Thingyan is the Myanmar New Year, the highlight of which for many is often the famous Water Festival that will sweep through Myanmar like a wave from April 13th to 16th this year.
If you’re a tourist who wants to know what the new and democratic Myanmar is all about and you’re lucky enough to be here during the week of April 13th, then the trip will be worth your while. If you are lucky enough to live here, well then, you already know amazing the Festival is. Get ready to bravely charge off onto Yangon’s frenetic streets to face the inevitable and relentless drenching. Don’t forget to pack dry clothes in a plastic bag inside your knapsack or bag, if you happen to dislike fun.
A Spiritual Experience
In Myanmar tradition, one has to welcome Thingyan clean in both body and mind. Sprinkling water on other people is intended to wash away one’s sins of the previous year.
The Water Festival originated in the traditional Burmese custom of bidding farewell to the old year and greeting the new. Traditionally, Thingyan involves the sprinkling of scented water in a silver bowl using sprigs of thabyaya (an evergreen tree). This scented water was sprinkled to cleanse friends and family members while the Buddhist god, Thangya Min, came to earth to grade each person’s life over the past year. This tradition remains strong in rural areas today.
Among Myanmar’s 12 festivals, the Thingyan Water Festival is considered the grandest, as it is believed to bring peace and prosperity. The Water Festival starts on day one (April 13th this year), with the first day of Thingyan being known as “A Kyo Nei”. It is a marvellous celebration marked by religious activities across the country as Buddhists renew their faith by vowing to uphold the tenets of their beliefs.
Monks are lavished with offerings and alms. A particular offering is a green coconut decorated with bunches of green bananas and sprigs of thabyay that is placed before an image of the Buddha and sprinkled with scented water.
The evenings bring music, song and dance in anticipation of the Festival the next day. Pavilions or stages called “pandal” are built in cities and towns and it is from these water throwing pandal that people splash water on each other and passersby during the Festival.
The water throwing pandals in cities like Yangon, Mandalay and Nay Pyi Taw also have modern sound and lighting systems, as well as CCTV systems for security. DJs keep the party going with music and rapping. Pandals are expensive to build and are mostly built by the more affluent, by private businesses and by the government.
In 2013, the Mayor of Yangon’s pandal was the largest in the city. It drew large crowds of merry makers and was the stage for a wide variety of performances presented by dance troupes, musicians and comedians.
Crowds of revellers do the rounds of the pandals, some making their own music as they go. Most of the women wear fragrant thanaka on their faces and padauk flowers in their hair. Thanaka is a yellowish white paste made from the ground bark of several trees. It is used as a sunblock and is usually spread across a girl’s cheeks. Padauk is a tree whose sweet scented yellow flowers bloom only one day each year, during Thingyan. Because of this uniqueness, the padauk flower is popularly called the “Thingyan Flower.”
Thingyan really begins on A Kya Nei; a cannon is fired and people with pots of water and sprigs of the thabyay flower pour the water onto the ground while saying prayers. Unlimited water throwing does not begin in earnest until A Kya Nei in most of Myanmar.
In the major cities and towns, people shrug off everyday conventions and begin splashing and spraying everyone in sight. That the Festival remains a peaceful celebration is a tribute to Myanmar’s respect for traditions and the powerful influence of Buddhism.
Opening the floodgates of the Water Festival also unleashes three full days of partying along streets inundated with torrents of water. In major cities, partygoers use garden hoses, bamboo water cannons, water pistols, water bombs, plastic spray bottles, buckets and whatever else will hold water to throw at their fellow man. However, there are unwritten rules: everybody’s fair game, except monks and clearly pregnant women.
The partying continues into the third day, called A Kyat Nei. Atop the pandals, young women sing and dance under a shower of water and disco lights. They stomp their feet on the wooden floors to the hammering of music, both Myanmar and Western. The young men, when not joining the ladies frolicking on the pandals, do their thing on car roofs or anywhere else they may find themselves. The centre of all this chaos in Yangon has traditionally been Inya Road.
This “madness” ceases on the fourth day, which is Thingyan, or New Year’s Day, which will fall on April 17th this year. New Year’s Day is the ideal time for people of Myanmar to visit elders and pay obeisance by gadaw, a tradition in which a person, always of lower social standing, pays respect or homage to a person of higher standing. Young people wash the hair of the elderly.
People make New Year’s resolutions and continue with the tradition of releasing fish, saying a prayer and making a wish: “I release you once, you release me ten times”. They also make food donations called satuditha.
In various part of Asia, it’s a choice between partying amid gunpowder explosions or partying amid exploding water bombs. I’d prefer to get wet, wouldn’t you?