Songkran is the annual festival that Thai people look forward to the most, not only because it is the longest public holiday but also because the Thai New Year holiday is a marvelous opportunity for family reunions, as people return home to celebrate with loved ones. For young people, it is the time to have fun splashing water on each other during the country’s hottest month. Although pictures of the streets packed with people having all-out water fights are familiar to many, the more traditional festivities of the Songkran celebrations embody social and cultural values well worth exploring. Let’s delve into the real meaning behind the splashes and the charming uniqueness of this centuries-old tradition with THAI.
The Thai New Year Celebration
Songkran is a tradition influenced by Indian culture. The word Songkran is derived from Sanskrit and literally means ‘Astrological Passage’, which refers to the transition from one side realzodiac to another, (coinciding with the moving from Pisces to Aries.) This transition is regarded as marking the beginning of the New Year, called ‘Maha Songkran’. It also marks the end of the dry season and the beginning of the annual rains in the fifth month of the Thai lunar year, according to which the Thai New Year originally fell on the first of December. Thai New Year was later moved to Songkran Day, according to the adoption of the Indian tradition. Traditionally, the dates for Songkran Day were set by Brahmin priests, but these days it is officially fixed on the 13th of April each year.
Making merit, bathing Buddha images and building sand pagodas
Rich with symbolic traditions, Songkran is a Buddhist festival and the celebration starts in the morning with merit-making. Many Thais visit their local temples to offer alms to monks, to pray and to bathe the sacred Buddha images, the ritual of which represents purification and the washing away of bad luck. In the north, where a week-long Songkran festival is celebrated, gunfire or firecrackers are used to repel misfortune and the revered statues of the Buddha are carried in procession for people to pay respect. Another religious practice which has a long history is the building of sand pagodas. Apart from being a symbol of reverence, a sand pagoda is built in the belief that it is a way for people to return the sand that they may inadvertently have carried away under their soles. The sculptors bring a small bag or bowl of sand with them - or it is provided by temples in Bangkok, where it is hard to find sand – sculpt a small pagoda and decorate it with flags and flowers. The ritual fosters unity within local communities, many of which hold sand pagoda building competitions.
Homecoming and family reunion
After merit-making, the ritual of bathing the elderly, rot nam dam hua, is held either at the temple or at home. It is believed that this ancient custom was derived from Northern Thailand’s Lanna culture, later becoming a common practice at Songkran nationwide. ‘Rot Nam’ means to bathe while ‘Dam Hua’ means to wash hair. Rot nam dam hua is practised as a means of begging forgiveness for any form of disrespect that one may have shown during the past year, and as a blessing for the coming year. In former times, rot nam dam hua was practised in three forms: rot nam dam hua of oneself to repel bad luck and bring good fortune, rot nam dam hua of the dependants, and rot nam dam hua of the elderly. Nowadays, however, the ritual is popularly reduced to only rot nam dam hua of the elderly and of monks, called song nam phra. The ritual is cherished a way to strengthen bonds between family members.
Besides the traditional aspects of Songkran, the highlight of the festival for most Thais is undoubtedly the throwing of water. Traditionally, people ‘played Songkran’ by politely pouring or sprinkling a bowl of flower scented water to signify the washing away of bad thoughts and actions of family members and friends. They would first ask for permission and give a New Year’s blessing while pouring the water. Nowadays, Songkran is celebrated in much more good-natured fun. Water guns and buckets have largely replaced the bowls of scented water. Throngs of locals and visitors gather in the streets for water battles, dances, and parties which last from afternoon until late, turning the festival into a delightful revelry.
Famous destinations for Songkran celebrations
Songkran celebrations around the country differ in the details, timing, and activities, each place having its own unique characteristics. In Bangkok, aside from such religious practices as merit-making and sand pagoda building, an impressive array of activities isenjoyed citywide. Top experiences include boat trips to pay respect to the Buddha at temples along the Chao Phraya River, bathing the highly revered Phra Phuttha Sihing Buddha statue at Sanam Luang,and the world-famous friendly water fightson Khao San Road and Silom Road, which continue until late in the evening. Chiang Mai, famous for its Songkran celebrations, holds a week-long festival with different rituals each day, according to Lanna tradition. Phuket celebrates Songkran by the Andaman Sea,where its unrivalled line up of activities starts in the morning withmerit-making at Wat Suwan Khiriwong, continues with water sprinkling of Phra Phuttha Sihing Buddha statue and traditional performances, and culminates in an all-out water fight at Patong Beach in the afternoon. If you don’t get soaked enough during the main period of the festival, head to Pattaya for Wan Lai, or Flowing Day, on 19th April. The Beach Road is closed for the procession of the Buddha image and a myriad of cultural performances.
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