Friday, October 8, 2010

Cambodians remember the dead at annual festival

Every year, Cambodians remember the dead during Pchum Ben. The two-week ceremony will soon be coming to an end and the spirits of the dead will be released back into hell.

For the past dozen days, Cambodia's Buddhist temples have been full each morning with people dressed in their finest silk clothes, and weighed down with offerings of food and flowers.

People believe that during this annual festival the spirits of the dead are released from hell and able to visit this world.

Families take food and gifts to thousands of pagodas across the country, where monks chant prayers for the souls of those who died.

The Venerable Hou Sarith is a senior monk at Wat Langka, one of Phnom Penh’s most important temples.

He says that Pchum Ben is a particularly poignant time for many Cambodians because the Khmer Rouge, which ruled the country in the late 1970s under Pol Pot, caused so many deaths that hardly anyone was left unscathed.

"Many families in Cambodia today who take part in Pchum Ben lost relatives under the Pol Pot regime."

The war crimes tribunal that is currently underway estimates that as many as 2.2 million people died under the Khmer Rouge from a population of around eight million.

Offerings for deceased relatives

Va Kimchheang, a civil servant, has visited nine pagodas to pray and leave offerings for her deceased relatives.

"I lost many relations under the Pol Pot regime," she says. "My aunt and my brothers, and there were others too. I was very young at that time, so I don’t remember it well."

Va Kimchheang has come to Wat Langka with her two young children, who have both lit incense for family members they never had the chance to meet.

Upsetting though it is to talk about her loss, Va Kimchheang says that remembering the dead in this way makes her feel better.

"The spirits get all of the food that we offer to the monks. The young generation makes a wish that the spirits who are in a bad place go to a better place, and wishes for those who are unhappy to be happy."

During this 15-day ceremony, the temple gates open before dawn. Beggars gather at the gates to receive alms, and vendors sell garlands of flowers and incense sticks.

Taking part in the ceremonies online

However, not everyone can get to the country’s temples. Many Cambodians live overseas, in the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia for example.

The Venerable Hou Sarith has come up with a solution for them - they can join in online. His laptop is logged in to a chat room that he set up last year. Some days he leads the services; other days his colleagues in other countries do.

He says the chat room has brought together Buddhists from across the world to listen to the Pchum Ben sermons.

Away from his room, incense hangs heavy in the air and mixes with the sound of monks chanting prayers.

It will be the same again tomorrow, with the monks ensuring that the spirits looking for food continue to get sustenance before they are recalled to hell for another year on October 9.

Author: Robert Carmichael (Phnom Penh)
Editor: Anne Thomas


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