July 15, 2024
Burmese New Year, Thingyan

A few weeks ago my family and I have celebrated it: Thingyan. Thingyan also known as Burmese Water Festival is much more than what meets the non-Burmese eye. It is much, much more than drinking, dancing, singing and throwing water. The term ‘Thingyan’ has its origin in Sanskrit and means ‘change’ or ‘transition’. And that is exactly what ‘Thingyan’ is: the change from the old cycle of seasons to the new cycle of the seasons. It is a change from the old life to the new life as well as a change from the old year to the new year.

Burma has a lunar calendar the first month of which is ‘Tagu’ that marks the beginning of the summer, the month that coincides with the month of April of the Julian calendar. And it is in Tagu/April, properly speaking the second week of Tagu in which the Burmese New Year falls. Thingyan is traditionally celebrated nation-wide in the form of three to four days of water pouring prior to New Year’s Day. Thingyan holiday is 10 days and in this time almost all wheels grind to a halt. Government offices, factories and most businesses are closed and everyone who can has only one thing in mind: celebrating.

Thingyan that starts roughly on the 12th or 13th of April is rich in legends and accordingly the central figure of ‘Thingyan’ is ‘Thagyamin’ also known as ‘Sakka Deva’ or to address him by his royal name, ‘Taninganway Gyo Min’. He is the King of the celestials and is as inseparably connected with Thingyan as, for lack of a better example, Santa Claus with Christmas. Burmese people believe in the ‘Custodian of the Buddhist Teaching’ just as Christians (well the children) believe in Santa Claus.

Thagyamin is actually sort of borrowed from Hindu mythology but Burmese have made him their own. King Anawrahta of Pagan (1044-1077) made him the 37th nat and put him in the position of chief nat in order to win his animistic people over when he made Buddhism a state religion. For this reason Thagyamin is very much alive in Burmese folklore, in Buddhist parables and very close to the Burmese.

Every year the Burmese welcome Thagyamin on ‘Akya Nay’, the second day of Thingyan when just like Santa Claus he is descending to earth. Thagyamin is as legend has it coming down from Tavatimsa to usher in the New Year. Thingyan, the merriest, most colourful and most unique of Burma’s year- round festivals comprises of five days. The first day, the day before Thagyamin’s descent, is called ‘Akyo Nay’, which means as much as ‘The Day of Expecting Thagyamin’. The second day, the day of Thagyamin’s coming down to the human abode to celebrate the water festival is called ‘Akya Nay’.

The third day, the day of his inspection of human behaviour and conduct is ‘Akyat Nay’ and the fourth and last day, the day of Thagyamin’s returning to ‘Tavatimsa’ the kingdom of the celestials is called ‘Atet Nay’. The fifth and last day of Thingyan is the New Year’s Day, called ‘Nhit Thit Ku’. On this day is with the exception of the Mon people inhabiting the Mon State located in Southern Burma no one pouring or throwing water anymore as this is usually confined to the period from ‘Akyo Nay’ or ‘Day of Awaiting Thagyamin’ to ‘Atet Nay’ or ‘Day of Thagyamin’s Ascent to Tavatimsa’ (fourth day).

The pouring and throwing of water serves the purpose of washing away physical filth and dirt as well as spiritual sins and evil so as to be clean on body and soul for the New Year. In other words, it means the washing away of all the wrongdoings of the old year in order to start into the new one with fresh and clean body and mind. All is forgotten and forgiven.

There is also an interesting Hindu story that says that in Thingyan the handing over of the duty to hold Lord Brahma’s head – which is the sun – from one celestial daughter to another is celebrated. In case the handover would not take place, so the story goes, the sun (Lord Brahma’s head) would drop into the ocean and vaporise all of the water on earth; another reason to enjoy the throwing of and playing with water.

