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April 12, 2005 > New Year, Thai style

New Year, Thai style

by Ceri Hitchcock-Hodgson

Splashes of water, lots of color and good times mark the Songkran celebration of the Thai New Year, the most important of all Thai festivals and holidays. From April 13 to 15, families and friends gather to celebrate by visiting temples, make offerings to the monks, bathe Buddha images, thoroughly clean their houses and sprinkle water on each other to wish good luck. Songkran is a physical and spiritual "spring cleaning" that ushers in the coming year and sweeps out the old.

This is a time of introspection for the Thai Theravada Buddhist population, which makes up about 95 percent of the Thai population. Individuals reflect upon acts of kindness and thoughtfulness each has personally experienced and how generosity and compassion bring peace, happiness and well-being. Songkran is also the time when reunions and family ties are renewed and respect is paid to elders. The underlying significance of Songkran is the process of cleansing and purification - purging ills, misfortune and evil and starting the New Year fresh. Water is symbolic of the cleaning process and signifies purity.

The practices of Songkran date back to the pre-Buddhist spring festivals during which throwing water was a symbol of luck to bring rain for the crops. Buddhism spread to Thailand in the 13th century and the ritual was converted to the religious custom of cleansing the statues of Buddha once a year.
Songkran is a word from the Sanskrit language that means "movement" or "change" and refers to the orbit of the sun moving into Aries of the Zodiac calendar. The traditional Thai calendar is a combination of the solar and lunar movements but the New Year is based on movements of the sun. In modern times, the date is set as April 13.
The first day of the celebration, known as Maha Songkran, begins by bidding farewell to the outgoing year with a thorough "spring cleaning." This act emphasizes awareness of responsibilities toward family and home. The day continues with merit-making, offerings such as rice, dessert and/or fruit, drinking water, candles and lotus blossoms presented to Buddhist monks. Merit-making is an act of giving that demonstrates generosity toward others and is an integral part of the festival.

Later in the day, Buddha images are bathed with lustral (blessed) water in a gesture of respect. Religious ceremonies include a procession of Buddha images through city streets offering residents of the community to take part in the bathing rites. In Thailand, an annual "Miss Songkran" parade and floral floats are part of the popular festivities.

During Wan Nao (April 14), the day between the old and new years, when the position of the sun is in transition between Pisces and Aries, merit-making continues in the morning with more offerings of food to the monks and family members. In the evening, sand is brought to temples to build pagodas called "phra chedis sai" decorated with colorful flags and flowers. An ancient belief says that when an individual walks away from a temple, particles of sand from the temple grounds are inadvertently carried away on shoes or sandals. Building these "sand castles" is seen to be a practical way of replacing the sand lost and a merit-making act through which blessings are earned. This tradition may have started centuries ago as a part of cleansing rituals where new, clean sand was added to the temple floor once a year. This custom highlights the roles and responsibilities of temples, monasteries and the community that is served by the religious institution.

Wan Nao is also the day when the world-famous water festival takes place. Water is an integral part of Thai New Year traditions, both as a symbol of cleansing and of renewal. The ceremonial sprinkling of water on another's shoulder has evolved in to a day of water fights, complete with water guns and hoses. Although throwing large amounts of water has become the epitome of Songkran festivities, it has always been the more delicate water splashing that represents the true nature of Songkran and the Thai New Year.
Sprinkling water on each other during the festival is a gesture of hospitality; individuals' attempt to cool each other off in the intense summer heat. Traditionally, younger people pay respect by pouring water from silver bowls on the hands of elders in a ceremony known as "Rod Nahm Dum Hua." The elders then ask the younger people to forgive them for speaking harshly during the past year and offer the youth a blessing and words of wisdom. This ritual is performed in the home while more vigorous water throwing is done outside. Pouring small amounts of scented lustral water on the heads of the elders on "Wan Parg-bpee" as a sign of respect is also part of this custom that dates back to ancient times.

While some people might sprinkle a bit of scented water on the shoulder to wish a happy new year, the young people of Thailand have turned it in to the world's largest water fight. During the day, water ceremonies involving the temple and home are performed in a subdued, happy manner. At night, Thai youth use buckets, barrels, water guns and hoses to celebrate the custom in their own exaggerated manner. It is not unusual in Bangkok to get dowsed with a bucket of ice water by someone on the back of a moving pickup truck.
A related practice is tying strings around the wrists of others and expressing good wishes for the New Year. A person approaches another with a gentle smile and holds out the string by the two ends and then begins to tie. The person receiving the string has his or her arm outstretched with the under side of the wrist facing upward. While tying the strings, the person recites short prayers of blessing spoken directly for the individual. During Songkran a person could have as many as 25 or 30 strings on each wrist, each from a different person; these are to be left on until they fall off on their own accord.

Another common custom involves a person with a small silver bowl filled with a white powder or pasty substance as a sign of protection and promises to ward off evil. In one of the oldest Songkran rituals, a person with the paste is often older and he or she applies the paste to various parts of the face, neck and torso of others. One is expected to leave this paste on until it washes off with normal bathing.

New Year's Day falls on April 15. Typical merit-making rites performed on this day include the presentation of food and other offerings to Buddhist monks at the temples; donations are made; fish and birds are released; and a bathing ritual is observed whereby lustral water is poured over respected elders in a gesture of respect and reverence. The seeking of their blessing or forgiveness for past wrongdoing is also implied.

The religious ceremonies and folk rituals associated with Songkran are principally performed to bring good luck and prosperity. The rituals are also acts of gratitude and indebtedness undertaken in the memory of those who have passed on to another world.

Songkran is an exciting celebration marking the passing of time and the coming of new things through the cleansing of body and soul.

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