Apr 05 2011
Every year from April 13-15 the entire country of Thailand (and neighbouring Laos) breaks out into a no holds barred waterfight. As a foreigner or outsider Songkran can appear to be nothing more than a nationwide party, but there is real history behind the soaking wet mayhem. What has become buckets of water thrown from every which way began as a gentle sprinkling of water to symbolise luck and renewal.
April 13, Songkran, marks the celebration of the Thai New Year. The observance of New Year in April, rather than January, is a custom adopted from India’s ancient Brahmins who considered the passing of the moon, sun and other planets into the zodiac sign of Aries to be the start of a new astrological year or ”Songkran”, a Sanskrit word implying ascending or moving on.
Natural changes such as animals coming out of hibernation and buds and blossoms suddenly springing to life added to this feeling of a new start and a new year. Celebrated by everyone, including the Thai Royal family, Songkran falling in April is also tremendously convenient for Thai life as this is a month when farmers are free from routine duties allowing them the time needed to perform this annual rite, which involves the deeply important task of paying respect to their ancestors and elders.
The scope of Songkran has ballooned over the centuries. Songkran festivities during the 13th century involved civil servants paying homage to the king and government by drinking an oath of allegiance. During the later Ayutthaya period celebrations included bathing images of the Buddha for good luck, building sand pagodas at local temples and comparably low-key festival merriment.
Could the ancient Brahmins have anticipated what Songkran would become? I’m going with no. But while it may appear that all of this is happening out of nowhere there is real history behind these traditions. So as you are doused with water thrown from the window of a vehicle moving at high speed, just keep in mind that by traditional standards you are being cleansed and welcomed to the new year, even if by your standards you are just having a bit of fun.
As they say, Sawasdee pi mai. Happy New Year.
Tomorrow, how to prepare for Songkran.
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