China, Japan, Singapore, Thailand

Tales of Asia’s Hungry Ghosts by Amy Van De Casteele

Many Asian countries, such as Thailand, China and Japan, while being cultural and ethnic melting pots, are still for the most part rooted in Buddhist beliefs. One of these beliefs revolves around the various realms of existence, which include Hell, the animal realm and the God realm, akin to Christianity’s Heaven. However there is another disturbing level of existence reserved for gluttons and addictive personalities – the realm of the hungry ghosts. The neglect or desertion of your ancestors can lead you to inhabit this realm after death according to Chinese beliefs, but another way souls reach this realm, unsurprisingly, is by being very greedy in their mortal lives, whether this meant a greed for food, money, drugs or even sex. Now trapped in hungry ghost form they are tormented by their insatiable desires which can never be fulfilled.

Hungry ghosts come in slightly different forms and have different features depending on the country but in terms of their general “physical” appearance they are quite uniform, said to resemble rotting corpses with bloated pot bellies – in other words, they look grotesquely ugly and anyone who sees them finds themselves rooted to the ground in terror. Often these ghoulish creatures are cursed with tiny mouths, the size of pin-heads, and thin spindly necks, preventing them from eating the food they so desperately desire.

In Japan there are two forms of hungry ghost, named jikininki and gaki. Jikininki translates as man-eating ghosts; these hungry spirits are doomed to spend their afterlife searching for human corpses, which they then devour, emerging every night after sundown on this grisly mission – despite the fact that, in some moral vestige of their souls, they despise themselves for it. Gaki are the spirits of greedy, malicious and jealous people cursed with an overpowering hunger which leads them to constantly search for sustenance, even stooping so low as to eat human faeces. In modern-day Japan gaki is also a remonstrative term for a spoilt child, while for hundreds of years Japanese Buddhists have devoted a day in mid-August to giving offerings and remembrances to these doomed souls in the hope that they might be saved from their eternal anguish.

Elsewhere in Asia, such as China and Singapore, there are fully fledged Hungry Ghost Festivals, such as the one held during the 7th month of the Chinese calendar. During this month it is believed that the gates of Hell are opened and the hungry ghosts are allowed to escape from their wicked realm and indulge their greed in the our mortal world, eating the offerings and taking the paper money and goods left for them by their human descendants. Special entertainments such as concerts and shows are held during this month, and the front row of seats is usually reserved for the hungry ghosts so they can enjoy uninterrupted views. During the evenings incense (representing prosperity) is burned outside homes and shops, and altars are erected in the streets behind which Buddhist monks chant special “ghost songs”. At the end of the festival lanterns are lit and placed outside homes or in running water to guide the ghosts back to Hell; supposedly when the final lantern has gone out all of the ghosts are back in their immortal realm.

Because of the country’s Buddhist beliefs and strong Chinese influence, Thailand has its own Hungry Ghost festivals such as the Por Tor Festival in Phuket Town, and Thai people have a firm belief in “Pret” (เปรต), the incredibly tall, pot-bellied hungry ghost of Buddhist folklore. They also believe in a wide variety of other ghosts, some of which could fit into the “hungry” category, such as the evil female spirit known as Phi Pop, which eats human entrails. After the massive devastation and destruction of the Boxing Day tsunami it was quite widely believed that the affected Thai beaches and coastal towns were haunted by hungry ghosts, as the souls of people killed prematurely can turn into these sometimes vengeful spirits. So widespread was this belief, people from other Asian countries stopped booking holidays to the region and Buddhist monks conducted cleansing ceremonies in the affected locales in order to propitiate the spirits and send them on their way.


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