Thingyan (Burmese): from Pali sankanta, which translates 'transit (of the Sun from Pisces to Aries) is the Burmese New Year Water Festival and usually falls around mid-April (the Burmese month of Tagu). It is a Buddhist festival celebrated over a period of four to five days culminating in the New Year.
Formerly the dates of the Thingyan festival are calculated according to the traditional Burmese lunisolar calendar, but now fixed to Gregorian calendar 13 to 16 April; it often coincides with Easter. The dates of the festival are observed as the most important public holiday throughout Burma and are part of the summer holidays at the end of the school year. Water-throwing or dousing one another from any shape or form of vessel or device that delivers water is the distinguishing feature of this festival and may be done on the first four days of the festival. However, in most parts of the country, it does not begin in earnest until the second day. Thingyan is comparable to other new year festivities in Theravada Buddhist areas of Southeast Asia such as Lao New Year, Cambodian New Year and Songkran in Thailand.
Thingyan is originated from the Buddhist version of a Hindu myth. The King of Brahmas called Arsi, lost a wager to the King of Devas, Śakra (Thagya Min), who decapitated Arsi as agreed but the head of an elephant was put onto the Brahma's body who then became Ganesha. The Brahma was so powerful that if the head were thrown into the sea it would dry up immediately. If it were thrown onto land it would be scorched. If it were thrown up into the air the sky would burst into flames. Sakra therefore ordained that the Brahma's head be carried by one princess Devi after another taking turns for a year each. The New Year henceforth has come to signify the changing of hands of the Brahma's head.
The eve of Thingyan, the first day of the festival called a-kyo nei (in Myanmar), is the start of a variety of religious activities. Buddhists are expected to observe the Eight Precepts, more than the basic Five Precepts, including having only one meal before noon. Thingyan is a time when uposatha observance days, similar to the Christian Sabbath, are held. Alms and offerings are laid before monks in their monasteries and offerings of a green coconut with its stalk intact encircled by bunches of green bananas ( nga pyaw pwè oun pwè) and sprigs of thabyay or jambul (Syzygium cumini) before the Buddha images over which scented water is poured in a ceremonial washing from the head down. In ancient times Burmese kings had a hair washing ceremony with clear pristine water from Gaungsay Kyun (Head wash Island), a small rocky outcrop of an island in the Gulf of Martaban near Mawlamyaing.
By nightfall, the real fun begins with music, song and dance, merrymaking and general gaiety in anticipation of the water festival. In every neighbourhood pavilions or stages, with festive names and made from bamboo, wood and beautifully decorated papier mache, have sprung up overnight. Local belles have been rehearsing for weeks and even years, in the run-up to the great event in song and dance in chorus lines, each band of girls uniformly dressed in colourful tops and skirts and garlanded in flowers and tinsel. They wear fragrant thanaka - a paste of the ground bark of Murraya paniculata which acts as both sunblock and astringent - on their faces, and sweet-scented yellow padauk blossoms in their hair. The padauk (Pterocarpus macrocarpus) blooms but one day each year during Thingyan and is popularly known as the "Thingyan flower". Large crowds of revellers, on foot, bicycles and motorbikes, and in open top jeeps and trucks, will do the rounds of all the mandat, some making their own music and most of the womenfolk wearing thanaka and padauk. Floats, gaily decorated and lit up, also with festive names and carrying an orchestra as well as dozens of amorous young men on each of them, will roam the streets stopping at every mandat exchanging songs specially written for the festival including the Thingyan classics that everyone knows, and performing than gyat (similar to rapping but one man leads and the rest bellows at the top of their voices making fun of and criticising whatever is wrong in the country today such as fashion, consumerism, runaway inflation, crime, drugs, AIDS, corruption, inept politicians etc.). It is indeed a time for letting go, a major safety valve for stress and simmering discontent. There will be the usual spate of accidents and incidents from drink driving or just reckless driving in crowded streets full of revellers and all manner of vehicles, as well as drunkenness, arguments and brawling which the authorities have to be prepared for at this time of the year. Generally however friendliness and goodwill prevail along with some boisterous jollity.
