Festive prep keeps spirits up


By ARNOLD LOHG.C. TAN

(From left) Gan and Hendry Chong,36, working on the paper sculpture of a hand for the Tai Su Yeah effigy at the Mergong Tow Boo Keong Devotees Association in Alor Setar, Kedah.

THE denizens of the netherworld are now walking among the living for many Chinese people.

Since Tuesday, these woeful beings have a month of wandering in the human world to feast and perhaps gain some respite from their sufferings.

The Hungry Ghost Festival has gone on for thousands of years, rooted in Taoist and Buddhist folk cultures.

From now till Sept 19 (seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar), many Chinese will burn joss paper and lay out food along roadsides and in temples as acts of compassion in the belief that hungry ghosts will find sustenance and succour.

Huge bags of joss paper ingots add colour to the otherwise drab and aged Campbell Street Market in the heritage enclave of George Town.

Huge bags of joss paper ingots add colour to the otherwise drab and aged Campbell Street Market in the heritage enclave of George Town

Buddhists also make offerings to monks and transfer merits to ancestors, relatives and all sentient beings for them to seek liberation from woeful realms.

A look around the northern region shows that preparations for the celebrations have begun more than a month ago.

In Kedah, members of the Mergong Tow Boo Keong Devotees Association have been hard at work since early this month building a 9.82m statue of the King of Hell, called Tai Su Yeah in Hokkien or Yama in Buddhist Pali language.

The fearsome-looking effigy is the work of self-taught craftsman Gan Kheng Leong, 57, who made it 10cm taller than last year’s.

“I used bamboo strips for the frame, which were fastened with adhesive tape.

“The body parts will be attached together part by part with adhesive tape and wire,” he said.

The temple has been building the Tai Su Yeah effigies for devotees to pray during the Hungry Ghost Festival since 2010.

Weighing more than one tonne, the effigy is believed to be one of the tallest in the country built for the Hungry Ghost Festival.

It will be on display until Sept 2, after which it will be burned in a conflagration of tens of thousands of joss paper ingots.

In Penang’s George Town Unesco World Heritage Site, such ingots have been heralding the festival since June.

Huge bags, bulging with thousands of joss paper ingots, dangle overhead and add colour to the otherwise drab and aged Campbell Street market in the heritage enclave.

Fishmonger Mary Chiew, 60, said a group of old women living nearby had been helping to fold the joss paper bought by the market traders since June.

“We must have thousands of them to burn, so they needed time to prepare,” she said.

She said all the ingots would be burned on Sept 12.

“We worked it out with the various associations celebrating the festival early every year. Each association will do our main prayers on different dates so that we don’t clash,” she added.

Along with the bonfire of joss paper, Chiew said the traders would prepare a feast, ranging from fruits to beer to roast pig, to be offered to hungry ghosts.

Historical studies have found that the Hungry Ghost Festival, while deeply rooted in Chinese folklore, originated from Buddhism especially from the Ullambana Sutra in Mahayana Buddhism.

Buddhists believe that hungry ghosts, called ‘peta’, are not specifically hell beings.

Instead of being allowed to enter the human realm once a year, they exist on the same plane as humans but in a different dimension.

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