The annual Songkran Water Festival is one of those events that has to be experienced in person to begin to appreciate the enormity of the spectacle and the uniqueness of the occasion. In Thailand, Songkran is an annual nationwide party, but beyond the image of playful water-fights it’s an event steeped in tradition and meaning for Thai Buddhists.
The word “Songkran” is derived from the Sanskrit language and means ‘move into’, referring to the orbit of the sun moving into each of the houses of the zodiac. In Thailand, the word “Songkran” has come to be identified specifically with the sun moving into Aries in April (usually on the 13th) marking the end of a 12 month cycle and the beginning of a new solar year. Thailand still celebrates the Western New Year on January 1st, but Songkran remains as the traditional Thai New Year festival.
Today, Songkran is widely associated with water throwing. This can go on for just one day in places in the south, but can last for a week or more in areas of the north. The water association has a number of meanings. Water is thrown to cleanse and purify all the ills, misfortune and wrongdoing of the previous year, thus providing a clean slate for the new year ahead. Throwing water during Songkran is also associated with fertility. It is a time when Thai people traditionally looked to bring on the rains for rice cultivation and ensure a successful and bountiful harvest. The festivities were also a time for courtship in days gone by and the trend continues today, though not always in quite such a traditional manner!
Songkran is officially a three day festival. On the first day, firecrackers are often lit to send the old year on its way and ward off evil spirits, whilst homes and gardens are given a good cleaning. The most important aspect of the day is the cleaning of Buddha images. Many towns and cities parade important Buddha images from local wats through the streets. Local inhabitants then gather to throw lustral water scented with jasmine flowers over the images. The general mayhem of water throwing begins on this day, with the streets of many towns thronged with people dousing each other with water from buckets, hoses and toy water pistols.
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