by Ruth Gerson
Thais love a party! And indeed, the annual calendar is packed with cultural events and festivities, each month offering a colourful experience. The festival that marks the start of the Thai New Year in the month of April is Songkran – the focal holiday of Thai culture. The customary three days of celebrations embrace the rites of spring, family gatherings honouring the elderly, acts of purification, Buddhists rituals, and the now very popular water splashing revelry. It is the time to clean the house and burn the old refuse thus hoping to be rid of all the bad luck of the old year, and start anew with a clean slate, so to speak.
The name Songkran is derived from the ancient Sanskrit. Using ancient astrology to determine the position of the sun in the sky, it literally describes its monthly movement within the zodiac from one sphere to the next. In April the sun leaves the sphere of Aries and enters that of Taurus, a period known as Maha Songkran or the Great Songkran. It is believed that the festival of Songkran was introduced into Thailand from India where the festival of Holi is still celebrated. The theme of water splashing during the hot season has been so well integrated into SE Asian cultures that most countries neighbouring to Thailand have their own water festivals, from the Southwestern province of Yunnan in China, to Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. The purpose of water is manifold, as it is used for cooling, for symbolising the act of purification, and for invoking the life giving monsoon rains.
At present the official cultural Thai New Year falls in April, the fifth month of the Thai lunar calendar (the first month being December). At one time this holiday was celebrated by Tai of Yunan on the first lunar month, a more befitting date. It is explained, however, that the cultivation of rice was a major factor for the change, as the Tai originated from China where harvest time was different from that of tropical Thailand, and subsequently they adopted the highly skilled agricultural system of the Mon-Khmer. Denis Segaller, an author and expert on Thai culture reinforced this idea with his comment that present day Songkran depends on the cycle of rice cultivation, “with the rice harvesting finished, and the planting of the new crop not yet begun,” a time when people can relax. Another possible reason was that the astrological configuration in the April sky was considered more favourable, and the Thai are great believers in these astral phenomena. It is interesting to note that for years Songkran was the official Thai New Year. In 1888 King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) adopted the Thai version of the solar calendar called Suriyakhati, based on the Gregorian calendar, Suriya being the Hindu sun god. Consequently, the King moved the official New Year to 1 January to conform with most of the world.
Originally a lunar holiday, Songkran is now a fixed date on the Thai calendar to accommodate modern times, and is officially celebrated in most regions in the country from the 13th to 15th of April. However, in recent years the three days have been stretched out to five days and occasionally even longer. In the northern city of Chiang Mai this festival lasts up to a week and is lavishly and recklessly celebrated, as do the Mon people in Prapadaeng, in the harbour area of Bangkok. The latter celebrate Songkran one week after the rest of Thailand. In Chiang Mai the Buddha image is taken out on procession, as is the custom in numerous Thai cities and towns, but appears to be in a much more elaborate fashion than seen anywhere including
Bangkok. Just ahead of the Buddha image is the Songkran Queen, chosen from the beautiful young women of Chiang Mai. She rides a mythical animal, usually the one symbolising the year to come. These animals represent the twelve year cycle of the zodiac introduced into Northern Thailand by the migrating Tai from Southern China around the 13th century.
On the eve of Songkran, every house is thoroughly cleaned and old refuse is burned so as not to carry bad luck or anything harmful into the New Year, with hopes of starting everything afresh. Another old tradition is the setting off of firecrackers to frighten away any bad spirits that may lurk about from the old year. This day is known as Tarusa Suta Pi, the last day of the old year. Wan Songkran or Songkran Day, the first day of the year, is also known as Wan Thaloeng Sok. This day was believed to have been the peak of the hot season when the hours of the day and night were equally divided.
Early in the morning of Songkran Day people pay respects to the monks by bringing offerings of food prepared the previous day. This is customarily a temple ritual which enables the public to acquire merit, an important act in the lives of Thai people that is carried out all year long. In recent years hundreds of monks have gathered at the Pramane Ground to receive alms from the public, enabling the many people of Bangkok to carry out this important meritorious act.
In the early afternoon, Buddha images are taken out of temples for ritual bathing and are sprinkled with lustral water by devotees. A most revered image in Bangkok is the Phra Phuttha Sihing, housed in the National Museum’s Buddhaisawan Chapel. The image is taken out to the Pramane Ground every year for the public to pay their respects. Before placing the image in the elevated pavilion erected for the purpose, it is carried around the city to allow a greater number of people to receive merit. Once in place, the image is sprinkled by thousands of people who also free birds from their cages and release fish into rivers so as to gain additional merit and good fortune.
The act of purification is also performed on Buddha images in private home shrines, on family elders, and on specially revered monks and village elders who are father figures to their communities. Songkran is a time for family gatherings, when young members bringing gifts visit their elders, pour scented water over the palms of their hands, and receive blessings in return. In the past, these respected elderly relatives were bathed and dressed in new garments brought as gifts for the New Year.
The traditional gentle water sprinkling that takes place within families has escalated outdoors into public splashing, dousing by the bucketfuls. No one is spared a generous dose of water in this mischievous merriment and all participate good naturedly. Moreover, nobody seems to mind getting drenched, as April is the hottest month of the year and a shower can be most welcome, dress and all. The water throwing has a further purpose than just having fun. It is an old belief that if one walks around soaking wet, it is a hint to heaven to send down rain. In the agricultural regions of Thailand rain is of prime importance.
