Hungry Ghost Festival

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Have you ever heard of the Hungry Ghost Festival? 

The seventh month of the lunar calendar, referred to as "Ghost Month," typically falls around August or September in the Gregorian calendar. It's a time when the gates of the underworld open, and all the ghosts return to Earth. During this time, the spirits of the deceased are closest to the living, and the living perform rituals to honor the dead. These practices are deeply embedded in Buddhist and Taoist traditions, and the rites provide solace to Hungry Ghosts.

The lunar calendar is guided by the moon's phases. Each month starts at the new moon and lasts about 29.5 days. It's shorter than the solar Gregorian calendar (the West primarily uses this, i.e., Jan-Dec) by about 11 days per year, influencing global cultural and religious festivals.

From urban areas of Singapore to rural China, all across East Asia, you'll find communities burning incense and offering food to the dead. The concept of a hungry ghost is pretty intriguing, and the rituals performed for their benefit are as well. Let's take a brief look at the world of hungry ghosts, the Hungry Ghost Festival, and Ghost Month.

Origins and Historical Influence

The Hungry Ghost Festival's origins can be traced back to a blend of ancient Buddhist and Taoist traditions. The Buddhist roots go back at least as far as the Yulanpen Sutra (aka the Ullambana Sutra). 

A "sutra" is a religious scripture or text primarily associated with Indian religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. The word "sutra" in Sanskrit literally means a "thread" or "string". Metaphorically, it refers to a line or aphorism of religious teaching or a group of such aphorisms in verse or prose.

The Yulanpen Sutra was translated from Sanskrit into Chinese sometime between 265 and 311 CE, or at least that's the most common theory. If you go digging into sutras, you'll find a broad range of them with a history all their own. Some of the earliest may have been from 800-500 BCE, and even earlier Vedic texts called the Samhitas date from approximately 1500-1200 BCE—over 3,000 years ago.

A fiery blaze consumes paper offerings during the Hungry Ghost Festival, with lit incense sticks and candles in front and a pile of vibrant paper effigies waiting to be offered against an early evening backdrop.
Hungry Ghost Festival.

In the Yulanpen Sutra, a disciple of Buddha called Maudgalyayana discovered that his mother had fallen into the realm of Hungry Ghosts, suffering a great hunger and thirst. Budda instructed Maudgalyayana to make offerings to the Buddhist Sangha on the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month to relieve the suffering of Maudgalyayana's mother and other wandering spirits.

The Buddhist Sangha refers to the community of Buddhist monks, nuns, and lay practitioners. Established by Gautama Buddha, it's an essential part of Buddhism, serving as a living example of Buddhist teachings and guiding followers. The Sangha is one of the Three Jewels of Buddhism, alongside the Buddha and the Dharma (teachings), and varies in practices and traditions across different Buddhist sects worldwide.

The story of Maudgalyayana laid the foundation for the Hungry Ghost Festival, which is now a longstanding practice of venerating ancestors and offering sustenance to spirits. Over time, the Buddhist tradition blended with Taoist rituals and began to include more direct interaction with the spirits to comfort them in the ghostly realm. As the festival grew, local customs and practices were integrated throughout East Asia, leading to diverse practices and observations across cultures. Some now have community gatherings, operas, getai performances, auction dinners, and much more.

Getai is a lively, colorful stage performance traditionally held during Ghost Month in Singapore, Malaysia, and areas of Indonesia as part of the Hungry Ghost Festival. It features singing, dancing, and comedy, catering to the spirits of the deceased and living audiences. Read more about opera adaptations of the story of Maudgalyayana in Mulian Rescues His Mother.

At this point, you're probably wondering what exactly a hungry ghost is, or at least asking why ghosts might be hungry at all. If you engage with a lot of horror and don't know much about hungry ghosts, then the natural conclusion might be to hide out during the entire Ghost Month. After all, you wouldn't want to become a featured dish on the afterlife cooking show "Ethereal Eats: Today's Fresh Mortal Morsel."

What Are Hungry Ghosts?

Hungry ghosts are talked about and depicted in a wide array of ways, depending on which part of the world you look at. In general, though, they typically are said to have an insatiable hunger and/or thirst, often for a particular substance or object. This concept also seems to be a metaphor for intense desires and attachments (while living) that can lead to suffering.

A vibrant 'Dai She Ye' paper effigy standing amidst festive decorations at the Hungry Ghost Festival in Bukit Mertajam, Penang, Malaysia - August 2018, featuring intricate patterns and colorful adornments symbolizing prosperity and good fortune.
Bukit Mertajam, Penang, Malaysia - August 2018 - The 'Dai She Ye' paper effigy in Penang during the Hungry Ghost Festival.

The hungry ghosts can appear in various forms, sometimes with exaggerated, grotesque features like small mouths or tiny throats, thin necks, and bloated bellies—characteristics that symbolize or portray their attempts to satisfy their cravings. People who are greedy in life are at risk of becoming hungry ghosts in the afterlife, endlessly craving but never able to satisfy their lingering earthly desires.

To further expand on the physical descriptions and provide some nice nightmare imagery, here are a few ways in which various hungry ghosts have been described. The hungry ghosts with tiny mouths frequently have needle-like necks, and because of the size of their mouths and constriction of their necks, it makes it impossible for them to ever consume enough food or drink to satisfy their cravings. The ghosts with bloated bellies are also always hungry because their stomachs are so huge that they can never be filled. Another type of hungry ghost has flaming mouths (or throats), so everything they try to consume turns into flames or ash, causing constant pain and preventing them from ever being able to consume food or drink. There are even more, like hungry ghosts covered with oozing pus and blood, showing internal corruption. Others are described as emitting incredibly foul odors, a stench that reflects their spiritual impurity and the negative actions of their past lives. Yet another type has animal-like features, like the head of an animal, that symbolize a specific desire or attachment they had while alive.

All these sound awful to be trapped in for eternity, so you can imagine why the living would try to help them.

Lit red candles and incense sticks stand amongst an array of traditional food offerings and floating joss paper during the Hungry Ghost Festival, with a vibrant red and gold paper boat symbolizing the journey of ancestral spirits.
Offerings for hungry ghosts.

The practices may not all be altruistic, though, because hungry ghosts are said to pose a danger to the living. Some traditions believe hungry ghosts can influence the living by instilling similar cravings and attachments.

The ghosts lucky enough to have offerings from family go home, and those without offerings from family roam around looking for something to eat or drink. This is why people offer sacrifices for their ancestors and pay tribute to unknown, wandering ghosts.

Festival Practices, Rituals, and Symbolic Meanings

I've mentioned food offerings already, and you'll find things like traditional local dishes, fruits, and sweets. Some say that not only do these offerings feed the ghosts, but they also ensure blessings and protection from spirits. In addition to food, burning incense is common among cultures observing the Hungry Ghost Festival. The rising smoke carries prayers and messages to the spirit world and creates a bridge between the living and the dead.

In Chinese traditions, paper effigies, including "ghost money" ("Joss money"), are also common. Paper items (including "ghost money") often have intricate designs, which are burned to ensure spirits have all they need in the afterlife. In some cultures, the festival includes releasing water lanterns. The lanterns symbolize an illuminated path for lost souls, guiding them toward a peaceful afterlife. Other parts of the world have live performances (like getai) where front rows are left vacant for spirits.

Exploring traditions throughout the world provides the opportunity to learn cultural traditions other than our own and gives us a greater understanding of one another. We're all connected by threads, not just in terms of commerce but our histories, traditions, and beliefs. If you take a look at the world through a lens of curiosity, you might be surprised at how many things out there resonate with you or have similarities to a local tradition near you.

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