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Photo credit: Mark J. Sebastian
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The most important festival on Cambodia’s annual calendar, Pchum Ben, is coming up this month with a three-day national holiday to be held from 19 to 21 September. The national holiday comes on the tail of 15 days of ritual ceremonies in which families get together to pray and make offerings in order to help release up to seven generations of their ancestors from a gruesome state of limbo in which they become “hungry ghosts” unable to satisfy their sordid appetites.

Pchum Ben is translated as a “gathering together of sticky rice balls”, referring to the Bay Ben that are intimately tied in to the festival rituals. Made out of rice, sesame, coconut and sometimes beans, the little balls are offered to the monks who become a sort of vehicle from the living to the dead, transmitting the rice balls to help the hungry ghosts relieve their hungers, and also to help them build up sufficient merit to release them from their punishments. And the punishments are spectacularly awful.

In their state of purgatory, the “hungry ghosts” (“preta”) must fulfil a destiny defined by suffering, passing their days with cavernously empty bellies and narrow straw-pipe throats through which nothing can pass while they yearn for things they cannot have, and only find relief in the most disgusting elements.

In The Buddhist Conception of Spirits, Bimala Churn Law vividly describes a preta who had brought about a miscarriage in her rival.

“Her heart was burning and fuming with hunger and thirst and yet she had not a drop to drink. The only food on which she was subsisting was the flesh of her dead son, mixed with blood and pus”, he said, before carrying on with a gruesome series of foulness, humiliations, cancers and depravities uniquely designed to reflect the sins that had been committed by the hungry ghost while he was alive.

The one positive aspect of all this is that, unlike the eternal suffering imagined by Christians, redemption and mercy are possible. Each year at the time of Pchum Ben, the gates of hell open up and the ghosts are released. If they have accumulated sufficient merit thanks to the actions of their families, some are able to leave and fulfil their karma through reincarnation.

The unfortunates who haven’t gained enough merit to balance out their sins must return to continue their purgatory, perhaps until the next time.

It is in effect a ritual of redemption in a “festival of the dead” that is considered unique in the world thanks to its fusion of animist, Chinese and Hindu traditions, laced with Cambodia’s strong spiritual sensibilities.

For so many Cambodians, it is the most widely anticipated of all of the festival holidays, for which they pack up their best clothes and head home to re-unite with family and old friends in the towns and villages in which they grew up.

All of Thalias’ outlets will be open at our usual hours throughout Pchum Ben.