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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Night of the hungry ghosts

Night of the hungry ghosts
by Wan Chwee SengThe heady fragrance of incense that mingled with the acrid smell of burnt joss papers wafted across the night air to the neon-lit apartment’s living room. From a nearby makeshift stage came the deafening blare of music that was certain to wake up the livings and probably the dead. It was the night of the hungry ghost festival and a concert , known locally as ‘getai’ was being staged to entertain both the dead and the livings.

A 'getai' performance

On that day, the 15th day of the 7th month of the lunar calendar, the local Taoists and Buddhists believe the gates of the lower realm will be opened to allow the wandering spirits to wander the earth in search of food and entertainment.

From high above the apartment’s window at Toh Yi Drive, Singapore I noticed a fairly large crowd had already occupied most of the seats in front of the brightly-lit stage, however, the front row remained vacant. These seats, I was told, were specially reserved for the ‘honoured guests‘. With the din, glaring light and incessant flow of traffic I wondered if they would be filled.

As I gazed with interest at the scene below me, I recalled a story  my elder brother told us about an incident that involved him and our cousin, Fook, during the night of the hungry ghosts. 

It was the mid-fifties and we were then living in the small village of Batu Berendam, Melaka. Six wooden houses with palm-thatched roofs that stood a few hundred metres apart constituted our neighbourhood. A dirt track, flanked by dense undergrowth and towering palm trees, ran from our house to the narrow main road. Darkness came fast to this village as electricity had yet to come to our village. On the night of the hungry ghost festival, as soon as dusk set in, the children were hastily ushered into the houses and we were warned not to venture outside as the wandering spirits which could assume human or animal forms, we were told, would lure us away and those who were not rescued on time could even be spirited to the netherworld at the end of the seventh moon.

So, as obedient children we sat in the dimly-lit room and peered through the half-opened window at the darkness beyond while our young minds conjured ghostly images. Unknown to us, my brother and Fook had slipped quietly out of the house and made their way to the village Chinese temple located about half a kilometre away. The temple which stood on a low hill was already brightly-lit up with Chinese lanterns and red candles while the greyish smoke of joss sticks in incense burners plumed skywards, filling the night air with their fragrance. Before the effigy of the ’King of Hell’ was an altar on which was placed various food offerings together with miniature paper items and joss paper

Food offerings

My brother and Fook joined in the night's festivities with the mostly adult devotees.. At last content with the excitement of the night, they decided to sneak home before anyone noticed their absence .

When they emerged from the temple, darkness had already enveloped the countryside. Although there was no street light, the road before them was clearly visible as above them an August moon shone brightly in a cloudless sky. As they trudged along the deserted road all they could hear was the sound of their own footsteps and the incessant hums of the myriad insects. From within the few wooden shops at the road junction only the faint glow of oil lamps could be seen through the cracks of the wooden walls. The residents were either at the temple or had retired for the night.

The moment they turned onto the dirt track leading to the house, they began to tread gingerly as the path was pitted with potholes and they had to be wary of snakes that were fond of basking in the warmth of the path. 

Suddenly, a slight movement in front of them caught their attention. A murky shape straddled their path. They stopped dead on their track. As their eyes adjusted to the pallid light, they saw something that sent a chill down their spines. Hundreds of ‘snakes’ blocked their path. The mass of writhing, glistening serpentine bodies were endlessly criss-crossing the only path that led to the house

'Snakes' criss-crossing their path

Mustering all their courage they leapt across the snake-liked shapes, sprinted the few metres to the house and burst breathlessly into the safety of the house. Brother was not affected by the night's incident, but Fook was taken ill and had to seek the help of Ali Mat, the village shaman, whose holy water was a panacea for all illness.

Worried that they would be reprimanded for disobedience, they kept the night‘s incident to themselves. It was only years later that they told us about the incident. Today, more than fifty years on, they still remember vividly that night _ the night of the hungry ghosts.

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