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The Water Festival

The history-long tradition of water splashing/pouring at one another to mark the New Year’s celebrations is observed in three Southeast Asian countries, namely Laos, Myanmar and Thailand and it is internationally noted as the Water Festival. The tradition can also be found in parts of China’s Yunnan province which borders northeast Myanmar and northern Laos. In Cambodia also, there is a ritual called by Westerners the Water Festival, but it is not a New Year’s celebration like the others. Though the water festivals in Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Yunnan are cultural observances that see people throwing water at one another, Cambodia’s water festival is a Khmer traditional boat race named Bon Om Thook. While in Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Yunnan, the water festival is held to mark the New Year that falls in April in the respective traditional lunisolar calendars, the Cambodian water festival Bon Om Thook takes place in November. However, the Khmer New Year Chaul Chnam Thmey coincides with those countries’ New Year to fall in April, albeit Chaul Chnam Thmey is not associated with a water splashing festival.

In Laos, the water festival is called Pii Mai or Songkran, celebrated from April 13 to April 15. The ceremonials of Pii Mai are largely similar to those of the water festivals in Myanmar and Thailand. The Laotian New Year concurs with the New Year of Cambodia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

In Thailand, where people are predominantly ethnic Thais who come from the same ethno-linguistic group along with Laotians, the New Year water festival is also called Songkran, running from April 13 to April 15. Thai Songkran is observed nationwide and it is the most well-known water festival in the world. The festival is one of the major tourist attraction events for Thailand, a key destination in the Far East. In Myanmar, the traditional New Year’s water festival is called Thingyan. Thingyan is celebrated in the Myanmar month of Tagu. In ancient times, Thingyan days were announced based on the calculations as per Myanmar lunisolar calendar. But today, the days are fixed from April 13 to April 16. Thingyan festival is the most prominent event among Myanmar’s seasonal religious and cultural festivals, extensively celebrated on a nationwide basis. The festival period is the largest public holiday in Myanmar, embraced by citizens from all ethnic and religious backgrounds. Thingyan festival has resulted in a kind of music called Thingyan Song. The music genres of Thingyan songs range from traditional tune, pop and hip-hop to rock, dance and electro.

It is quite interesting to trace the origin of the traditional water splashing festival widely held in Laos, Myanmar and Thailand. The practice is assumed to derive from Hindu festival Holi according to most studies and arguments. The observance can be discerned as a part of historical Indo-Aryan cultural influence over the several ethnic groups that reside in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand. Ethnic groups such as the Bamar, Mon, Rakhine people, Khmers, Thais, Shan people and Laotians have been subject to substantial Indo-Aryan cultural influence over their history.

Despite the fact that most of the various peoples in present-day Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand have migrated from central Asia, the Tibet plateau and China according to widely-accepted cultural anthropology studies, the groups were mostly overwhelmed by Indo-Aryan influence from the West in the cultural aspect in history. Therefore, the hypothesis that the water festivals of Pii Mai, Thingyan and Songkran originate from the Hindu festival Holi, vmay be presumed to be close to actuality. Some investigations claim that the culture of water festival was introduced and dispersed in Laos, Thailand and Yunnan by the migrated waves of ethnic groups such as Bamar and Mon from Myanmar.

A noteworthy fact here is that the water festivals of Pii Mai, Thingyan and Songkran are not religious events of Buddhism. In Myanmar, Thingyan is not a festival that comes from religious background, not like those festivals as Bodhi Tree watering festival held in the Myanmar month of Kason, the lighting festival held in the Myanmar month of Thadingyut or the robe-donating festival to Buddhist monks in the Myanmar month of Tazaungmon. Those festivals are celebrated to mark the relevant religious occasions. Thingyan is just a cultural phenomenon. As Laos, Myanmar and Thailand have close cultural relations and traditional customs, it is the same for them to observe the similar New Year rites and rituals in the New Year’s water festival period. Moreover, it can be observed that the religion-based cultural activities among the various Buddhist peoples from those nations and Khmers from Cambodia and the Sinhalese from Sri Lanka are quite similar.

The meaning and ways of celebrating Thingyan may be very different today from what they have been in the past, but that is the way of such widespread cultural events. You will still be splashed with water, and so cleansed for the new year, whether you’re in the grounds of a pagoda or under the spinning lights of a disco-tech stage. It is, after all, the biggest celebration of the year.