Pchum Ben is one of the most important the annual traditional festivals. Cambodia celebrates this festival from generation to generation and never misses it. It usually falls in late September. It is held from the first day of the waning moon in Putrobut month to the last day which takes 15 days according to Khmer lunar calendar. The ceremony from the first day to the 14th day is called "Kan Ben or Dak Ben" including Ben one, Ben two, etc. ", and the 15th day, last day of the festival is termed "Pchum Ben". The word Pchum means gathering, and Ben, Pali word means ball of rice. Therefore, the word Pchum Ben means gathering or meeting of rice ball or Bay Ben in Khmer. Khmer people believe that Pchum Ben festival is to offer Bay Ben to dead relatives and ancestors who are not know whether or not they are already release from hell and reborn.
Pchum Ben festival is originally related to Chaol Vassa festival (interring the rainy season) and the Kathin festival. According to venerable Um Sum, long ago Buddhist monks had to walk everywhere to ask for alms no matter how bad the weather was. Later during his reign, King Jayavarman, a strong advocate of Buddhism supported and provided Buddhist monks with the four requisite: clothing, food, shelter and medicine. The king realized that when the monks walked to ask for alms during the rainy season, they encountered heavy rain, thunderstorms, lightning and violent winds. The monks could not walk and fell down on the muddy paths. The king felt great sympathy for them and so asked them not to go for alms for three months every rainy season. And he appealed to all his compatriots to offer food, and other basic needs to the monks for this period. Also, Buddhist followers explained that there was much merit in offering alms to the monks. As a result, more and more people offered the four requisites to the monks. This trend led to the creation of another bible about Pchum Ben festival. The bible read that there was a powerful senior monk who could visit the blazing hell. When he arrived there, an open lotus as big as a wooden wheel of a Khmer ox cart appeared for his ride. He could fly about hell without suffering from the blaze. The creatures of dead person were very impressed by his visit and gave him a very warm welcome. The monk preached to them. Before he returned, those creatures asked the monk to inform their living relatives that they were suffering from hell fire, starvation, and diseases. The living relatives should offer monks the four requisite in order to release them from this suffering. On his return the senior monk conveyed the message to the king. The monarch ordered that all people celebrate Kan Ben, which lasts 15 days to dedicate merit to dead relative during the rainy season. The Kan Ben and Pchum Ben tradition has existed since then.
III- Why Do Khmer People Prepare Rice Cakes For Pchum Ben?
Many people wonder why we prepare only rice cakes- the cylindrical ones [sticky rice preserved with pork and mung beans or banana wrapped in banana leaves and boiled and pyramidal ones. Khmer people originally practiced Brahmanism, and latter they switch to Buddhism. However, Brahmanism still influences their religious observances. It is believed that cylindrical rice cakes symbolize Shiva that is in the form of phallus (Linga), and pyramidal ones stand for Uma, Shiva's wife in the form of vulva-shaped emblem of power. They are the god and goddess of Brahmanism. On the other hand, it is explained that Buddhist followers offer too much food to monks during the Pchum Ben. The monks could not consume all the food at one time. Some food may become spoilt. Only rice cakes could be kept for a long time by grilling them. The other most common dish is clear noodle soup or fried Chinese noodle because dead relatives may become Brat [evil spirits] with a gigantic body but with a very small mouth. It is believed that (according to Brahmanism) they can eat only food like noodles.
IV- Why DO People Throw Rice Ball [BAY BEN] At Dawn?
People gather at about 4:00 am and walk around the temple in a procession led by a Buddhist priest. Meanwhile, they say prayers and throw Bay Ben in the direction away from the temple. They believed that evil spirits especially those who have no living relatives are released from hell to come to pagodas to receive food from their relatives at night. They to go back to hell before sun rise. These spirits are in the form of such a big, tall body that they can step over the temple. However, they dare not do so due to the fear that they commit more sin. They would stand crying and asking for food. They would visit seven pagodas to look for their relatives, and get food from them. If they can't see them at one of visited Watts (Wats), evil spirits will impose curses on their relatives. That is why living relatives do their best to offer food, much or less during Dak Ben and Pchum Ben although they have difficulty making ends meet themselves.
To make the story short, Bun Dak Ben or Kan Ben and Pchum Ben is the testimony of practicing our Khmer traditional customs. These customs and traditions make Cambodia a distinct nation in the world.