The next day called a-kya nei is when Thingyan truly arrives as Thagyamin makes his descent from his celestial abode to earth. At a given signal, cannon (Thingyan a-hmyauk) is fired and people come out with pots of water and sprigs of thabyay, then pour the water onto the ground with a prayer. A prophesy for the new year (Thingyan sa) will have been announced by the brahmins (ponna) and this is based on what animal Thagya Min will be riding on his way down and what he might carry in his hand. Children will be told that if they have been good Thagya Min will take their names down in a golden book but if they have been naughty their names will go into a dog book!
Serious water throwing does not begin until a-kya nei in most of the country although there are exceptions to the rule. Traditionally, Thingyan involved the sprinkling of scented water in a silver bowl using sprigs of thabyay (Jambul), a practice that continues to be prevalent in rural areas. The sprinkling of water was intended to metaphorically "wash away" one's sins of the previous year. In major cities such as Yangon& Mandalay, garden hoses, huge syringes made of bamboo, brass or plastic, water pistols and other devices from which water can be squirted are used in addition to the gentler bowls and cups, but water balloons and even fire hoses have been employed! It is the hottest time of the year and a good dousing is welcomed by most. Everyone is fair game except monks and obviously pregnant women. Some overenthusiastic young lads may get captured by women, who often are their main target, and become kids of a practical joke with soot from cooking pots smeared on their faces. Maidens from mandats with dozens of garden hoses exchange hundreds of gallons of water with throngs of revellers and one float after another. Many revellers carry towels to block the jet of water getting into the ear and for modesty's sake as they get thoroughly soaked and drenched in their light summer clothes. The odd prankster might use ice water and a drive-by splash with this would provoke shrieks of surprise followed by laughs from its victims. Pwè (performances) by puppeteers, orchestras, dance troupes, comedians, film stars and singers including modern pop groups are commonplace during this festival.
During the Water Festival, the Myanmar government relaxes the restrictions on gatherings. In the former capital, Yangon, the government permits crowds to gather on the Kadawgyi Pet and Kabaraye Roads. Temporary water-spraying stations, known as pandals are set up, and double as dance floors. Many of these pavilions are sponsored by rich and powerful families and businesses
The third day is called a-kyat nei and there may be two of them, an extra day in certain years. The fourth is known as a-tet nei when Thagya Min returns to the heavens, the last day of the water festival. Some would throw water at people late into the day making an excuse such as "Thagya Min left his pipe and has come back for it"! Over the long festive holiday, a time-honoured tradition is mont lone yeibaw, glutinous rice balls with jaggery (palm sugar) inside thrown into boiling water in a huge wok and served as soon as they resurface which gave it the name. All the young men and women help in making it and all are welcome, but watch out for some prankster putting a birdseye chilli inside instead of jaggery for a laugh! Mont let saung is another refreshing Thingyan snack, bits of sticky rice with toasted sesame in jaggery syrup and coconut milk. They are both served with grated coconut. In major cities such as Yangon and Mandalay, Rakhine Thingyan can also be experienced as Rakhine residents of the city celebrate in their own tradition. Water is scooped from a long boat (laung hlei) to throw at revellers and Rakhine mohinga is served.
New Year's Day
The next day is New Year's Day ( hnit hsan ta yet nei). It is a time for people to visit the elders and pay obeisance by gadaw (also called shihko) with a traditional offering of water in a terracotta pot and shampoo. Young people perform hair washing for the elderly often in the traditional manner with shampoo beans (Acacia rugata) and bark. Many make New Year resolutions, generally in the mending of ways and doing meritorious deeds for their karma. Releasing fish (nga hlut pwè) is another time-honoured tradition on this day; fish are rescued from lakes and rivers drying up under the hot sun, then kept in huge glazed earthen pots and jars before releasing into larger lakes and rivers with a prayer and a wish saying "I release you once, you release me ten times". Thingyan (a-hka dwin) is also a favourite time for shinbyu, novitiation ceremonies for boys in the tradition of Theravada Buddhism when they will join the monks (Sangha) and spend a short time, perhaps longer, in a monastery immersed in the teachings of the Buddha, the Dharma. It is akin to rites of passage or coming of age ceremonies in other religions.
On the New Year's Day, people make food donations called satuditha at various places. They typically provide free food to those participating in the New Year's celebrations.