Songkran: The Water Festival – Part I

SE Asia II   (55)By Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz

As we walked down a narrow lane in the Thai city of Chiang Mai, some unseen person standing in the shadows shouted “Sa-wat-dee pee mai!” just as a cascading sheet of water hit me in the side of the head.  Water was dripping into my sandals, my hair was plastered to my face, and my sunglasses dangled somewhere behind my neck.  I turned to see the laughing, smiling faces of a group of eight year olds.  My face said all there was that needed to be said as I resigned myself to my fate and laughed with them.  “I’ll be back!” I said teasingly, sending them into new fits of joyous laughter.  Today is the beginning of Songkran, the Thai New Year, and my birthday – and my only regret in being out on the streets at all today is that I didn’t have my own bucket of water.

Trust me, I’m no saint, I just understand one simple thing: if you are going to be in Thailand during Songkran, you cannot get angry when you are doused with water, dusted with colored powder, or smeared with white paste – even if you don’t want to participate, no one is immune from the traditional soaking during a festival that celebrates water and the coming of the fertile rainy season.

The Thai New Year is often referred to as the Water Festival or Songkran. This ancient celebration has long ties to the Indian spring festival of Holi, in which the abundance of the year’s harvest and the fertility of the land were celebrated as the work of Hindu gods and goddesses. Through ages of close association, the Thai people picked up on the festival and carried it back home where they adapted and modified the custom to suit their own seasons and religious beliefs.

The word ‘songkran’ in Sanskrit, which is the written form of Thai language, refers to the suns entry into any zodiac sign. But because of the significance of the suns arrival in Aries, which traditionally marks the end of the dry season, the name came to represent that precise event and the ‘new year’ it began. So it came to be that Songkran was celebrated to mark the end of the difficult dry season and to welcome the beginning of the monsoon rains and their promise of abundant new life. Although the exact date of Songkran has changed over the years, it is officially celebrated from April 13th through April 15th.

Strings of fresh flowers at a market stall.For the abundance of the season at hand, Buddhist Thai’s give honor and praise to the Lord Buddha for his enlightenment and compassion during the previous year. Monks and elders of the community, such as parents and grandparents, are paid great respect for their wisdom and leadership. Songkran is also a time for acts of compassion and merit-making. Buddhists believe that acts of kindness help improve the collective karma of the community, which in turn brings good luck and fortune in the year to come.

One of the most time-honored traditions for Thai Buddhists is the returning of sand to the temples.  To devout Buddhists, everything within the confines of a temple or Wat is sacred – including the sand on the ground, which is naturally carried away on the feet of worshippers as they enter and leave the grounds.  As a deep act of reverence, worshippers make pilgrimages to the nearby river where they fill small buckets with sand and return it to the Wat where it belongs.

Each bucket is dumped in a central location in the courtyard of the temple.  As the long celebration progresses, the mounds of sand grow and grow – sometimes reaching heights of a two-story building!  As the mounds grow, they are often adorned with long bamboo poles festooned with brightly colored prayer flags that flutter in the breeze.

The Buddhist’s belief in karma is very strong, and during Songkran it is even more important to make merit through acts of kindness. Often, caged birds are set free and monks and the poor are given food, clothes, and money. Helping others at your own expense, keeping oneself cheerful and content, and not becoming angry or sad are all excellent ways to earn merit. But for most Buddhists, these things are a way of life, not a once-a-year event.

Continued next week…

© 2014 Jill Henderson – Feel free to share with a link back to this site. Thanks.

AJOS-214x3281A Journey of Seasons
A Year in the Ozarks High Country

Set in the rugged heart of the Ozark mountains, A Journey of Seasons is memoir, back-to-the-land handbook and nature guide rolled into one.  Henderson’s 20-years of living off the land and foraging in the wilderness shines in this cyclopedic work filled with nature notes, botanical musings, back-woods wisdom and just a pinch of “hillbilly” humor.  This is one journey you don’t want to miss.

Available in the Show Me Oz Bookstore

Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill’s work has also appeared in The Permaculture Activist, The Essential Herbal, Acres USA, and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac.

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3 responses to “Songkran: The Water Festival – Part I

  1. william wallace

    you need to take of your rose colored specs. songkran is a national cull and is (has become) an excuse for sociopths to seriously assault – sometines resulting in death – innocent people. also it never begins anywhere on the 3rd of april.

    lease don’t attempt to normalize this mayhem. any innocent tourists finding themselfs having to suffer being drenched for 2 weeks i hte main holiday locations will certainly not appreciate not being forewarned

    • No rose colored spectacles here, Wallace. But I take it you had a bad experience. I’m not a casual tourist when it comes to Thailand and am familiar with its ups and its downs; its good and its ugly. I talk about some of that in the article and I believe I’ve given the prospective tourist enough “forewarning” to encourage caution. But as a whole, Songkran is so much more than a beer-fest with water cannons. I hope some day you have the opportunity to experience that aspect of this ancient culture for yourself.

  2. william wallace

    i have lived in Thailand for 20 years. Thai wife, 4 Thai/English children and 2 grandchildren. In its orignal form songkran was a respectfull and gracious occasion. The death count will start in a few days – so i will keep you informed of the numbers. Do you really celibrate and seek to normalize a cull!

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