It’s our second year living in Thailand and second Songkran (Thai New Year) so I started wondering what Songkran is all about. It has become know as The World’s Biggest Water Party and now attracts thousands of people who visit Thailand specifically to take part – but it must be more than this. Having more or less, hidden behind closed doors last year – heard so many negative stories about the behaviour of people on Songkran. This year I decided to take much more of an interest – and most importantly try to understand what this festival is for Thai people.
Songkran traditions are a long way from the images shown in the world’s newspapers every year – powder smeared tourists armed with water pistols and wide grins.
The Thai New Year, in its purest form, is a religious festival steeped in Buddhist and Brahman traditions. Marking the end of a 12-month cycle when the sun moves into April and there was traditionally a gap between rice harvesting and planting a new rice crop. Acquiring its name from the Sanskrit word “Songkran”, meaning to move or pass into. The origins derive from the ancient Indian Festival of Makar Sankriti. The Indian version recognizes the sun’s celestial path and Thai translate the version recognizing the passing of an old year into a new one. Songkran is now held on fixed days, 13-15 April.
Regarded as one of the most important traditions in Thailand because it encompasses three major values in the Thai way of life which are:
Value of Family: – Songkran is the time when family members come together to show appreciation, love, and respect as well as making merit and paying homage to their ancestors. As a festival of unity, people who have moved away usually return home to their loved ones and elders.
Value of Society: – Through active participation and interaction with each other, Songkran brings the people in the community together to enhance goodwill and unity in the society.
Value of Religion: – Making merit by offering food to monks, going to the temples and attending Buddhist sermons are auspicious activities done during Songkran. Many Thai people like to create a little good karma by freeing caged birds or releasing fish into the waterways. Around Songkran, you may also see what appear to be large sand castles in the grounds of temples. These are made as a way of replacing the earth taken away throughout the year on the shoes of people coming to pray. These Chedi Sai, as they’re known are often decorated with flags, coloured pebbles, and money, and families or groups of friends work together to build them.
Typically, mornings begin with merit-making. Visiting local temples and offering food to the Buddhist monks is commonly practiced. On this specific occasion, performing water pouring on Buddha statues, known as “Song Nam Phra”, is considered an iconic ritual for this holiday. It represents purification and the washing away of one’s sins and bad luck.
And it seems that farang or other visitors don’t have to visit the temples to carry out this charming tradition of bathing the Buddha images. Many malls and shops put out their own images of the Buddha with a bowl of scented water so that people get the chance to “Song Nam Phra” wherever they are. Remember, that water is not poured onto the head of the Buddha image, rather onto the torso and body.
Another charming element of Songkran, often overlooked by visitors, is the tradition of paying respect to elders in the Thai family. Young people prepare rose and jasmine water, as well as Nam Ob scented water to wash their parents’ feet in a ceremony called “Rod Nam Dam Hua”. In return, the parents give the children their blessings marked by a garland of jasmine. Paying reverence to ancestors is also an important part of Songkran tradition.
Thanks to the Thai people’s love of fun coupled with the heat of April, the gentle “Rod Nam Dam Hua” ceremony has developed into the full-on water play we see today. Fun, Family, and the betterment of Society all bundled into one!
So we say to you “Suk-san Wan Songkran” meaning “Happy Songkran Day” and we hope the coming year is full of fun and good luck for us all!