For the third year in a row, I can sense the excitement in the air, a sense of waiting building up, enthusiasm to switch off from work, close offices, while making plans for all that is to be done during the week long Thingyan break. Already, the first piles of wood planks and bamboo sticks are reaching roadsides where pavilions are going to be erected. Water guns and powerful water hoses are on sale, clothes and offerings for the monks, gift hamper and traditional Thingyan foods, stacking shelves. Gradually the cityscape will be transformed, with 35-40 large pavilions erected, road blocks placed, traffic rerouted, and water connections kept ready to draw water from the lakes around. This may not be everyone’s idea of fun and enjoyment, but the feeling of merriment is infectious and ropes us all in.
For almost everyone the benevolent sun becomes overpowering with its sweltering heat which gives no indication of abating. Thingyan comes as the welcome respite that actually marks the beginning of the rainy season. The Water Festival is the country’s biggest and most awaited celebration, that shows enthusiasm and excitement building up for weeks before, preparations also being made for that one week when normal life comes to a standstill, commercial activity halts, and it is all about fun and frolic, mirth and merriment. It is almost like being given a clear signal to do whatever one wants, with near reckless abandon, like drinking, dancing, sleeping and being out all day.
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.
A celebration of this kind was not new to me after being raised in India where the colorful, wet and wild Holi, a North Indian Hindu festival, is about as much joyous abandon as Myanmar’s Water Festival. Holi 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 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 festival is believed to have been based on the Indian Holi, and is closely linked to the rice harvest season. It is the biggest of the twelve festivals celebrated in the country, and the oldest records found of Thingyan go back to the 13th century. It may have changed over the centuries but has retained its significance.
Thingyan is the only time of the year that the beautiful yellow padauk flowers adorn the trees lining the roadside. There is no prettier sight than seeing trees laden with these yellow flowers as one drives past, their fragrance filling the air.
It is interesting to see the entire community, both young and old, put aside divisions and differences and splash buckets full of water or use an endless stream of water from the hose to drench others to the skin. Thanks to the hot sun, one gets very wet but dries up fast, multiple times during the day.
I was impressed to see a time schedule being maintained for playing, at least around the larger pavilions. Everywhere I went, I saw pavilions abuzz with action , loud music and dancing from 9-12 noon, then resuming at 2 pm, to continue till around 6 pm, after which the streets return to normal flowing traffic. Within an hour, cleaners clear up the mess, vendors disappear only to return the next morning, and there is no mess or dirt left on the roads. Traffic resumes and it is finally possible for the fearful, to step out. The smaller streets and residential areas do see children and adults standing with drum and buckets full of water, water guns and pistols to target every passerby. Pick up trucks, vans and buses, are seen full of youngsters, singing and dancing as they drive past.
Thingyan is a novel experience for Westeners unaccustomed to a celebration of this type, complete with loud music, dancing and playing with water. They are pleasantly surprised but happily enjoy the rain dance and sampling some of the traditional foods available at this time.a select few are not bold enough to participate in this playing with water especially with strangers. Part of the celebrations are organized and sponsored by corporates and businessmen who put up huge pavilions, providing food, music and a stage to dance, along with games and competitions. Big cities see large crowds from neighborhood villages pouring in, and places like Inya Lake in Yangon, have them sleeping overnight, in the open.
Traditions and Customs of Thingyan
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.
I have a few Myanmar friends and I found them all heading to monasteries in various parts of the country for meditation and spending time with the monks. This is in keeping with the Theravada Buddhist tradition. A few of my students head home to be with their families and help senior members of their family and others in their village. There is also a tradition to wash the hair of the aged, using a traditional shampoo called acacia rugata, and help them in chores the latter no longer have energy for.
The month of Tagu, is bar far the hottest, and this leads to the drying up of smaller lakes. It was customary for the locals of the area to catch the fish of these lakes as the water levels decreased, and release them in the bigger lakes. Now, many people buy fish and release them in lakes.
Donating a part of earnings to poorer people, serving the community, and reaching out to others, are some of the ways of doing good karma.
The economic aspect
There is a method and lots to gain from this wet and wild celebration just before the new year. 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.
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, but still 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 fervor of celebration.