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A window for those trapped in the spirit world

By Verghese Mathews - posted Tuesday, 11 October 2005

Cambodians last week celebrated one of the most important festivals in the Khmer Buddhist calendar - Prachum Benda, or as it is more popularly known, Pchum Ben, the Festival of the Dead.

This annual 15-day religious ceremony commences on the first day of the waxing moon of the Bhadrapada month (tenth month of the Khmer calendar which usually falls around mid-September) and culminates with the Pchum Ben Festival on the last day, which this year fell on October 3.

Central to the celebrations is the fundamental belief that not all living creatures are reincarnated at the moment of death; some are destined to remain in the spirit world for a period of time, because of "bad karma", before meriting reincarnation. These wandering spirits are called Pret(a), a Sanskrit/Pâlî word.


The Cambodian faithful believe that these spirits are presented with an annual opportunity to leave their confines in search of their relatives on earth - as it is only the living who have the means to help lessen the suffering of these spirits and hasten their personal reincarnation processes, by making merit on their behalf and by offering them food.

During the 14 days leading to Pchum Ben Festival, different families host services at their local temples. The families religiously record the names of their ancestors in a list that is maintained by the temple - a very important and necessary ritual as the belief is that the spirits cannot avail themselves of the offerings on their own initiative. They need to be invited, through the incantation of their names, to accept the offerings.

The term "Pchum Ben" may be loosely translated as "a gathering to make offerings". The main offering, an inheritance of Hindu religious practice, has traditionally been balls of cooked sticky rice, called “Bay Ben,” in Khmer phonetics.

Not all the sticky rice balls are of the same size, though. The belief is that some of the spirits with exceptionally bad karma are punished with small mouths. Hence the need to offer small balls of rice as well.

Likewise, there are some other unfortunate spirits who no longer have living relatives to offer them food or who have been neglected by their relatives. The Cambodian faithful remember them and satisfy their needs by throwing balls of rice in the temple grounds.

This act of kindness is especially poignant in a country where almost two million people, including many family groups, died during the Khmer Rouge era. These souls are silently remembered during the Pchum Ben period.


The faithful also believe that should the living not look after the needs of their dead relatives, which in Cambodia is unimaginable, it would mean that those unlucky spirits will continue in their existing state of unhappiness. The belief is that these spirits would obviously not take kindly to such neglect and that the errant living can be assured of a year of misery for themselves.

There is an associated Cambodian belief that if offerings are made at seven different temples, it would gain much merit for the spirits whose intensity of suffering would consequently be reduced.

In this context, although it is widely believed that the spirits will have no difficulty in locating their living relatives, there are those who will nevertheless travel to the temple their dead relatives frequented while on earth or to the one where their urns are kept and make the offerings there - just to be personally and doubly assured that they have fulfilled their bounden duty to their relatives for that year.

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About the Author

Verghese Mathews, a former Singapore ambassador to Cambodia, is a visiting fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

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