Songkran is April 13, but the holiday has been expanded to 3 days to April 15. Because it includes the weekend, this year the holiday will end a day later, April 16.
For centuries this was the New Year in this region. The dates were changed to coincide with international traditions when Siam was making a concerted effort to join the modern, civilized world. At that time Sunday became a weekly holiday and New Year’s Day was moved to January 1. Clothing, hair styles, education, and transportation also assumed fusion forms. One or two governments actually tried to mandate some Western styles by law. That was long ago.
In the Lanna portions of modern Thailand, here in the North, the traditional New Year was lunar. It fell on the full moon of the twelfth lunar month. As all Thai people know, that is the night of Loy Kratong, the other major popular festival. Songkran in April is the water festival, and Loy Kratong usually in November is the festival of lights.
These days many Thai people call Songkran the national New Year (pii mai myang) as it was for the Ayuthaya kingdom. Even Chiang Mai natives will say that the Thai New Year is Songkran. The central cultural traditions are dissolving the regional and ethnic ones.
Songkran has three aspects of observance.
IT IS AN AGRARIAN FESTIVAL, which is what the water is all about. The main idea is to remind Mother Nature (Mae Toranee) that it’s hot and dry. “Don’t forget to send rain.”
IT IS A RELIGIOUS FESTIVAL. The main features at temples here in Chiang Mai are the building of a sand mountain and washing the Buddha images. The sand mountain is called a chedi, a traditional Buddhist stupa representing the connection between heaven and earth. Families bring paper flags of various designs to stick into the sand mountain. These are “air-nets” catching the breezes, as if the wind is made up of invisible spirits, including the spirits of departed ancestors. That is how past generations are included. It is one of the many ways the social, agrarian and religious aspects of Songkran overlap. Another is the washing of the Buddha images which not only cleans them, thereby venerating them, but also reminds Buddha to think about rain. In many temples a major Buddha image is ritually bathed with scented water, and that water is collected and put to pious use.
IT IS A SOCIAL FESTIVAL to renew family and community connections. One of the ways to transfer blessing is to pour water while chanting a blessing. During Songkran here in Chiang Mai the water to use contains a traditional infusion of flower petals. A second way to confer blessing is by tying a cotton string around the wrist of one you want to bless while intoning a blessing or chanting one from a Pali text. Elders tend to tie strings on younger people’s wrists, whereas the younger people pour water over the older people’s hands, which they transfer to their own heads with a wiping motion. In Chiang Mai the tradition is called simply “rote naam dam hua” (pouring water on the head). It is traditional to bring gifts to elders, especially parents and parent figures. The gifts include fruit (especially mangoes which are in season) and an item of clothing, plus things made of rice. The full ceremony includes the scented water and string tying, and its high point is the blessing.
For closer friends the ceremony is shortened and may simply be the pouring of a small dipper of water over the friend’s hand, or head, or shoulder.
That’s where the excesses began to intrude.
Photographs from 1960 show large crowds at the iron Nawarat Bridge across the shallow Ping River in Chiang Mai. Already by that time it was considered fun to expand from the ceremonial to the celebratory. A community-wide water fight was the result, involving stationary and mobile groups. Clusters of children and adolescents waited on street sides with big containers of water and garden hoses for roving groups in pick-up trucks with 50-gallon drums of water and high-powered water guns and buckets. The three afternoons of Songkran were turned into Songkram-Songkran (a Songkran war).
To a lesser extend this is going on all over the country. In Pattaya, the whole festival was moved to next week to catch an influx of travelers who want to endure this twice.
As tourism became a goal in the 1960s, the city found ways to capitalize on its two famous festivals of Songkran and Loy Kratong. First they dredged and repaired the square moat around the old city making sure it was full at those times. Access to the riverbanks was increasingly blocked by construction, so the most frantic action moved to the moat. The cheapest tourist accommodations were also within walking distance.
Tourism is at maximum capacity during this long weekend.
Downtown Chiang Mai is a mad-house these afternoons. It can take an hour or more to drive along one side of the moat where mobs of young people are heaving water at one another. Adding great chunks of ice to the water creates another level of reaction. Since alcohol is a beverage of choice for many of these revelers, care and caution are abandoned. Among the most careless water-warriors are the foreign tourists who may also be the least keen on adhering to Thai standards of modesty. They take the state of pandemonium to be a license to exempt themselves from public decency and respect of other persons.
That is also the case in the central districts of Bangkok. There, however, in addition to water in unsafe, unsanitary condition and excessive amounts, Songkran includes talcum powder, often colored and scented. That is applied to other people by hand in paste form. The main complaint one hears about this is that males may actually molest females in the guise of “blessing” them. Hands stray. Assault happens. Tempers flare. Consequences result.
Obviously, these celebrants are having fun and care little for the agrarian, religious and social meaning of Songkran. Songkran is not what it used to be. But what is?
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Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.