Thingyan, The Water Festival

Among the many festivals in Myanmar, Thingyan is the merriest and one of the few observed all over the country. Thingyan welcomes the Myanmar New Year by washing away the dirt of the body and bad memories of the old year. Everyone who ventures out of the house risks getting doused from head to toe by enthusiastic revellers. As it so very hot no one minds this a bit. Young people enjoy it most of all. Although they act scared of being soaked, it is a fine way of showing off to the opposite sex.

Thagyamin, King of the Celestials, visits earth every year at this time in human form. The festival starts on the day of his descent, and ends with his ascent back to his celestial kingdom four or five days later. It is believed that during his stay on earth Thagyamin examines every human being and inscribes the names of all the good on a golden tablet, while the bad are recorded on a dog-skin. Parents warn their children to behave and not kill or steal or tell lies because ‘Thagyamin is watching’. Thagyamin is also custodian of the Buddha’s teachings. He is a good-hearted god who helps all those in need.

The word Thingyan comes from a Sanskrit word meaning ‘the passing of the sun from Pisces into Aries’. The day of Thagyamin’s ascent marks the beginning of the Myanmar New Year, and usually falls at the end of the second week of April.

Thingyan is the most exciting event of the Myanmar year. From early morning, young people prepare their equipment at every street corner including water tanks, buckets, pumps and hoses. Nobody, except the very old or sick, and monks, escapes a soaking, regardless of their religion or nationality. Many organisations, government offices, private companies and individuals build decorated pandals (platforms) from which to drench passing motorists and pedestrians. In big cities like Yangon, Mandalay and Mawlamyine, boys and girls drive from one pandal to another to splash and be splashed. There is a lot of singing and dancing, traditional as well as modern. In Mandalay, huge decorated floats carry singers, dancers and musicians around the town performing at the various pandals.

In former days, young girls caught the young men and painted their faces with oily soot until they looked like circus clowns, a custom that has more or less died out in the towns but continues in the countryside.

But Thingyan is not all fun and play. It is also a time for performing meritorious deeds. Some of the men become monks and women nuns during the festival or simply go to a monastery to observe eight or nine Buddhist precepts, or sometimes as many as ten. Many people make traditional delicacies, especially the popular ‘Mon’t-lone-yay-baw’, which are offered to the monks and distributed in the neighbourhood to passers-by.

Other meritorious deeds include setting free birds from their cages or captive fish in nearby lakes and ponds. Some people believe that spending too much on New Year’s Day means they will go on overspending for the rest of the year and so curb themselves. Most devout Buddhists will also take special care of old people of their acquaintance, bathing them and shampooing them with special soap made from acacia fruit and bark from the linden tree.

But, sad to say, the festival is becoming too boisterous, with car accidents and fights among the youngsters using high-pressure hoses. It would be nice if everyone would refrain from becoming aggressive and keep to the traditional custom of just sprinkling each other with water.