Most folks who can only come to Thailand once a year aim for this. It’s undoubtedly the single most popular Thai festival of all: Songkran. It’s colourful, it’s wild, it’s wet and it’s fun, and it involves every house in every village in every town and city throughout the nation. It’s the Thai New Year celebration. And it’s all to do with water. Gallons of the stuff. And in a sense it’s also the most ‘in your face’ fun to be seen in what is usually quite a reserved nation. Because that’s where most of the water goes, by the bucketful – in your face!
“…At least now you’ll know that, under all the water, there’s two thousand years of gentle culture and tradition!”
The main reason that this has evolved is the ongoing rise in foreign tourists to Thailand, particularly those in the younger age group. They seized on the outward show of water splashing with glee, replacing the customary beneficence of gentle dabs of water to the face with a drenching, and substituting the traditional small silver bowl with buckets, hosepipes and water guns. The Thai nation is nothing if not fun loving; their young people and teenagers took note and were quick to follow suit, despite the initial disapproval of their elders. Thus today all the outward show of Songkran has turned away from its origins and become the world’s biggest water fight. But this is really not what it’s all about.
It all goes back to the roots of the Thai people, many thousands of years ago, deep in the traditions of the Tai people of China and the Brahmins of India. And it’s all tied to the earth, the farming communities and the cycle of the seasons. It’s also an occasion of sacrifice and thanksgiving, timed to match the hottest time of the year when water is at its most precious. In Thailand, this emerged as an expression of universal thanks for the harvested crops. It was a time of new beginnings and fresh starts, as the sun began to move towards a cooler season at the vernal equinox. And, somewhere back in the mists of Thai history, there emerged a fable, aspects of which are still being celebrated today.
This ancient fable tells of a young boy. He was something of a spiritual prodigy, and so great was his knowledge, humility and awareness, that it made one of the gods jealous. This god became angry and resolved to teach the boy a lesson. So he set him a riddle to solve – if the boy failed to solve it he would die. Try as he might, the boy couldn’t puzzle it out and so went into the mountains to think. And, whilst meditating, he overheard two eagles talking. They were excited because it looked like there was soon going to be some fresh food for them – one of the gods was going to kill a young boy! They continued to gossip, and so unwittingly gave away the answer to the riddle.
The boy returned and gave the god the right answer. And because the god was honourable, he kept to his word and cut off his own head. But this created a problem, as should the head fall to earth, it would strike like a meteorite, causing havoc and chaos and burning away the seas. And so, one of the god’s seven daughters resolved the issue by hiding the head in a heavenly cave. Thus, it came about that, even today, at the beginning of the Songkran period, the seven daughters, one for every day, carry the head in procession around the home of the gods. And on the last day of Songkran, it’s returned to the cave and laid to rest for another year.
As a visitor to Thailand, you’ll probably be aware of little or none of this – the closest being perhaps a leaflet that may appear in your room, filled with dry and dusty history and crammed with so many unreadable Thai names that you’ll bin it right away. But ties to all of these legends and myths are still very much active, although you’ll see no sign of them on the (very wet) streets. For example, in temples throughout the Kingdom, on the last day of Songkran there’s always a beauty pageant celebrating the god’s seven daughters and their annual duty. And the other connecting element is how long Songkran goes on for. Traditionally, this should be seven days, and this still happens in many rural regions. However, generally, it’s been reduced to just four days, more or less everywhere.
The first day is ‘The Cleansing’ (Wan Sangkhan Lohng) and is accompanied by a thorough spring-cleaning of homes, and with the sacred statues in the temples being aired and washed, too. And this is also the day, now fixed at April 13th, when the water guns and buckets appear on the streets. The day after this is ‘The Preparation’ (Wan Nao), on which the womenfolk prepare food and offerings for what is to come. And all of their traditional dishes stem from the Royal Court, as it is believed that nothing less is correct for such an occasion. The men also have a part to play. They are busy collecting sand – this will be needed for the big celebration on the following day.
This is the third day, and the occasion of ‘The Offering’ (Wan Payawan), and everyone rises at dawn to take offerings of yesterday’s preparations to the local temple. People also make merit by releasing captive birds and fish. And then everyone happily uses the sand to make ‘pagodas’, which is seen as a further way to make merit and has its origins back when temples used to cover their floors with fresh sand each day. Many Thai people traditionally still regard this as the first real day of the New Year, and make a special effort to set the pattern for the rest of the year by filling it with good deeds. And on the final day, the 16th, there’s ‘The Respect’ (Wan Paak Bpee) which is a formal acknowledgment of respect for the elderly. At one time, this was a lengthy and traditional ritual, but today it usually takes the form of sprinkling the elders with water and murmuring a few polite words of respect.
And that’s where the origin of today’s ongoing water fights comes from – just in case you were wondering! It’s a far cry from a respectful dab of water to being the unwitting recipient of the contents of a bucket of water filled with ice cubes, right in your face. But that’s the way it’s developed. At least now you’ll know that, under all the water, there’s two thousand years of gentle culture and tradition!