Volume 1 No.4

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Phchum Ben Festival Of The Dead
By: Moul Vongs ( September, 2001 Volume 1 No.4 )

On the 15th day of the waxing moon during the tenth month of the Khmer calendar, called Pheaktrobotr, Cambodian Buddhists celebrate Bonn Pchum Ben _ the Festival of the Dead. This celebration usually falls in the first half of September in the western calendar. This year it falls on September 17. But the festival does not just begin and end on one day. In fact, it lasts 15 days, each of which is called a day of Kan Ben. A Ben is an offering. During the first 14 days, people takes turns offering food to the monks of their local pagodas in the hope that their offering will reach the souls of their ancestors and friends by virtue of the monks' sermons. The word of Ben is derived from Sankrit pinda, or balls of rice to be offered to the souls of the dead. The tradition is an ancient one. Inscriptions in stone left by King Yaçovarman (889-910) tell us that he built numerous monasteries during that period, and that pinda were offered on a monthly basis, not only to "abandoned souls" _ souls with no family to make offerings to them _ but also to souls of combatants who had died for their country. All religions were banned during the genocidal Pol Pot regime (1975-79), and religious followers killed. Under its dark reign, the regime killed at least 28,000 Buddhist monks and destroyed 3,968 pagodas. Many former pagodas as well as mosques, churches and other sacred places were turned into prisons, torture rooms, pig farms or manure depots. But after Cambodia found peace, the festival was revived, and today it is celebrated in 3,731 pagodas housing 50,873 monks across the country.
The present-day Ben are balls of glutinous rice, cooked in coconut milk and mixed with various ingredients according to local customs. The way a Ben is held also differs slightly from locality to locality. The final day of Pchum Ben is the most important for all followers. On this day, all Khmer Buddhist followers, the rich as well as the poor, manage to prepare food and other offerings for their visit to a pagoda. On this day, at every pagoda around the country, the mass collection of offerings (Bens) is dedicated to the souls of ancestors. If this duty is ignored, it is believed that the soul is cursed and will haunt the neglectful descendents for the rest of the year. Each year, State and private company employees are given a one-day holiday to observe this vital duty.

In the early morning of the last day of the Pchum Ben Festival, visitors can join the throngs at the pagodas and take photos of local people of all ages in traditional costume. Women especially, don their best traditional dress, and come wearing their silk Sampot Hol Sampot Phamuong, embroidered blouses and scarves and bearing offerings, candles and incense sticks. Num Onsam and sweet Num Korm (steamed cakes wrapped in banana leaves) are taken to pagodas during the festival to share among participants. Num Onsam is a kind of cylindrical cake of glutinous rice wrapped around a mixture of pork, salt and other ingredients. Num Korm is shaped like a pyramid and made of rice-flour and filled with a coconut and palm sugar mixture. Money raised among Buddhist followers and offered to monks _ on this occasion and during other cultural and social events _ goes towards the construction or renovation of it (temples) and community developments such as the construction of bridges and schools, tree planting projects, or as donations to needy families. Khmers believe that fraternal feelings are fostered with the exchange of food and Num Onsam and Num Korm cakes. This ensures that visitors to any pagoda during the Pchum Ben festival will be warmly welcomed and invited to taste these cakes and enjoy the festivities.