Thingyan: A Festival for all to enjoy

By Min Kyaw Min

    If someone should catch you by surprise while you are on your way to an appointment and doused you with a bowl full of water, what would be your response?

    May be, a wrathful encounter. May be, something else. But be it between kindred souls of strangers, water-throwing is taken as a natural process at Thingyan, a festival enjoyed by one and all.

    A bowlful, a bucketful, a squirtful, or, for those who are out to enjoy it rough and tough, an array of high-power nozzle water jets worked by a pump. Whatever the mode, you get doused, drenched to the skin, and, even with water in the nostrils and ears, not to mention the plight of your eyes, you came out laughing, for the  the spirit of Thingyan calls for cheer and camaraderie spontaneous.

    Good humor prevails during festival time and groups of revelers move about from water-throwing pandal to pandal in open cars and trucks, to be given the soaking they asked for.

    At many of the pandals, the organized revelers would chant barbs and sing songs specially composed for the occasion while damsels fair, attired in matching clothes, would also sing and dance, and thereby lend the necessary prelude to the dousing.

    Or, there are decorated floats not intended to be wet in any manner, but to carry competitors to pandals where prizes are offered, and crowds would swarm around to look, listen and laugh. The barbs gibe at society's ills, and do their best. There is fun and fancy free.

    The origin of Thingyan is woven around ancient lore and myth, and , as a scholar has put it together, it goes liker this:

    "..... When the Sun enters the constellation Aswini in sign Aries, the Thingyan period begins, and continues for three days. The popular belief, however, is that during the Thingyan period Thagyamin (who is the same as the Vedic deity Indra) descends to make has annual visit to the realms of the earth. He begins with him a golden book wherein he inscribes the names of those who good deeds and he has with him another book made of dog's skin wherein he puts down the names of those who did wicked deeds.

    "The story, however, goes that once upon a time a dispute arose in the abode of the Celestial Beings between the Thagyamin and a certain Bramah concerning certain mathematical calculations. The dispute lasted a long time. Neither party would give in and at last the disputants each wagered his head as to being in the right. The Thagyamin won and delighted he was at having cut off the Bramah's head, a new perplexity beset him. How was he to dispose of the head? To throw it down to earth mean conflagration in the abode of human beings, cast it into the sea would make the water boil, to throw it up into the sky would burn the firmament. He solved his difficulty, however, by handing it over to the keeping of several nat-maidens, and once a year when the head of this vanquished mathematician changed hands, the Thagyamin finds it convenient to make a short excursion and a sojourn in our midst.

    "And astrologers, Myanmars and ponnas, putting their heads together calculate with almost precision the actual hour, minute and second of the arrival of the Thagyamin to this earth and the actual time of departure to the nat abode."

    "These astrologers too can foretell how the Thagyamin would come, whether he would come riding a bull or serpent, whether he would bear in his hand a water pot or a spear, a staff or a torch; and from such signs and portents as these they proceed to predict a year of good or bad harvest, plentiful or strife and turmoil. The astrological forecasts for the year called Thingyansa, are printed and find ready buyers."

    The young are told not to be cross when water is splashed upon them, much less voice their vexation, least the Thagyamin should find it fit to put their names down in the dog hide book.

    Of course, when they are good and do merit, they stand to be inscribed in the golden book. Thus, carefree merrymaking is interspersed with meritorious action, with feeds and alms-giving, initiations into novicehood or the higher Buddhist Order of monkhood, even if temporarily in the period preceding, during or following Thingyan.

    The Thingyan is a three-day or four-day affair, depending on astrological predictions. Even with three-day period, the eve is included into the water-fest by the young who might, in certain areas, also claim that the the Thagyamin had forgotten his pipe and was down here on earth to claim it on New Year Day, adding yet another day to revelry.

    In Yangon, Mandalay, Mawlamying and other big towns, the activity is much more organized and there is greater motor traffic. On the rural scene, however, the extravagance is limited, the essence of fun and meritorious deeds rendered more meaningful in ways conforming with tradition.

    Among the indigenous national groups who celebrate Thingyan with a traditional tinge distinctive of their culture are the Rakhines, who attract large crowds of participants and onlookers to their pandals where there is much grace and charm.

    One of the eats that is in abundance at Thingyan is the moant-lone-yaybaw, the floating doughball might be an apt interpretation, which is made by immersing larger-than-thumb size rice-flour doughballs with a jaggery center in a cauldron of boilding water where they cook and float to the top and can be retrieved and served with a sprinkling of grated coconut.

    For those too jolly to consume any of them or are too full after a few stops at such give-aways these double as missiles when verbal combat of passing cars turn sour. Nonetheless, it is taken in the cheery spirit of Thingyan.

    Thingyan time in most regions of Myanmar is the time the mercury hits its seasonal peak, and a splash or a dose under the noonday sun is always welcome.

    When water-throwers relent a bit around noon, the revellers repair to lakes and parks and rest, to recover their breath and drive.

    During Thingyan and on New Year Day, young girls in the urban or rural communities bathe and attend to the manicure and hair shampooing of those among the most senior citizens in the community. The old ladies are supplied with paste of sandalwood or thanakha (paste of scented bark) which is employed as traditional make-up or to render womenfolk neat and clean.

    Three days of city-style water-fest can leave a lot of the young and not-so-young hoarse, sunburned and exhausted. New Year Day that immediately follows is a day for rest, for humility and charity. Having yelled themselves till they had lost their voice, the youngsters join the elders at the monastery, keep Sabbath or join the fish-freeing procession.

   The freeing of fish or even bigger animals has been a traditional event as also the New Year Day wish for Buddha images and pagodas.

   Myth and legend aside, Thingyan literally means transit--in Sanskrit it is sankranta, in Pali it is sankanta--the transit of the Sun to Aries from Pisces. It has little, if anything, to do with religipn.

   Padauk (pterocarpus) and ngu-shwe-wa (cassia fistula) are the golden seasonal blooms, which are joined by yingat (gardenia) when nature lavishes the month of Tagu.

   Come mid-April and you hear tumultuous music, merry shouts and shrieks and everyone joins in with his or her share of fun. Even tourists on erstwhile visits and diplomats or foreign guests find Thingyan a festival for all to enjoy.