Celebrating Thingyan in Yangon – Fifth Year In a Row

After more than four years in Yangon, I too, like everyone in Myanmar, wait with excitement and enthusiasm, for Thingyan, the water festival. Thingyan is the biggest festival, event and celebration of the year in Myanmar. It comes as a welcome break from the hectic pace of life, and brings all activities to a virtual standstill for all, when work stops and workplaces shut down, when the mood of holiday and festivity in the entire month of April means nothing will move. Except for the water spraying pavilions, loud music and vendors feeding the hundreds playing, the city or actually, the whole country is transformed, the buzz and bustle is missing, and there is just an ambience of relaxation and fun, noise and merriment. Those who can afford it, leave the country to take a break elsewhere and catch up on all that is missing in Myanmar.

I distinctly remember the slight apprehension I had felt the first year here, wondering how life shuts down and how people can give up work and related activities for more than a couple of days. But I also saw the transformation of a city, the rejuvenating impact on the people and how life crawls back to normalcy after all the frenzied fervour.  In subsequent years, the local spirit has woven its way into our hearts, and we look forward to Thingyan…to do a lot of things we customarily do not find time for.

I am not sure if the locals are as awestruck as so many of us are, to see the Padauk trees lining the streets laden with the most beautiful yellow flowers. Never does Yangon look more beautiful as this time, when the padauk flowers bloom for just one day in the year. Thankfully, the flowers seem to take turns and we get to see their beauty for a week or more.

The Timing

Thingyan is celebrated every year in the month of April, just before the onset of the Myanmar New Year. This year Thingyan will be celebrated from 13-16th April, though prearations begin weeks before, and a general slow down witnessed at the beginning of the month. This is also the time the Western world celebrates Easter, Thailand and Laos celebrate Songkran, Cambodia celebrates Chaul Chnam Thmey, and there is Baisakhi in north India. The timing apart, there is a striking similarity in the celebrations, at least in Asia.

As an Indian, I have found Thingyan as enjoyable as the colorful, wet and wild Holi, which is more a riot of dry colors, dancing and merry making, which leaves everyone looking rather devilish with multicolored faces and attire that has to be discarded at the end of the day. A small section of the Indian community celebrate Holi even in Yangon, ideally over the weekend close to the date of the festival.  A similar though more sedate celebration came my way in Thailand, called Songkran, where perfumed water and sandalwood paste is applied reverently on adults and seniors at the work place. It spills on the roads and in open areas, with people filling drums of water to pour on tourists and passers by, while music plays and alcoholic drinks flow freely. Laos and Cambodia also have similar celebrations.  But Thingyan is a class apart, in style, celebration and enjoyment. The one day Holi and three day Songkran are no match to this 3-4 day break from life as we know it.

The month of April is hot and the sweltering heat of the sun is never more harsh. The water festival brings respite from the heat and signals the beginning of its end, and ushers in the New Year.

Preparations begin nearly a month before, as truck loads of hard wood planks, bamboo poles, electric wires, water pipes begin to be unloaded at multiple locations where pavilions will be elaborately set up, complete with  music, celebrity performances, stage for dancing, and extended areas serving food and refreshments. In cities like Yangon and Mandalay, it is not just the locals who participate, one sees hundreds of people coming in from villages far and near, content to sleep under the stars around Inya Lake and any other permissible parks.

The Celebration

The word Thingyan has been derived from the Sanskrit word Sankranta, which means the movement of the sun from one zodiac sign to the next. At this time of the year it signals the harvest season. Technically, Thingyan is celebrated on the last four days before the onset of the new year, though the first day activity is somewhat subdued till the evening. The fifth day is the New Year’s Day when water celebrations stop and it is time to pay respect to Buddha at pagodas, the Shwedagone Pagoda, if possible. The new year celebration is more sedate, and involves entertaining at home, visiting homes of friends and the extended family.

Followers of Buddhism begin Thingyan celebrations with the ritual of “bathing The Buddha”. The younger generation visit Pagodas, temples and monasteries and clean all Buddha statues and images with scented water. All this is done on the first of the four days. It is only after this, that they begin playing with water.

By the evening of the first day loud music, dancing and performances begin, with crowds collecting at pandals. A pandal is a fabricated structure erected for festivals and religious occasions, and has a raised platform, strong enough to hold more than a handful of people. In Yangon, Pyay Road and Kabar Pagoda Road are the most crowded. Food stalls line the footpaths and the Inya Lake area overflows with people. Floats, which are akin to moving pandals, have tens of youngsters, orchestras playing continuously even as they meander through different parts of the city.

For the next three days, it is water and more water all around. Interestingly, strict timings are observed and play stops for the day at 6 pm. In less than an hour subsequently, the roads clear, trash is cleared and the entire stretch that saw chaos all day, is spruced up.

Each pandal has artists and performers, dancing and singing, and competitions are organized. This brings in excitement and enthusiasm, besides an amazing display of local talent. Most of these events are sponsored and the best time to advertise. Thingyan is also the time when the highest number of promotional offers are rolled out by businesses.

On New Year’s Day, all the water playing and music stops, and it is time for prayer to seek blessings for the year ahead. People pay respects to their elders with the customary offering of water in a terracotta pot and shampoo. Some even wash the hair of the elders with shampoo beans. Since the intense heat dries up many lakes and rivers, the fish are rescued from these, kept in large earthen pots, to be released into larger lakes and rivers on this day, giving them a new lease of life. Food donations, offerings of alms to monks and monasteries, mark this auspicious day.

Why Thingyan is celebrated

There are so many theories about the reasons behind this celebration, the traditions followed and the deeper significance of the festival. Over the last three years, I have been able to deduce that water is symbolic, and being a cleansing agent that flows rather than staying stagnant, it stands for cleansing one’s soul, washing away sins of the past year, and wipes away all the negatives as we move on, into the new year. It is cooling and refreshing in the hottest time of the year, can do no harm, helps to rejuvenate us.  This can be attributed to our belief in goodness, the need to seek forgiveness for our bad deeds, and trying to wipe out evil from our lives. The element of fun, the need to forget worries and tensions and being able to catch with friends and family and celebrate together, is what Thingyan is about today.

For many, Thingyan is the time to introspect and withdraw from worldly activities and adopt monkhood for a few days. It is therefore not surprising to find all the monasteries almost all over the country booked to full capacity.

The economic aspect of Thingyan

Thingyan extends beyond fun and festivity in more ways than we envision. It provides employment to hundreds of people who know how to construct pavilions, set of sound systems, create water connections to draw water from the lakes, and of course, the small vendors who sell enough of food and beverages to earn a major chunk of their annual earnings in a week. Big companies sponsor pavilions, hold competitions and shows, and the money spent is a great way to advertise for their products and services. The food donations to monasteries help these holy places provide basic facilities of food and clothing to the monks who reside there.

The message of Thingyan

For just a few days in the year, everyone, the rich and poor alike, break their class barriers and come together to celebrate at this time. It is also a time to forget daily woes, slip away from the trials and tribulations of life, and have wet fun with abandon. There is innocence and good will with caution thrown to the winds, which is all harmless and non-threatening. As societies and communities evolve, and countries develop, some of the old charm and essence of such festivals gets lost. We become suave and proper, find it difficult to merge and mingle, unable to let our hair down, and being able to relax and enjoy even a wee bit recklessly. We remain saddled with our duties and responsibilities and are unable to let go. In Myanmar, we wish this never happens and that Thingyan retains its flavor and continues to engage the whole country every year.