Among the festivals in Thailand, Songkran, the Thai New Year, is the most infectiously festive of them all. It’s celebrated for three days, officially from April 13-15 every year, but it effectively lasts for the whole week because most Thais flock to beaches or resorts for some R&R or to their home towns to visit their families.
It is celebrated from Yunnan in southern China down to many parts in the Malaysian peninsula an also in India and Sri Lanka. Its main importance is the change of season from winter to spring in Vedic Astrology. However, it falls in Thailand’s midsummer when the sun at noon is directly above us.
Songkran comes from sankranti, a Sanskrit word meaning ‘transit’ or ‘transmigration’. Like most festivals, it is agriculture-related, the time for a last hurrah before returning to work in the fields to plough and prepare for the next planting of rice.
Many believe the rituals of sprinkling water during Songkran were directly influenced by the Indian Holi Festival. It is partly true; however, it actually started much longer ago in Persia, where the Zoroastrians still practice ‘Sprinkle Chahnvarh’, the ritual of sprinkling water. Like the fire they also worship, water washes away dirt and the past to bring in the new. The water should also be scented with nahm ob Thai or ‘Eau de Siam’, a heady amalgam of flowers, fruits and minerals. As for Thai traditions, water gets sprinkled on a Buddha image, then poured on parents’ or the elders’ palms as a sign of respect, and splashed on friends and bystanders.
These rituals echo the legend of Songkran, in which Khabilabrahma, an oracular god, became jealous of a new prophet, Dharmapala Kumar, a wealthy man’s only son. Fearing he would be usurped, the god posed a riddle to Dharmapala Kumar. If the challenge went unsolved, he would be beheaded. Khabilabrahma asked where the human aura resides at three different times of the day.
Dharmapala Kumar understood the language of the birds and, after eavesdropping on a couple of eagles that planned to devour his carcass the next day, he answered the riddle correctly. In the morning, the aura is on our face; at noon, it transfers to our chest; in the evening, it moves to our feet. These, after all, are the body parts we wash or spray perfume at those times.
As a result, Khabilabrahma was beheaded instead and, each year, one of his angelic daughters arrives to parade his head around Mount Meru. Each of his daughters represents a different day of the week, according to which day Songkran falls. For example, if it is Sunday like this year, Nang Thungsa parades the head, wearing pomegranate flowers and jewellery made from garnets. If Mahasongkran day is on Sunday, the crop on that year will not be as abundant as usual.
It also coincides with Miss Songkran pageants all over the country, where gorgeous gals don opulent Thai costumes and display their wit.
For fun and frivolity, water gets sprayed and soaks the revellers’ all over, not just specific body parts. Since it is summer, Thais shed their inhibitions and let loose of their clothes. Skin gets exposed and wet clothing clings to their bodies. Decadence is an inevitable part of these types of festivals since they always deal with agricultural fertility.
Songs, dances, games and entertainment vary in each region too. During the festival in Samut Prakarn, the Mons (an ethnic group from southern Myanmar that settled in Thailand) plays sabaa, which comes from big seeds of gigantic beans. They toss them on to a gridded ground as far as possible, similarly to pétanque.
So mark your calendar and join in for sanuk. There is no need for resolutions or throwing away regrets. For us Thais, Songkran is the true beginning of the year.