Thagyamin or ‘Sakka Deva’ the ‘Custodian of Buddhist Teachings’ is like Santa Claus at Christmas coming down to earth before New Year in order to punish evil people and to reward the good ones. The people who are good will have their names inscribed on the ‘Roll of Honour’, a golden plate also called ‘The Book of Gold’, whereas those who are bad will have their names written on the parchment of dog-hide also called ‘The Black Book of Dog Skin’. Accordingly, they will on ‘Doomsday’ or ‘Judgment Day’ receive either their reward for having been good people or be punished for having been bad people. My advice to you is that you see to it to be on ‘The Roll of Honour’.

The exact date and time of Thagyamin’s descent from ‘Tavatimsa’ is now as ever worked out by ‘The Board of Astrologers’. In old times, the exact arrival time of Thagyamin in his chariot or on the animal he may have chosen to ride was announced by the beating of royal drums and the report of the ‘Thingyan Cannon’ or ‘Sirene’. Thagyamin is accompanied by the carpenter and registrar ‘Vissukamma’ and his chariot driver ‘Matali’, just as Santa Claus is accompanied by his attendant ‘Knecht Ruprecht’ as he is called in Germany or ‘Nicholas’ as he is called in other countries.

Some old traditions of these times that are reflecting the true spirit of Thingyan are still alive and practiced although, alas, increasingly by older people only. One of these old customs is that at the time of Thagyamin’s arrival the family elders of Burmese families carry earthen pots called ‘Atar Pots’ filled with scented water and a bouquet or wreath of flowers and sprigs called ‘Thingyan Pan’ outside of their houses. The elders then raise the ‘Atar Pot’, bow to the direction of Tavatimsa/Heaven, assure Thagyamin that he is welcome and beg him to bring blessings to the human beings. The rite is continued by pouring the cool and scented water out of the ‘Atar Pot’ on the ground and then completed by fastening the ‘Thingyan Pan’, which represents the seven days of the week, to their home’s main entrance door.

Prior to the performance of the above rite it is important to the Burmese people that their immediate environments are properly prepared for the bidding farewell to the old year and the welcoming of the New Year. That is, that their homes/houses and surroundings are thoroughly maintained and cleaned up what includes that sacred objects such as Buddha Statues and other religious paraphernalia on the family altars are washed clean, the discarding of old clothing and other things, which are replaced by new ones, and the driving out of evil spirits by keeping open the doors and windows and beating them at the twilight of dusk.

Another old tradition is to boil fresh and pure shampoo out of a mixture of the bark of linden-bloom trees, soap acacia and other vegetable fruits. This shampoo is presented to neighbours, friends and acquaintances. As a sign of love older people are often helped by younger people to bathe and wash their hair with this shampoo.

Burmese people do also still read a single sheet hand bill called ‘Thingyan Sar’ (The Words of Thingyan). The Thingyan sar not only tells them what animal (for instance, a dragon) Thagyamin will be riding when he is coming down to earth to inspect human behaviours and to celebrate Burmese Water festival prior to New Year Day and what he will be holding in his hands (for instance, a spear, bow and arrow or a torch) but all gives them the information on how to behave themselves in and what they have to expect of the New Year.

From what Thagyamin is riding and from the paraphernalia he is holding in his hands when he is coming down to bring in the new year the people of Burma foretell the future and the Thingyan sar also constitutes a kind of oracle sheet for them. They see in it so to say a ‘blueprint’ of good behaviour for the entire New Year so as to be rectified when the next Thingyan season comes around. But here the story does not end. Thingyan sar also contains a set of instructions for each of the people born on a particular day. These instructions say that, for example, Sunday born should after shampooing their hair wear the white ‘Gan-Gaw’ flower in it. Monday born should not eat meat on a certain day, Tuesday born should… , and so on.

Thingyan, the time when the ‘Padauk’ trees (Andaman redwood tree) are laden with golden and very fragrant ‘Padauk-blossom’ (only in 2013, 2014 and 2015 the Padauk trees did not bloom at Thingyan because it was too dry) and the air is filled with scent of ‘Star-flowers’ is the festival of loving kindness, good moral conduct and goodwill. No ill-will, no hatred, no anger and no greed must be exercised but only the elements of the Thingyan spirit, which are love, understanding, compassion and generosity.

