The history and traditions of the famous Songkran festival:
The ancient Kingdom of Lanna came into existence with the founding of Chiang Mai by King Mengrai in 1296. There is, however, strong evidence from old chronicles that the site had been inhabited for many years by Lawa people who lived in the area long before the coming of the Thai. By the time of King Mengrai, Thai people had spread across the heartland of mainland Southeast Asia, from Assam through Yunnan, Laos, Siam and Lanna, to Vietnam and Hainan - it is highly probable that many of their shared traditions and beliefs date back some two thousand years.
Over the centuries these original beliefs have been overlaid by influences from China and India, in particular, Hinduism and Buddhism. Songkran or Paveni Pi Mai, the New Year Festival, is, together with the worship of the Rice Goddess and a wide range of ancestral, ground and water spirits, a remembrance from those most ancient days.
New Year in Thailand is highly complicated. The first month of the year in Lanna starts on the full moon in October, which marks the end of the Buddhist three month lent. The Siamese and Shan people consider the first month to start two moons later. In 1889 the Siamese government decreed that the new year should start on April 1st. In 1940, to comply with western practice January 1st became the official New Year. However, the citizens of Chiang Mai know that the real Pi Mai must be celebrated in the middle of April and in the dances and drumming displays, etc.- have been newly created for the benefit of tourists.
Whatever is old, whatever is new, for a week in the middle of the dry heat of April, Chiang Mai is awash with joyous fun and boisterous young people taking part in the greatest water fight in the world.
1990 the Thai government made April 13th, 14th and 15th national holidays for the whole country. This is the time when the sun shifts from the sign of Pisces to the sign of Aries. This is one of the great Rites of Passage. The blessing of rain soon to come can be looked forward to and prayed for. The days are getting longer, light is once again overcoming darkness, the slow, hot and tedious days will soon be forgotten and rejuvenation, renewed hope and fertility are in the air. Soon the life giving rains will enable rice to be planted.
Onto these primitive ideas have been grafted Hindu, Buddhist and Shaman beliefs and, today, the whole mix has become one long, joyous celebration - the greatest waterfight in the world - much of the original meaning of the Songkran celebrations has been lost. And this is scarcely surprising given the sad history of Lanna. Following the years or its greatness in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, Lanna was occupied by the Burmese for two hundred years and became a neglected backwater. After the Burmese had destroyed the Thai world for the second time in 1767, the city of Chiang Mai was deserted for twenty years, it was reoccupied by a motley assortment of people, and finally was absorbed as a province of Siam, as Thailand was then called, at the end of the nineteenth century. Most local traditions were lost or suppressed.
The first day of the festival is the last day of the old year. Houses are spring-cleaned, clothes washed and Buddha statues and amulets blessed with lustral water. Up until the 1930's the Jao or Prince of Chiang Mai would go down to the River Ping and ceremoniously pour out sacred water to wash away all the sorrows and problems incurred by his people in the old year. He would then go in procession to pay his respects to the most important Buddha statues in the city.
The second day was an in-between sort of day when people prepared for the New Year which would start on the 14th. It was a day of fun and relaxation and the throwing of water intensified. Girls were allowed and encouraged to become physically and sexually aggressive, bawdy singing competitions were held between groups of boys and girls. Many a village romance started at this time.
New Year's day is a time for making merit in the local wat or temple, merit made this day will go to the ancestors - your own and also those of the village and the King. It is also the day when respect is paid to parents, elders, teachers and those who have helped you in the past year. Their forgiveness is asked for whatever you may have done wrong in the past year whether unintentionally or deliberately. Many think that this Dam Hua ceremony is the origin of the orgy of water throwing but in fact the recipient takes a few drops of water from the bowl offered and touches them to his own head, he will then sprinkle some on the hands of those who came to ask for his blessing.
It is only in very recent years that an effort has been made to revive, or recreate, a Lanna heritage. Much of the pageantry associated with the Songkran Festival - the Beauty Competition, the parade of girls on bicycles,