The Story of the Festival Goes...
The story of the festival dates back to the time of the Buddha. Maudgalyayana, a disciple of the Buddha, meditated and much to his misery, found that his mother was suffering a great in hell. He sought the Buddha's advice in this matter since he wanted his mother to get rid of all the sufferings. The Buddha advised him to offer food to the dead. This proved fruitful as Maudgalyayana succeeded not only in relieving his mother but also a number of other souls. On successful completion of his work, Maudgalyayana was elated and danced with joy.
To commemorate the incident, the festival of the Ullambana or Ancestors day is celebrated. It is time to honour one's ancestors and also relieve the suffering of souls.
The name Ullambana is a Sanskrit term and itself means "hanging upside down and suffering."
The Festival Itself
The first day of the festival is considered the one when the Gates of Hell open and the ghosts are permitted to visit the earth for the next fifteen days. The fifteenth day is the Ancestors Day and has the families visiting cemetries to pay respect to their ancestors. People also make food offerings to the wandering spirit during this festival.
Ullambana in Japan
The Japanese transliteration of Ullambana is Urabon-e and a shorter version of this is Obon. The festival is been celebrated in the country for more than 500 years, though, the date for the celebration varies from region to region. In the eastern region, the festival is celebrated in July while in the western region, it is celebrated in August. What is also distinct about Obon is that it is celebrated for a period of three days, notwithstanding the time of celebration. The first day is to welcome the festival (Welcoming Obon) and the last day is to bid adieu to the it("Farewell Obon.").
Obon has gained so much popularity in Japan that it is now not only a time to honour ancestors and relieve the tormented souls, but also a holiday meant for family gathering. People from all over Japan put aside their work and visit their hometown to celebrate the festival with their families. They visit graves of their elders and clean them. Food offerings are made to the wandering spirits in temples as well as homes. Paper lanterns are made and are used to decorate houses. They are also placed in the cemetries so as to enable the wandering spirits to return to grave at the end of the festival. In some regions of Japan, lanterns with candles are afloat down the river and sea water to illuminate the path of spirits. This ceremony which marks the cocnclusion of the festival is called Toro-nagashi.
Obon dances are an integral part of the festival.