New Year Day is solemnly observed by doing all kinds of merit-making deeds. Alms are given to monks and respect and gifts are given to elders, parents and teachers by the community, children and pupils.

Communities hold ‘The Feast of Giving Food to Four Directions’ called ‘Satu-ditha’ in the course of which ‘mon-lone-yew-paw’ (sticky-rice cakes or balls), ‘Thingyan Htamin’ (a mixture of rice beeswax and Thingyan water) or ‘mohinga’ (Burmese Noodle in fish soup) are given away freely to all and everyone.

Another feature of Thingyan is the important ritual of noviciation called ‘Shin Pyu’. The sending of their son or sons to the monastery to give him/them into the ‘Sangha’, ‘Buddha’s Order’ is vital to every Buddhist family. In the monastery the young boys stay as novice for a week or two, have their hair shaven, wear the yellow or red robe and go on alms rounds with their black alms-bowls or Thabaiks as they are called in Burmese.

During the celebration of Thingyan festival a kind of ‘work-sharing’ between the old and young people can be recognised. While the older are meditating in the shrine rooms of their houses, are keeping Sabbath, saying prayer, telling beads and/or chanting hymns, the younger go out to revel on the streets, fringed by seemingly endless lines of beautifully decorated Thingyan stages, also called elevated pavilions, where they merrily drink, sing and dance to Thingyan music and songs. Here, out on the streets too, seems a sort of work-sharing to exist between the revellers. One part of them (in their vast majority beautiful Burmese damsels) is dancing and singing on the Thingyan stages down from which they are merrily squirting water out of water hoses and tubes on the other part of revellers (mostly single, young men) roaming the streets in endless parades of open pick-ups, jeeps and trucks. From there they are throwing water back on those on the stages, on other trucks and on pedestrians. The ‘water battles’ begin at about 09:00 AM and last till about 06:00 PM, interrupted only by lunch break from about 12:00 noon to 02:00 PM.

Most spectacular perhaps is the Thingyan festival in Burma’s former capital Yangon/Rangoon. At this time the city is at her best. Locals and foreigners alike are sure to be carried away by the proverbial Thingyan spirit and the city’s colourful sights.

An important feature of the afore-mentioned parades are the richly coloured and beautifully decorated floats occupied by actresses, actors, singers and musicians that are driving through the streets. These floats constitute the stages for traditional dance and music performances. They are stopping at many specially erected Thingyan stages standing alongside main roads. There they compete for awards given or presented for the best comedy act, song and/or dance performance, and so on. However, this wonderful tradition is increasingly falling into oblivion and dies out.

Between 06:00 PM and 07:00 PM many streets undergo a change of scenes and are transformed from’ battle fields’ into entertainment centres offering traditional folk theatre such as ‘Anyeint’ (a sort of operetta), ‘Zat-Pwe’ (classical drama) and ‘Pya-Zat’ (theatre) as well as dance and music performances, puppet shows and a medley of food stalls and other stalls selling all kinds of things from household utensils to clothes and children toys.

As it is with all old traditions and ancient rituals – the Thingyan festival dates back to ancient Pagan – the younger generations take over the duty to keep the true spirit of Thingyan alive and to hand it down to their children who in turn hand it down to their children, and so on and so forth. At least, this is how it should be.

It is a huge responsibility for the young to keep Thingyan meaningful and, for example, not to allow that the throwing of water is not any longer a friendly sport but degenerates to an aggression on other people. When I compare how Thingyan was celebrated 25 years ago and how it is done nowadays I recognise that this does not seem to be always easy. Therefore, taking into account that Thagyamin’s influence on Buddhist thoughts is considerable and that the Burmese people have faith in him, it might be a good idea to call upon Thagyamin to cast his watchful eyes on what is going on down on earth and to send a couple of his high-powered thunder bolts whenever he sees the good spirit of Thingyan endangered. I am eagerly waiting for his first thunder bolt.

Happy Thingyan, a Happy New Year to all of you?