Myanmar New Year

Thingyan Festival

thingyan festival1Thin-gyan is a word drive from Sanskrit "sankranta" meaning the end of pass year and the beginning of new year.

Since the beginning of March, the weather has been hot, dry and the whole countryside lies parched and barren. The harvest time has been gathered and celebrated at the festival of full moon of Tabaung in March (this Tabaung festival is a Buddhist festival now, but in the remote pass it used to be a harvest festival). It is now nearly the middle of April, and the Burmese cultivator, like his paddy field and his plough-oxen, finds the weather trying and the enforced holidays monotonous. But there is a excitement in the air, for the Feast of the New Year is swiftly approaching.

The Astrologers have published broadsheets in which the details of the New Year are given. The king of the Gods, Thagyamin, is coming down to the earth on his annual visit. He will come and spend the last two days (sometimes three) of the old year in the abode of the human beings, and the exact moment of his departure will bring in the New Year. The Feast lasts for three days (sometimes four), and the day of his arrival is known as the Day of Decent, the day of his departure the Day of Ascent, and the day in between (sometimes two days in between) the Day of Sojourn. During these three days (or four days) elderly people fast and keep the Eight Precepts or Ten Precepts and go to the monasteries and pagodas to offer alms-food.

thingya studitha sweetAt home, the housewife prepares cooling drinks and sweet cakes to be presented to the neighbors. The children are warned to be on their best behaviors, for the king of the Gods, thagyamin, brings with him to big volumes, one bound in dogs-skin hide, the other in Gold, and he records in Dog-skin book the names of those who have committed miss-deeds during the course of the year, and in the GoldThingyan Studitha Sweet Snacks book, the names of those who have performed acts of merit. The exact times of the arrival and departure of the God, which have been calculated and proclaimed in the broadsheets, will be signaled by the Booming of cannons, and firing of guns under the supervision of the relevant administrative official of Government, and on the front porch of every house there stand the New year pots filled with special flowers and special leaves to welcome the visiting God. At the exact time of his arrival, the head of the household lifts up the pots towards the sky as a gesture of homage, and the exact time of his departure the head of household pours out slowly the water from the pots on to the ground with the prayer for good fortune, good rainfall, and good harvest for the coming year. As both the husband and the wife are joint heads of the family these ceremonials are performed either by the husband or the wife or by both, and are performed simply and quietly.

But outside the house there is very little quiet, for the Feast of the New Year is also the merry Festival of water. Since dawn, teams of young men and young women have been occupying strategic points on the roadside with pails and buckets of water. Groups of young men and young women are also to be found in the gaily decorated temporary structures which have sprung at almost overnight at every street corner, in which in addition to pots and cans of water. There are all kinds of sweet cakes, and cool drinks for all the passers-by and the merry-makers. No passers-by will escape the drenching, no matter whether he or she is a Buddhist or non-Buddhist, Burmese or nom-Burmese. Only the monks and the sick and the infirm are spared the deluge. Gaily dressed young men and young women in decorated cars or cart drive round the town or village, throwing water and getting drenched in return. Sometimes a bunch of young men will challenge another group of young men or a group of young women to throw more water on them by shouting slogans and singing songs.

Modern Thingyan Celebration

thingyan festiva2If someone should catch you by surprise while you are on your way to an appointment and doused you with a bowl full of water, what would be your response?

May be, a wrathful encounter. May be, something else. But be it between kindred souls of strangers, water-throwing is taken as a natural process at Thingyan, a festival enjoyed by one and all.

A bowlful, a bucketful, a squirtful, or, for those who are out to enjoy it rough and tough, an array of high-power nozzle water jets worked by a pump. Whatever the mode, you get doused, drenched to the skin, and, even with water in the nostrils and ears, not to mention the plight of your eyes, you came out laughing, for the spirit of Thingyan calls for cheer and camaraderie spontaneous.

Good humor prevails during festival time and groups of revelers move about from water-throwing pandal to pandal in open cars and trucks, to be given the soaking they asked for.

At many of the pandals, the organized revelers would chant barbs and sing songs specially composed for the occasion while damsels fair, attired in matching clothes, would also sing and dance, and thereby lend the necessary prelude to the dousing.

Or, there are decorated floats not intended to be wet in any manner, but to carry competitors to pandals where prizes are offered, and crowds would swarm around to look, listen and laugh. The barbs gibe at society's ills, and do their best. There is fun and fancy free.

The origin of Thingyan is woven around ancient lore and myth, and , as a scholar has put it together, it goes liker this:

Among the indigenous national groups who celebrate Thingyan with a traditional tinge distinctive of their culture are the Rakhines, who attract large crowds of participants and onlookers to their pandals where there is much grace and charm.

One of the eats that is in abundance at Thingyan is the moant-lone-yaybaw, (the snacks for all passerby called Studitha in Burmese) the floating dough-ball might be an apt interpretation, which is made by immersing larger-than-thumb size rice-flour dough balls with a jaggery center in a cauldron of boiling water where they cook and float to the top and can be retrieved and served with a sprinkling of grated coconut.

For those too jolly to consume any of them or are too full after a few stops at such give-aways these double as missiles when verbal combat of passing cars turn sour. Nonetheless, it is taken in the cheery spirit of Thingyan.

During Thingyan and on New Year Day, young girls in the urban or rural communities bathe and attend to the manicure and hair shampooing of those among the most senior citizens in the community. padauk flower1The old ladies are supplied with paste of sandalwood or thanakha (paste of scented bark) which is employed as traditional make-up or to render womenfolk neat and clean.

Three days of city-style water-fest can leave a lot of the young and not-so-young hoarse, sunburned and exhausted. New Year Day that immediately follows is a day for rest, for humility and charity. Having yelled themselves till they had lost their voice, the youngsters join the elders at the monastery, keep Sabbath or join the fish-freeing procession.Thingyan Padauk Flower

The freeing of fish or even bigger animals has been a traditional event as also the New Year Day wish for Buddha images and pagodas.

Padauk (pterocarpus) and ngu-shwe-wa (cassia fistula) are the golden seasonal blooms, which are joined by yingat (gardenia) when nature lavishes the month of Tagu.

Come mid-April and you hear festive music, merry shouts and shrieks and everyone joins in with his or her share of fun. Even tourists on erstwhile visits and diplomats or foreign guests find Thingyan a festival for all to enjoy.