliverance from suffering of the tormented souls. The festival has close similarities to the Khmer ”Pchum Ben”. Although there are differences in the customs and beliefs, the basic rituals and the spirit remain the same.

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Reason is our soul’s left hand, Faith her right.’ ~John Donne

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Blue plumes of smoke from the incense sticks, occasional gonging and its reverberation, the solemn atmosphere add to the mystical and prayerful mood of the pagodas.

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The Vietnamese take part in many religious and humanitarian activities during this period. They visit pagodas with votive offerings, burn incense sticks, release caged birds and fish to their natural environment, give alms to monks and the poor. They offer food and fruits to the wandering souls. Many who follow traditions stick to vegetarian diet during this Spirit month. This period is an occasion to express gratitude and filial piety to parents and forefathers. This is also believed to be the time for the King of Heaven to judge and mete out reward or punishment, hence people perform good deeds to earn punya or spiritual merits. People offer food, clothes and medicines to monks and nuns in the monasteries. Vu Lan is also celebrated as Mother’s Day by Vietnamese people to express their gratitude to their mothers.

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Caged to be freed…birds are released as an act of kindness.

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Faith spiralling up

spiral joss sticks hanging joyfully from the ceiling with prayer tags

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The Ghost Month is also usually associated with bad luck and people rarely start new a business; not many marriages would take place during this month. Though times have changed some follow these customs and beliefs. Back in Kerala too, the present month Karkidakam is considered inauspicious to conduct weddings or house warming ceremonies.

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Jade Emperor Pagoda, built in honour of the Taoist god the Jade Emperor or King of Heaven Ngoc Hoang, is one of the important places of worship in Saigon. It is believed that the Jade emperor decides who goes to heaven and who goes to hell.

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Thien Hau pagoda- the old Chinese pagoda

It was a fascinating experience to visit a couple of pagodas and observe the rituals being performed. As the general Vietnamese belief is that the departed ancestors continue to live in another realm, the living ones consider it their duty to make them happy and send them back contented. Vu Lan is an occasion to show gratitude and live righteously in response to all that your parents do for you.

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The furnace where joss paper money is burnt

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