Songkran myths, modern muddles
After the Covid-19 outbreak disrupted our lives for over two years, the government has lifted regulations, allowing people to celebrate this year's Songkran festival in public settings. However, water fights, powder smearing, foam parties or the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages will not be permitted.
This reminds me of beautiful traditions from the past when we simply executed rituals such as creating chedi-like sand sculptures at the temple, pouring scented water on sacred Buddha statues and washing elder family members' hands to pray for blessings. It's like we're going back to basics to keep our wonderful New Year's celebration going while the times have changed.
Songkran is a Sanskrit word that refers to the Sun entering a new zodiac sign. According to astrology, Thai New Year's Day happens between April 13 and 15, marking the Sun's transition from Pisces to Aries.
At the same time, people clean their homes, make merit, bathe Buddha statues, pour jasmine water upon the elderly and splash water among relatives and friends to prepare for new beginnings in the upcoming year.
Based on a study by the National Cultural Commission, all these festive activities and rituals in Thai culture have been strategies to promote mental values and express compassion, awareness, respect and gratitude to one another.
Back to the origins, a stone inscription at Wat Phra Chetuphon Wimon Mangkhalaram recalls the story of a millionaire, who attempted unsuccessfully for three years to pray to the Sun and the Moon for a son until he washed rice in water seven times before cooking it to worship a God who dwelt in the banyan tree during Songkran.
After that, Indra granted him a son named Dharmapalakumar and the millionaire built a seven-storey palace beneath a banyan tree for his kid, where he grew up, studied the three Vedas and could even comprehend bird languages. His son was able to bless others when he was seven years old.
To put Dharmapalakumar to the test, Kabil Maha Phrom descended to the Earth and asked three riddles: Where is the glory of men located in the morning, during the day and in the evening? He had seven days to respond and the loser would have his head cut off.
Dharmapalakumar slept beneath a palmyra tree while searching for answers and overheard a pair of eagles discussing how the glory of mankind appeared on the face because people wash their faces in the morning. In the afternoon, when people sprayed perfume, the glory was on the chest, and the glory was at the feet in the evening when people bathed their feet before going to bed.
After Dharmapalakumar gave the answers, Kabil Maha Phrom asked his seven daughters to fetch a golden vessel to carry his head after it was cut to avoid catastrophe. If his head hit the ground, an inferno would erupt and engulf the whole world. The rains would cease if he threw his head into the air and if his head dropped into the sea, all water would evaporate.
His eldest daughter placed his head on a golden vessel procession with other gods and goddesses around Phra Sumeru Mountain before being enshrined in Krailas Mount's cave and honoured with offerings. Phravessukam built a fortress named Bhagavati, the Assembly Hall of Gods and Goddesses, which was decked with seven types of diamonds. In a parade, the gods and goddesses brought Kabil Maha Phrom's head to commemorate Songkran Day when the 365 days are completed.
In fact, several Asian countries, including Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, northeastern India, Vietnam, and Xishuangbanna, China, have also embraced this ritual. Apart from water fights, ethnic villagers in upper central and northern regions have managed to maintain their traditions to celebrate the month of Songkran.
For example, a famous ordination ritual is held in the old town of Ban Hat Sieo in Sukhothai on April 7 and 8. A colourful procession of Tai Phuan novice monks parades through the town, wearing full make-up, flashy costumes, and riding elephants to the temple.
However, people have become more cognisant of inappropriate manners and some entertaining activities during the Songkran celebration that might lead to harassment and obscenity. I've stayed away from water fights for years since I don't like smearing powder on my face, while some people have added ice to a bucket of water.
Although there will be no water splashing this year, we will still be able to enjoy traditional performances, Buddha processions, and music performances under preventive measures. Perhaps, this might be an opportunity to modify our celebrations in order to retain our lovely traditions.
Pattarawadee Saengmanee is a feature writer for the Life section of the Bangkok Post.