The origins of Songkran are anchored in traditions that have shaped the region over the past thousand years.
The cultures of the Mekong region – Thailand, Laos, Yunnan, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam – share an affinity for water that goes beyond their shared geographic link to one of the world’s mightiest rivers. This relationship to water dates to over a thousand 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 redominated – a northern terminus focused around the Yuan Jiang and Guangxi provinces, and a southern terminus along Thailand’s Chao Phraya River. Even today anyone travelling to these two areas will find them densely populated, while intermediate relay points between the two remain more sparsely peopled.
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 eighth century AD, but most certainly by the 10th century, migrant Tais had established local meuang (roughly ‘principality’ or ‘city-state’) – each based in a river valley – under the rule of sovereigns called chao meuang. Although Tai social schemata dominated, such states weren’t exclusively Tai in population, but assimilated indigenous populations of Tibeto-Burmans and Mon-Khmers.
Wherever these meuang 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 rivervalley states originally resembled mandala, the quasicircular 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 organised 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 the 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’, pronounced ‘Songkran’ in Tai-speaking cultures and ‘Thingyan’ in Myanmar), 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 give their homes a thorough cleaning to welcome the New Year spirit. New clothes will be worn, and in many households there is a ritual disposal of old clothing and other dispensable household possessions.
In Buddhist cultures, celebrants will 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 of the Samkranta festival, important Buddha images are 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 Samkranta nowadays is the ‘water festival’. Typically, on the third 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 ceremonies such as these, nowadays it’s also very much a festival of fun. In most of the Mekong region, this 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, and in Bangkok, Chiang Mai and elsewhere, the festival has escalated to a full-scale ‘water war’ involving pump-action water rifles, hoses and virtually anything else that can deliver water with force.
Each year during Samkranta in Chang Mai, the streets also serve as a venue for an international tribute to the shared cultures of the Mekong Basin.
Street processions along Tha Phae, Ratchadamnoen and Suthep roads showcase the traditional costumes and dance traditions from each of the five MS countries. These colourful processions are supplemented by illustrative displays at the Chiang Mai University Conference Hall and Chiang Mai Cultural Exhibition Hall, both on Nimanhemin Road. Northern Thailand’s Grand Lanna culture – encompassing the eight provinces of Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Lampang, Lamphun, Phayao, Nan, Phrae, and Mae Hong Son – is also thoroughly represented. In addition to enjoying cultural performances, visitors have the opportunity to shop for souvenirs and meet local traders at the festival’s Tourism Trade & Consumer Fair.
Just as the waters of the Mekong flow unimpeded by international borders for thousands of kilometres, so the cultures of the Mekong Basin continue to maintain many common characteristics in spite of nation-building and global politics.