Today’s celebrations of Songkran with raging water battles that use power water guns and water hoses have moved away from the traditional festivity. “In the old days Songkran was full of meaning, but today much of the holiday’s spiritual aspect is gone. People just think of having a good time,” says Khun Euayporn Kerdchouay, Siam Society Senior Consultant. And indeed, it seems that this age old holiday has grown into a water festival to please the young and the tourists who visit Thailand. A good example are the annual festivities on Khao San Road, a backpackers’ enclave, and the more recent municipality sanctioned festival on Silom Road that closes for traffic on this occasion. Both locations draw huge crowds, as do other designated spots in the city and which are very popular. In fact, the result of the water festival has been so successful that last year Singapore staged its own water splashing festival. Khun Somlak Charoenpot, former Deputy Director General of the Fine Arts Department, Ministry of Culture explains the reasons for the change in nature of the celebrations: “The concept of Songkran is still the same today as in the past but due to changes in social and economic conditions it became a target for tourism and thus some of the different ways in celebrating the event appear.”
Also well liked at this time is the dabbing and smearing of white powder or paste on revellers’ faces. It is one of the oldest Songkran traditions and is believed to protect the person, warding off evil; traditionally the paste has been applied by an older person. This custom grew out of the practice by Buddhist monks who use chalky white powder to bless people, places and items on which they put their distinctive mark. The paste, the water, and even ice stuffed down people’s shirts have gotten out of hand as the festival of Songkran continues to evolve. The Venerable Phra Kantasilo articulates, “In recent years, the observance of Songkran amongst Thai youth has taken on a particularly sinister mood, hardly resembling the fun and innocent practices of bygone years.” Philip Cornwel-Smith, author on Thai culture explains the importance of such outlets for energy, “The sanuk surplus acts as a social safety valve,” providing a much needed outlet for the stress of daily life.
For years Songkran has been the time for courting, when young men of one village woo the girls of another. These lively events begin on the afternoon of first day of Songkran when groups of young men and women play old courting games believed to be a vestige of an ancient culture and referred to by some scholars as ‘mating games’. One such game still widely played in Thailand today is the game of saba, in which both sexes participate. Generally girls of one village play with boys from another village as this flirtatious game often leads to marriage, thus eliminate the pairing of those who may be related. They sit opposite each other in a small, enclosed arena and take turns in carrying a flat, rounded piece of wood on one foot while hopping on the other. The object of the game is to knock down a similar piece of wood, perched on its side in front of a person of the opposite sex. Both success and failure elicit further flirting and teasing.
Songkran serves a multitude of religious and social functions. Its festivals are celebrated with great zeal, including parades, carnivals, and beauty contests, while music blares and great quantities of food and rice liquor are consumed. On the first afternoon, a Nang Songkran or Miss Songkran is chosen to reign over the festival. She is led in procession seated on an animal figure representing the day of the week on which Wan Songkran falls that year. There are seven such animals. The Garuda, for example, stands for Sunday while a tiger is for Monday. These figures derive from an ancient Hindu legend telling of a god who had lost a bet and in the process also lost his head. His seven daughters ensured that his memory lived on by parading his head once a year. This procession still continues as part of the Songkran festival; the severed head, however, has been replaced by seven different creatures, each corresponding to one of the god’s daughters.
A tradition practiced on the second day of Songkran is the building of sand chedi. Although predominantly a Northern custom, sand chedi have become a popular way of devotion in many regions of Thailand. A sacred structure, the chedi symbolises the place where the Buddha’s ashes were kept. Wealthy people often add new structures to a temple compound usually in the form of a chedi. The poor emulate this meritorious act by constructing a representation of a chedi, a small one made of sand, in a designated area of the temple. As in permanent chedi, small items such as coins, bodhi leaves and Buddha images are placed in the core of the sand chedi. Likewise, these tiny structures are decorated with colourful flags, topped by candles, incense sticks, and flowers. The completed sand chedi are sprinkled with scented water and some temples award prizes to the most beautiful ones. This custom is also a symbolic replacement of sand which may have clung to devotees’ shoes and inadvertently carried out of the temple.
The Songkran festival goes on for several days, a welcome respite from work and daily routines, and a temporary diversion from the summer heat. Special food served in central Thailand at this time is khao che which is cooked rice soaked in aromatic cold water surrounded by delicate dishes of food, a dish inherited from the Mon, while glutinous rice cakes is the fare in Northern Thailand.
The water festival is not unique to Thailand although its celebrations are known worldwide. In Asia both Buddhist and Hindu enjoy water festivities, such as several states in India and some of Thailand’s neighbouring countries. Myanmar celebrates Thingyan, Laos has Songkran or Boun Pi Mai, and Cambodia observes Chaul Chnam Thmey literally meaning to enter the new year, all celebrated like Songkran in Thailand with similar traditions and practices, as well the as the mythical tales that accompany this holiday. In Sri Lanka the holiday is called Aluth Avurudda while in Tamil Nadu it is Puthandu, Bohag Bihu in Assam, and in Orissa Pana Sankranti also known as Mesha Sankranti. In South India, especially in Karnataka, a festival called Okhali or Okhli is celebrated. People there keep a barrel of water in their home mixed with chalk and turmeric which they throw on others. Bengali New Year includes east India and Bangladesh and is known as Pohela Boishakh. Here not much water is splashed but the lively parades are reminiscent of those in Thailand, only more colourful. Holi, a Hindu water and colour festival, is celebrated in India about a month before all these other water festivals, all of which amazingly fall on April 14th.
Interestingly, there are some water festivals in Europe as well. Hungary has a traditional event in which people get soaked, especially women, while Poland, Slovakia and parts of the Czech Republic splash people with water during the Easter celebrations. Fortunately, beneath some rough festivities of Songkran remains a culture that is still intact and celebrated in a serious manner. It is practically a must for young people to return home on this landmark holiday to pay respects to the elders at home. As Bangkok is the hub of employment for thousands of upcountry people, particularly for those from Isaan, a great exodus is to be expected as the holiday nears. No matter the fashion in which Songkran will be celebrated, it remains the corner stone of Thai culture.