While Songkran has become, for many, three days of wet and wild mayhem, the origins of this annual celebration are anchored in ancient beliefs
Although Thailand recognizes, and heartily celebrates, the same New Year’s Eve observed by almost every nation across the globe on December 31st, the “real” New Year’s celebration in this country occurs in mid-April, during Songkran.
Traditionally, Songkran is a three-day annual holiday that begins on April 13th and concludes on April 15th. However, some regions of the Kingdom, such as Chiang Mai, stretch the festivities out a few days longer. And, in a recent announcement, the Thai government gave the go-ahead for an official nationwide five-day Songkran Festival holiday period this year, lasting from Thursday, April 12th to Monday, April 16th. These extra days off will accommodate Thai people travelling up-country to visit their hometowns, and will (hopefully) stimulate nationwide tourism.
But regardless of how many days everyone’s getting off work, the prime directive during Songkran nowadays is to have fun and get wet! In Bangkok, the street scene along both Khao San Road and Silom Road is one of pure watery mayhem, as hordes of tourists and locals alike engage in what is probably the biggest water pistol battle in the world. And some revellers aren’t content to just use water pump-action water rifles, arming themselves instead with high-pressure hoses than can douse a crowd in seconds flat. But it’s all in good fun, and the party atmosphere is irresistible.
Over the past few decades Songkran has taken on legendary status as one of the wettest and wildest parties on the planet, however in 2017 the celebrations were a tad more subdued due to the mourning period that was in effect after the passing of King Rama IX. There have also been, in recent years, well-justified concerns mounting about water wastage, and as a result it’s not known just how over-the-top this year’s festivities will be. For those whose spirits are dampened by the taming of Songkran, it’s worth noting that this annual observance was not always the super-soaked festival it is today.
History of Songkran
The regions of the Mekong region—Thailand, Laos, Yunnan, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Vietnam—share an affinity for water that goes beyond their geographic link to one of the world’s mightiest rivers. This relationship to water dates to over 1.000 years ago, when the peoples of this region first began forming city-states centred in river valleys along the Red River in southern China and northern Vietnam, and as far west as the Salween River in what is today eastern Myanmar’s Shan State.
At one time, two migrational flows dominated—a northern terminus focused around the Yuan Jiang and Guangxi provinces, and a southern terminus along Thailand’s Chao Phraya River. Among the many intermediate migrational zones, the Mekong River valley through China, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam formed the largest. Beginning as early as the 8th century AD, but most certainly by the 10th century, migrant peoples had established local meuang (city-states), each based in a river valley and under the rule of sovereigns called chao meuang.
Wherever these principalities sprang up, waterways natural and man-made served not only as sources for nutrition, bathing, agriculture and transport, but as important cultural adjuncts. City plans in virtually all of these river valley states originally resembled mandala, the quasi-circular diagrams created by Buddhist artists as an object for meditation. Much like Hindu-Buddhist mythology’s Mount Meru, around which the cosmos unfolds in concentric continents alternating with slender cosmic oceans, river valley states were organized around a web of natural and artificial waterways fanning out from a central river or stream serving as the cities’ axis.
The most important festival in this entire region is the celebration of the solar-lunar New Year, when the sun passes from the sign of Pisces into the sign of Aries in the zodiac. Called Samkranta (Sanskrit for “fully passed over”) it was pronounced “Songkran” in Tai-speaking cultures. This festival demands that people take a few days out of their normal work schedules for spiritual cleansing and renewal.
Believers hold that during this short period—April 13 through 15 in Thailand—the spirit of the previous year departs and a new one arrives. Hence, on the first day of the festival, people would give their homes a thorough cleaning to welcome the New Year spirit. New clothes should be worn, and in many households there would be a ritual disposal of old clothing and other dispensable household possessions.
In Buddhist cultures, celebrants would gather at local monasteries to build temporary stupas out of sand, a simple demonstration of their religious faith for the coming year. On the second day important Buddha images would be taken from local monasteries and paraded in the streets, to remind all of the importance of Buddhism.
Water, representing the principal agent for this cleansing and renewal, plays a central role throughout the festival and, in fact, a common nickname for Songkran nowadays is the “water festival”. Typically, on the 3rd day of celebrations, Buddha images are returned to their monastery homes, where they receive a ritual bathing as local Buddhists take turns pouring water over the images.
The faithful will also pour water over the hands of older Buddhist monks, and at home will perform the same ceremony for elders in the family. Although the original meaning of the water festival is kept alive by traditional ceremonies such as these, nowadays it’s also very much a festival of fun. In most of the Mekong region, April is the height of the hot and dry season, and residents revel in being able to douse one another with water to cool off. Among one’s social equals, the ritual ablutions extend to emptying buckets of water over the head and shoulders of others. In modern times—mainly in the bigger cities—the festival has escalated to a full-scale water war involving water guns, hoses, and virtually anything that can deliver water with force.
Apart from a liberal dousing of water, Songkran participants can also expect to have their cheeks smeared with din sor pong, a natural white powder made primarily from limestone clay which, when mixed with water, forms a paste like substance. During the festival many people carry small bowls of the chalky goop, smearing each other’s cheeks and foreheads with the paste and smiling and laughing all the while. The mixture easily washes off the skin, but don’t expect your clothing to survive the onslaught quite as efficiently.