Friday, August 26, 2011

Shanti a true Malaysian

By Chan Li Lin Sin Chew Daily

In the residential area where they live, many from the Chinese community know 49 year-old Shanti and her daughter Sharmala. Whether they are in the wet market or eateries, many residents will greet them with a smile whenever they come across each other.

Considering Ghost Festival as a blessing ceremony

The mother and daughter do not have a huge network of friends and they are not prominent figures. People know them because they are frequent visitors to the Ghost Festival celebration in South Puchong. In the latest celebration, it marked the seventh year they become volunteers at the festival.

At the venue of celebration, she is known as “aunty Shanti”. Her distinctive complexion also enables her to easily stand out in the crowd. By looking at the way she skillfully folds the incense papers, handles offerings meant for the spirits, as well as participates in religious rites with joss sticks in hands, it is hard to imagine that she is neither a follower of Taoism nor Buddhism. A Hinduism believer, she does not speak a word in Mandarin but many people feel that she is more sincere a devotee when it comes to the Ghost Festival, which is largely celebrated by the Chinese community.

“I’m a Hinduism follower and there is no such celebration in my religion. I consider the Ghost Festival as a blessing ceremony while the Guardian God of Ghosts is also a God of Protection. Blessing my sons who work abroad with good health and safety, He also protects my family so that we can enjoy a smooth sailing life journey,” she said.

Influence on children

Shanti began to serve as a volunteer ever since the first edition of the Ghost Festival was held in South Puchong. It all started by chance when her neighbour Guan Zi-ting, also the chairman of the ceremony, invited her to lend a helping hand leading up to the event. In the beginning, the mother of three had only one thought. Besides wishing that her children would be blessed with good health at all time, she also hoped that her sons who worked overseas could always come back safely.

Almost backed down in first visit to Ghost Festival

As marine engineers, both of her sons spend most of their time working on sea. When words reached Shanti that providing prayers and offerings to the spirits of the deceased could protect her family, she did not even hesitate to participate in the ceremony. It also didn’t cross her mind that the Ghost Festival would subsequently turn into an annual event for her. Moreover, her children also extend their help to make the festival a success because of her influence.

“I still remember I almost backed down when I first joined the event, especially after looking at the paper-made statue of the Chinese deity “Da Shi Ye”, or Guardian God of Ghosts. Initially, I was frightened by His fearsome appearance but became used to it later,” she said.

During the period when the Ghost festival is celebrated, Shanti arrives at the worshipping premise at 10am in the morning and will only take a shower at home at 7pm. After that, she returns again to offer her helping hand until midnight. Just like other volunteers, she is kept busy folding the incense papers. Holding joss sticks and on her knee, she often joins the prayers when rites are being held. Besides volunteering at the place of worship, she also brings incense papers home so that she can fold them at home. Folding 15 huge bags of incense papers during a single festive period remains her highest record.

Greeted with curiosity

Shanti admitted that it often serves up a surprise for strangers who come to know about her activity. She can still vividly remember that at one occasion, she wanted to utilize her waiting time by folding incense papers after sending her car for a maintenance service. Being concerned that the people around her might not be happy with her paper folding activity, she requested for permission before actually doing it.

“The worker took a glimpse of me and asked whether the paper offerings were meant for the dead. He thought I didn’t know! Within three hours, I managed to complete folding one large bag of incense papers. Many Chinese were curious and some didn’t even dare to sit beside me. I think they had over-reacted. For me, it is just a religious approach. Even though some may not understand it, they should treat it with respect,” she said.

“Despite being a Hinduism follower, I visit church, Chinese temples, Buddhist centres and other places of worship. In my eyes, there is only one God in this world and the people are only embracing different religions. We must not take to heart the differences in beliefs but instead, we should accept the differences,” she added.

“Distribution” ceremony is highly anticipated

A “distribution ceremony” taking place on the last day of the Ghost Festival sees the organizer distribute pouches to participants. The bags are being filled with rice and coins, which signify ample food and essential items. The ceremony is also the most eagerly anticipated event for Shanti during the festival.

“I’ve specially prepared a small rice bucket to keep the rice I receive every year. I think of the rice as a gift and ever since I bring the rice home, my family has always had enough to eat. Also, my children are healthy and things are going well in their jobs. Pretty soon, they will get the chance for a promotion,” she said.

Santi is not superstitious in regard to the traditional Ghost Festival. However, she deeply believes that if we are offering prayers from the bottom of our heart, our prayers will come true.

Win from “lucky numbers” a gift

“In fact, the festive event has resulted in many “magical” moments. For instance, I suffer from back pain because of prolonged sitting during the incense paper folding process. What I find “magical” is that every time when the festival comes to an end, the symptom will disappear in the following day. This is really inexplicable,” she said.

“Moreover, buying lottery on a regular basis is not a habit of mine but since I became a volunteer, I always place my bet on the “lucky numbers” awarded by the masters during the Ghost Festival. As a result, I manage to reap a harvest every year. Though I only win RM30 at times, the amount is not important to me as I see it only as a gift,” she added.

Distributing prayer items to neighbours, relatives

Every year, Santi distributes the prayer items to her neighbours and relatives in the hope to bring them luck and blessing. She even gave some of the prayer items to the reporter who interviewed her, stressing that she only wished for happiness and bliss for every person she knows by participating in the festival which is totally unrelated to her religion.

Sharmala, 20 years old, undergraduate: treated well by others

When I was a 13 year-old, I followed my mom and joined the Ghost Festival activities. My first thought was the people had gone crazy and my mom was one of them! The people were burning incense sticks and a statue of the Guardian God of Ghosts was being put on display. I felt uncomfortable, thinking that I didn’t belong there. Therefore, in the first two years, I was only there to accompany and support my mom.

After getting to know each other, the people no longer overlook my presence as an Indian girl. They will also give explanations on things that I’m curious about. Everyone is treating me as one of them and our relationships just get better and better. When we are folding incense papers, we can hear gossip in our community and I find it hilarious.

Some people think that burning incense papers and joss sticks during the Ghost Festival will bring about harmful effect to the environment. I’m a supporter of environmental protection but after thinking of it as an old tradition, I do not oppose to the activity as it is only carried out once in a year.

Guan Zi-ting, chairman of the South Puchong Ghost Festival: Embody the spirit of religion regardless of race

It is comforting to know that this Chinese cultural and religious activity has received support from non-Chinese.

Having leapt past the cultural and religious barriers, Shanti and her family are truly embodying the spirit of religion regardless of race.

The Ghost Festival celebration needs a lot of manpower and sponsorships. For instance, the help of women is needed in helping with the incense paper folding. Over the years, Shanti has made it an obligation to serve as a volunteer here.

During the festive event, four to five masters will lead a reciting ceremony everyday. Each time, Shanti joins the rites on behalf of the event’s committee. Her children are also helping out due to her influence on them.

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