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April 11, 2017 > Songkran: a time for reflection, renewal and splashing about

Songkran: a time for reflection, renewal and splashing about

By Victor Carvellas

Songkran has been celebrated as New Year's Day in the Thai calendar since ancient times. Its origins lay buried in myth, but today Songkran invokes timeless traditions steeped in reverence and introspection. It also revels in downright waterlogged fun.

The word ÒSongkranÓ is from the Sanskrit word Òsa?kr?nti,Ó literally Òastrological passage.Ó In Pali, the language of the Buddha, sa?kr?nti is translated as Òsankhara,Ó and refers to the movement of the sun from one sign of the zodiac to another. In Thai, sankhara became songkran, which, over time, came to refer only to the sunÕs entering the sign of Aries in April, the month of modern Songkran.

In 1940, January 1 became the first day of the official year, but the traditional four-day Songkran Festival is still celebrated as a national holiday in Thailand.

The mythical origin of Songkran revolves around the god Kabilla Phrom, who presented three riddles to a precocious boy scholar named Thammabal Kumara. Kabilla Phrom liked gambling and bet his head against the boyÕs he could not answer three riddles. The questions were hard, and Thammabal Kumara would have lost the wager but for his understanding of bird speech. Having overhead two eagles talking about the bet, he gleaned the answers, forcing Kabilla Phrom to relinquish his head. The head, however, was a dangerous and powerful talisman, and was therefore sequestered in a cave on Mount Meru. At the beginning of each year, one of the godÕs seven daughters (Nang Songkran) takes a turn carrying it in a procession around the mountain.

The four days of the Festival each have their own name and agenda:

¥ Wan Sangkhan Lohng: A day for traditional spring-cleaning.

¥ Wan Nao: People prepare food to be used the next day. Also, in many temples throughout Thailand people bring sand to symbolically replace the sand that they have carried away on their sandals throughout the year. The sand is formed into pagodas called Òphra chedis sai,Ó which are decorated with colorful flags. This tradition began as part of the cleansing rituals where new, clean sand was added to the floor of the temple once a year.

¥ Wan Payawan: This is the first day of the New Year and people gather at the Wat (temple or monastery) in the early morning to participate in Òmerit-making,Ó offering the food prepared the previous day, as well as fruit, new robes, and other goods to the monks.

¥ Wan Park Bpee: On this day people pay respect to their ancestors, elders, and those worthy of respect due to age or position. In a ceremony called Òrod nam dam hua,Ó lustral water scented with spices, dried flowers, or perfume is poured over the hands of the individuals being paid respect. The honorees, in turn, bless the participants in the ceremony.

The ceremonies and rituals of Songkran express four essential cultural ideals. The first is demonstrating gratitude toward individuals who have done good deeds, who are worthy of respect and recognition. The second ideal is showing loyalty to ancestors through merit-making, which includes providing food, gifts, and alms to Buddhist monks, releasing birds and fish into the wild, and other acts of respect. The third is showing awareness of oneÕs responsibilities towards family and home through traditional spring cleaning. The fourth ideal is demonstrating respect for the BuddhaÕs teachings and how they infuse the relationship between the temple and the community.

Though Songkran is a time for reflection and renewal, it is also, for good reason, known as the Water Festival. Across Thailand thousands of people armed with water cannons, hoses, and buckets have one goal as they take to the streets: drench everyone around them as thoroughly as possible.

The custom can be traced to pre-Buddhist spring festivals where throwing water was meant to elicit heavy rains. This behavior imitated the Nagas, mythical serpents that brought rain by spouting seawater; the more they spouted, the more rain there would be. With the advent of Buddhism, waterÕs ritual role moved to the annual cleansing of the Buddhas. The statues were often carried in parades where crowds showered the Buddhas with water. Later, the custom emerged of sprinkling scented water on oneÕs friends, wishing them Sawasdee Pee Mai (Happy New Year!). Thailand, however, is hot in April, and good-natured sprinkling eventually became the outright no-holds-barred water-soaked event of today.

This year, Wat Buddhanusorn in Fremont is celebrating Songkran on April 15 and 16. Both daysÕ celebrations will feature Buddhist services, offerings of food to the monks, and alms-giving. Fish will be released on Saturday at Quarry Lakes, and on Sunday, birds will be released at the Wat. Director of Educational Programming Tim Tararug Ògrew up at the Wat,Ó and says that unlike the wild water parties of Bangkok, the festivities at Wat Buddhanusorn are Òmuch more traditional,Ó and have little to do with the ÒMardi Gras partyingÓ widely associated with Songkran in Thailand. That isnÕt to say there wonÕt be a little watering of the participants; attendees should prepare to get wet Sunday afternoon. If you participate in the water festival, be sure to wish one another ÒSawasdee Pee Mai,Ó then get ready to soak and be soaked!

Songkran Festival
Saturday & Sunday, Apr 15 & 16

Saturday, Apr 15:
10 a.m.: Buddhist service and alms-giving
11 a.m.: Meal for monks and public, music and dance
1:30 p.m.: Fish release at Quarry Lakes

Sunday, Apr 16:
10 a.m.: Buddhist service and alms-giving
11 a.m.: Meal for monks and public, bird release ceremony
2 p.m.: Traditional ÒwateringÓ of Buddha image, music and dance

Wat Buddhanusorn
36054 Niles Blvd, Fremont
(510) 790-2296

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