According to Wit Thienburanathum’s Thai-English Dictionary, Songkran refers to the date of the sun passing into the zodiacal sign of Aries. Though this may happen in the heavens anytime around April 12or 13, the Thais have long assigned Songkran Day to the thirteenth.
That this moment in the astronomical cycle should be chosen as the Thai New Year probably has as much to with heralding the rains before the new rice-planting season as the shifting of heavenly bodies.
Though Thais appear to be Buddhist, especially during Songkran when the temples become the focus of ritual activity, many Thais also follow practices that accord with spirit worship.
On one website high on Google’s search results for ‘Songkran’ in recent years was the suggestion that when Songkran Day falls on a Monday, “senior government officers and their ladies shall have great power.”
This year the same link (www.songkran.net) takes you to the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s Songkran presentation. Unsurprisingly, there is no mention of what this year’s Friday 13th may portend.
Whether this Western superstition has any relevance in Thailand or not, in a Buddhist country steeped in spiritualism, many Thais will offer propitiations wherever they feel spirits are likely to dwell.
What, then, should be made of one of the most charming traditions of Songkran, which is the bathing rite of Buddha images?
In this rite, Thai women in traditional Pha Sin (tube skirt) and men in suitably smart attire go to their local temple to bathe Buddha images with lustral water (water scented with sweet smelling herbs), gently pouring water over the head and shoulders of the image without touching the image itself.
One of the most prominent of Buddha images in Chiang Mai, the city pre-eminent in Thailand for its celebration of Songkran, is the Phra Sihing image. This image is brought outside and placed in front of the main vihara of Wat Phra Singh for the duration of the festival and many of the city’s residents will go there to bathe it.
Other temples in the city such as Wat Chet Lin (on Propaklao Road south of Wat Chedi Luang) may go to elaborate lengths using specially constructed wooden channels to engineer the placing of water on Buddha images taller than people.
Thais pour lustral water gently and slowly as a blessing and sign of respect. This is how Thais will pour water over the hands and shoulders of those for whom they wish to honor in Dam Hua ceremonies, when, as may be expected in a hierarchical society, juniors pay respect to seniors.
The dam hua ceremony can be informal, as between an extended family and their grandparents, or formal, such as when government officials in Chiang Mai lead a parade to anoint the provincial governor with lustral water on the afternoon of the third day (15th) of Songkran.
The gentle bathing of images using lustral water is of necessity not quite the same during the parade of Buddha images on the afternoon of Songkran Day (13th). If there is one thing not to miss during Songkran in Chiang Mai, it is this parade.
Throughout the afternoon, floats carrying Buddha Images from different temples in Chiang Mai move in procession east to west through to Wat Phra Singh, which is in the old city delineated by the city’s square-shaped moats.
Whilst elsewhere on the city streets the bedlam of water-throwing is intense, residents of Chiang Mai will take time off sluicing each other and attempt to anoint the passing images with lustral water in a polite a fashion as crowds along the route permit.
Another good thing to see is merit making early in the morning on the third day (15th) of Songkran, when people bring food offerings to monks in the temples. Folks may also take this opportunity to place flags in temporary stupas of sand built in temple compounds.
Though offering food to monks may not be hard to comprehend, the placing of flags in sand stupas and the bringing of long branches of wood stripped of bark to place against Bodhi trees (ficus religiosa) in temple grounds are harder to figure.
There is the theory that the sand represents material things that people have unwittingly taken away from the temple, and that placing paper flags in the sand stupas somehow compensates for the misdemeanor of taking that which is not offered.
The wooden sticks and stripped boughs placed against tree trunks represent support for the dharma, the Buddhist teaching.
Such explanations may please rational minds but in a land steeped in spirit worship, superstition and Buddhism, it may be better to just note that this is what Thai folks may do to mark their new year.
People certainly do not throw lustral water over each other on the city streets, particularly the crowds who get their water from Chiang Mai’s murky moats. At this time in that place it is best to go out in a T-shirt and shorts and be ready to make wet.
Going out onto the streets during Songkran is great fun. Even if not so clean icy water sluicing down the body can seem more like momentary torture than relief from stifling heat, laughter will be infectious and spirits will uplift in this ultimate of wet T-shirt parades.
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Text by Frank Douglas © Frank Douglas – All Rights Reserved.
Photos “Water Throwing,” “Bathing of Buddha images,” “Dam Hua – Monks,” “Dam Hua- Elders,” and “Procession” by the Tourism Authority of Thailand © Tourism Authority of Thailand – All Rights Reserved.
All other photos by Frank Douglas © Frank Douglas – All Rights Reserved.
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