Water festival is the most significant annual festival on the Myanmar calendar; it marks the start of the New Year, the beginning of the Myanmar lunar calendar, and celebrates life and rebirth. The correct Myanmar name for the water festival is Thingyan, however, outside Myanmar, it is often referred to as the water festival. Traveling around the world can lead you to engage in new, and often incredible, experiences. Sometimes that just means taking part in a new culture, while at other times it means celebrating your own. One common thread throughout all societies is the importance of our life source: water. Whether it is to cool off after a hot day, bathe yourself in preparation for prayer, quench your thirst, or just to have fun, water plays a major role in some of the most significant experiences throughout history. Water festivals in Southeast Asia are used to end one year or season and begin the next one anew. Many of these festivals take place during the solar new year, with participants washing off the ill health, bad luck, and evil spirits from the old year in order to start the new year fresh. Other festivals are meant to bring people closer together or to celebrate other holidays. Each culture has its own traditions and beliefs, so each water festival is celebrated slightly differently. Whether you celebrate Songkran in Chiang Mai, Thailand, or Chaul Chnam Thmey in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, water festivals in SE Asia are great opportunities to splash strangers and get soaking wet.
As travelers are crowding in Thailand for their annual Songkran water festival, you can participate in somewhere with less of that crazy touristy crowd. Why not celebrate Thingyan in Myanmar? Thingyan is celebrated for three to five days, typically from April 13 to 16 in Myanmar. It is a New Year’s celebration that stems from the Buddhist tradition. New Year takes place mid-April according to the Burmese calendar. This is also the hottest time of year, with extreme heat and humidity. Though Thingyan takes place in mid-April just like Songkran, it is very different than the water festival in Thailand. Not only are you meant to get wet at this festival, but you’re also meant to take time to do good deeds for other people, and Buddhists undertake additional rules for festival days. Burmese belief says that water will wash away evils and bad luck from the past year, allowing you to start the new year fresh. The story behind Thingyan originated from the Buddhist version of a Hindu myth. The story goes that the King of Brahmas called Arsi lost a wager to the King of Devas, Sakra (or Thagya Min as he is known in Myanmar). On losing the wager Arsi was decapitated and the head of an elephant was put onto his body (transforming him into Ganesha). The Brahma was so powerful that if the head were thrown into the sea it would dry up immediately. If I were thrown up into the air the sky would burst into frames. Sakra, therefore, commanded that the Brahma’s head be carried by one princess Devi after another taking turns for a year each. The New Year henceforth marked the changing of the hands of Brahma’s head and is celebrated by the Thingyan festival.
During the Water Festival, the Myanmar government relaxes the restrictions on gatherings. When night falls on Thingyan eve the fun begins in anticipation of the water festival. Festively names stages (mandate) made from bamboo, wood and beautifully decorated papier mache spring up overnight. Local women sing and dance in chorus lines uniformly dressed in traditional outfits. Most girls 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 hairs.
The first day of the Thingyan festival is meant for observing Buddhist rites. This includes a period of fasting. Offerings to images of Buddha, shrines, and monks are made. Buddhists must adhere to the Eight Precepts. When the fasting is over and a number of various religious duties are performed, a night of dancing and playing music gets underway. The next morning everyone gets their water guns, hoses, buckets, and anything else they can use to splash each other with water. A cannonball is fired, and the splashing begins. Orchestras, singers, puppeteers, comedians, and dance groups perform often during the water festival Thingyan. Food is generously handed out, and you could be given a cup of hot coffee, some fried noodles, or traditional snacks such as rice dumplings that have been made with palm sugar. In Mon State, a special dish is prepared from snakehead fish, beeswax, green mangoes, and onions. On New Year’s Day, the final day of Thingyan, people are less likely to be splashed when they venture outside. Many people are settling down to spend time visiting with family, preparing for the new year, and performing good deeds to start the year well. Young people wash the hair of their elders. Captive animals such as birds and fish, and sometimes livestock, are released, and special feasts are held for the monks.
The biggest Thingyan celebration is held in Yangon, with Mandalay holding the next biggest festival. Burmese New Year is one of the biggest holidays in Myanmar, so it would be hard to miss the Thingyan water festival no matter where you are. In the days leading up to Thingyan, giant platforms made of bamboo, called pandals, are built. They have rows of bright colors of hoses dangling from them. Many are sponsored by brands. These areas tend to be the focus of the Thingyan celebration, so if you want to be in the middle of all the action, look for these platforms.
The story behind Thingyan originated from the Buddhist version of a Hindu myth. The story goes that the King of Brahmas called Arsi, lost a wager to the King of Devas, Sakra (or Thagya Min as he is known in Myanmar). On losing the wager Arsi was decapitated and the head of an elephant was put onto his body (transforming him into Ganesha). The Brahma was so powerful that if the head were thrown into the sea it would dry up immediately. If I were thrown up into the air the sky would burst into frames. Sakra, therefore, commanded that the Brahma’s head be carried by one princess Devi after another taking turns for a year each. The New Year henceforth marked the changing of the hands of Brahma’s head and is celebrated by the Thingyan festival.
Starting from Thingyan Eve Buddhists are expected to observe the Eight Precepts including having only one meal before noon and hold upo satha observance days, which are similar to the Christian Sabbath. Alms are given to monks and offerings to Buddha images. An offering is typically a green coconut with its stalk intact encircled by bunches of green bananas 9nga pyaw pwe oun pwe) and sprigs of thabyay or jambul (Syzygium cumini). Once the offering is given, scented water is poured over the Buddha image in a ceremonial washing from the head down. On a-kya nei Thagya Min makes his descent from the heavens to the earth. At a givem signal, a 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 the animal Thagya Min will be riding and what he might be carrying. Children are 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! Thingyan (a-hka dwin) is a favorite time for shinbyu novitiate ceremonies for boys – when they join the monks (Sangha) and spend a short time in a monastery. It is akin to coming of age ceremonies in other religions.