A team from a local company burns paper offerings on a back alley in Singapore's China Town during the Hungry Ghost Festival. They consider their paper offering as being the biggest in the neighborhood, with a value of more than 1000 SGD. Companies often make paper offerings during the festival to seek prosperity and luck in the future. RNS photo by Alexandra Radu

Hungry Ghost Month animates the streets of Singapore

SINGAPORE (RNS) — This time of year, the streets of Singapore come alive with celebrations of Hungry Ghost Month.

Buddhists and Taoists throughout Asia believe the gates of  hell open during the seventh month on the lunar calendar. The ghosts of the departed come back to visit the living, who have a special opportunity to pray for their departed ancestors, leave them food offerings and perform other rituals to alleviate their sufferings.

The 15th day of Hungry Ghost Month — Sept. 5 in 2017 — is marked by Yu Lan, or the Hungry Ghost Festival.

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“In Singapore the Hungry Ghost Festival traditions represent a mix of Buddhism, Taoism and Chinese folklore,” said Terence Heng, a sociologist at the Singapore Institute of Technology.

Public walkways and green spaces become temporary religious spaces during this time of the year. Believers make roadside offerings and create makeshift altars for spirits that resemble temples.

The roots of the festival date back more than 2,000 years ago, when Mulian (or Maudgalyayana), a disciple of the Buddha, had a vision that his mother was suffering in hell. Taking the Buddha's advice, Mulian organized on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month a ceremony to redeem her soul by giving offerings and chanting sutras — texts of Buddhist scripture.

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Over the millennia, a tradition of offering paper objects developed — paper representations of things departed relatives might need or like that are burned alongside altars with food offerings. In Singapore the objects range from paper money to paper clothing, cars, houses, mobile phones or credit cards.

Individuals and families give offerings, but companies also organize ritual burning in hopes of ensuring prosperity.

For Buddhists and Taoists during Hungry Ghost Month, the line between the realms of the living and dead blurs. It is believed that the short time spent among humans will serve as an incentive for the ghosts to atone and lead better lives in future reincarnations. For the living, it is an opportunity to honor their ancestors.