P’Chum Ben or Prachum Benda, which means ‘gathering together to make offerings’ (prachum-gathering together and ben-offering), is a major holiday in Cambodia. It is held on the 15th day of the waning moon (Ronouch) during the tenth month of the Khmer calendar, Pheaktrobotr, and usually falls in the first half of September in the western calendar. This year it began on September the 14th and ends on September 28. The 15 day lead up, starting on the waxing moon (K’nert) with P’chum Touch (the ‘small festival’) and ending with P’chum Thom (the ‘big festival’), is a busy one. During the period between the big and the small festivals Cambodian Buddhists take turns offering the monks, who are supposed to remain indoors on a three month dharma retreat, food. Each of the 15 days has a name and a purpose.
Incense and candles are lit before noon and the food is offered to the monks. The urns of ancestors, which are kept on site, are polished and bought into the viheara (the main chanting room) and their names are recorded on an invitation list so that they can receive the offerings. The list is then read and burned to guide the lost souls to their families.
The host family then join the monks to be blessed with sprinkled water and then for chanting and meditation.
The 15th day of P’chum Ben is for the priad spirits. Cambodians believe that although most living creatures are reincarnated at death some souls, due to bad karma, are not reincarnated but remain trapped in the spirit world. Each year these souls are released to search for their living relatives, meditate and repent. Priads are afraid of light and so can only receive prayers and food on the darkest day of this cycle, the day of P’chum Ben. Their living relatives offer food to those unfortunate enough to have become trapped in the spirit world and pray in the hopes of reducing their bad karma and eventually releasing them to be reincarnated. After the ancestors are reincarnated, they can then accumulate good karma on their own and can begin to look forward to achieving a peaceful inner spirit, which is the greatest blessing a living relative can hope for their ancestors.
Devout Buddhists believe that if they do not bring food for their ancestors to seven pagodas during P'Chum Ben, they will be cursed with bad luck.