Ullam-bana Festival

Date:  the 15th day of the seventh lunar month

The 15th day of the seventh lunar month every year is "Ullam-bana Festival" or "Zhongyuan Festival," and in some places it is also called "Ghosts' Festival" or "Shigu." It is a festival from Buddhism and also a day to offer sacrifices to the ancestors. People believe that the hell is governed by Diguan Dadi. Every year on his birthday, which is the 15th day of the seventh lunar month, he will open the door of hell and all the ghosts will come to earth. Then people will be able to provide food and drink for them as a kind of comfort.
Ullam-bana comes from Sanskrit. It originated from a Buddhist ritual and means "to rescue the inversely hung." It is said that a disciple of Sakyamuni saw his mother being hung inversely in the hell and he thus asked the Buddha to release her soul from purgatory. Sakyamuni told him to prepare a hundred kinds of food for all the Buddhist monks in that area on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month so that his mother will get released. This is the beginning of "Ullam-bana Festival."

People began to follow this custom from the Liang Dynasty in the South and North Period and it gradually became the "Zhongyuan Festival." Later apart from providing food for the monks, activities like "baichan" and "fangyankou" are added into the customs. When it comes to the day, the seat of fashi (the person who carry out the ritual, usually a Buddhist) and the shigu platform will be prepared beforehand at the door of the village. Before the seat of fashi is the Kitigarbha Bodhisattva whose job is to release the souls of the ghosts in hell from purgatory, and dishes of flour peach and rice are laid below. Three memorial tablets and an evocating flag are standing on the shigu platform. When it comes to the afternoon, every family will put the cooked pig, sheep, chicken and duck and all kinds of cakes and fruits onto the shigu platform. The leader will stick a striangle paper flag of different colors in each offering, and the paper may read "grand ritual of Ullam-bana" or "the door of hell is open," and so on. The ceremony starts in a piece of grand and solemn religious music. Then the fashi takes the lead to strike the muyu ( a wooden stuff stroke by monks when chanting sutras) and chant incantation. After that flour peaches and rice are scattered in all directions for three times. This ceremony is called "Fangyankou."
When the night descends, every family will burn incense to the Buddha on the floor in front of the door. The more, the better. It is called "butian," which indicates that the crops will grow well.
"Drifting river lanterns" is also necessary on Zhongyuan Festival. A "river lantern" (water lantern) is a lantern fixed on a small board. They are often made of colorful papers and are usually shaped as lotuses. These lanterns will be lit up and placed onto the river. "Drifting river lanterns" first started from monasteries and then got popular among common people.According to the traditional point of view, river lanterns are drifted to guide the spirit of those who died unjustly. When the lantern goes out, the mission of guiding the spirit across Naihe Bridge ( bridge which the dead people should cross in the Buddhist legend) is done. People believe that Zhongyuan Festival is a festival of ghosts, so it is also necessary to put on lanterns and celebrate for them. But since ghosts are different from people, the lanterns in Zhongyuan Festival should also be different from those in Shangyuan Festival (Lantern Festival). As a result, lanterns in Shangyuan are lit on the land, while be closed to give way to the ghosts. In the middle of every street there will be a table to place fresh fruits and "ghosts' bread" every hundred paces, with Taoists singing some "songs for ghosts" which people can barely understand. This ceremony is called "Shiger."
Nowadays, this festival isn't very popular among people and just appears in some grand ceremonies in monasteries. Instead, it developed a lot after spreading to Japan and has become a great activity which is only second to the New Year Festival in Japen.