The ‘it’ I am referring to is, of course, the traditional Thai New Year (Songkran), and it has been greatly scaled back this year due to the outbreak of COVID-19.
Usually, areas like Old Phuket Town and downtown Bangkok are normally jam packed with jubilant revelers of virtually all ages, and all nationalities. But this year, that’s probably not going to happen.
Sadly, there could be no more efficient method to dramatically spread COVID-19 than to celebrate the traditional Thai New Year in the ways which we often do today. But, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the celebration is completely over.
You see, Songkran was not always the huge street party which we have grown accustomed to. In ancient times it actually had very quiet, very spiritual beginnings, and, if we understand those bygone days, perhaps we might be able to repurpose them to celebrate Songkran in these trying times today.
In ancient times, Songkran essentially marked the beginning of the Siamese New Year. Old Siam functioned on a lunisolar Buddhist calendar and this differentiated Siam from the West in a number of interesting ways.
The traditional Siamese calendar was a Zodiac calendar, and Zodiacal calendars operate on systems comprised of 12 ‘signs’. A sign represented 30 degrees of graduated transit in the stars; culminating in a 12-month system. But, this system had some differences from what we are accustomed to in the West.
First, months were counted from December as a starting point, not January. Also, the celebration of the New Year occurred in April, instead of on the more familiar January 1. Plus, the months were all different than what we are accustomed to in modern times.
Months alternated between 29 and 30 days. Years were either 354, 355, or occasionally 384 days long. On a long year, the eighth month would be repeated, and months were subdivided into two periods.
Months were structured such that the first 15 days of a month occurred when the moon was ‘waxing’ (the time required for a new moon to mature into a full moon). The last two weeks of the month centered around the time required for a full moon to retire into a new moon, or as the moon was ‘waning.’ The names of the months were drawn from ancient Khmer.
The entire traditional Siamese Calendar was based on four lunar stages, and this played a role in determining when great feasts and Buddhist Holy Days would be marked. On today’s calendars, Songkran would generally be marked on April 13, but ancient Siamese people would have known this date under the terms of their calendar.
Days were similar to what we know today. However, Siamese time was 17 minutes and 56 seconds out of sync with the modern system. This was equalized on April 1, 1920, when everyone had to move their clocks roughly 18 minutes ahead, for good. Days were divided into four six-hour time periods.
Technically, the Songkran we know is really one of 12 songkrans. ‘Songkran’ (or “Sam-kranti” in my Sanskrit-English dictionary) translates to ‘movement,’ and a ‘songkran’ marks the movement as the sun transits out of one Zodiacal position and into another. The Songkran we celebrate today simply marks the most important transition, which is when the sun transits out of Pisces and into Aries, thus ending the old year.
In ancient times, Songkran was not a gigantic water fight. In fact, the original idea was to mark the changing of the year by having younger people gently sprinkle their elders (aged 60 and up) with holy water. The hope was that the holy water would wash away the sins and sorrows of the past year, and it would not be unfair to speculate that many people would hope for a prosperous new year.
Traditionally, many Thais would return to their villages in order to mark the holiday. Many young boys would ordain and become novice monks, and prayers would be offered for dearly departed loved ones.
The sprinkling of holy water was much more of a quiet, subdued affair than it is now. Rather than having water fights in the streets, in these days you would have seen street stalls that were stacked with piles of hand-rolled cigarettes, handmade baskets, and inside those baskets could have been many wonderful handcrafted treats, like rice balls or any number of sweet desserts – many of which still are popular to this day and are referred to by Thais as Khaaw Tom.
Out in the town square, you would have seen Buddha statues having water poured over their torsos and, inside the local temples, great sermons would be recited from senior monks standing behind long, flowing scrolls. Reenactments of great Buddhist stories were often conducted, and some of these reenactments even included choreographed historical reenactment on elephant-back. Fish would frequently be released into local rivers for good luck, and many locals would bring sand to their temples as a gift.
Yet, Songkran would have been at its most quaint in very small, very rural communities. In thatched villages with little more than a few dozen residents, it is obvious that Songkran would have been a very quiet family or community affair; this year, those are the days which we probably have to return to for a while.
I know many junior Buddhist monks who recently finished ordination, and they tell me that they will skip large groups and gatherings, but are planning on a quiet celebration with their families. They still intend to sprinkle holy water on their elder relatives, and several former monks I know are planning to make large feasts while they stay at home.
Since large gatherings are out this year, the best we can do is rediscover Songkran in its early, more intimate days. With a little creativity, we can repurpose that knowledge for a safe and happy Songkran today.
As of the time of this writing, detailed travel and social gathering restrictions have been issued by the authorities which effect many of my readers. I encourage all of my readers in Thailand to cooperate with these restrictions in the interest of protecting the public health.
The celebration will never be over for Songkran as long as we celebrate it in our hearts and homes. We may have to go ‘back to basics’ this year, but knowing the history of Songkran might help us overcome our temporary circumstances.
Someday, we will return to normal times. Someday, things are going to get better… and, when that day comes, we shall arise stronger than ever.
All About Buddhism is a monthly column in The Phuket News where Jason Jellison takes readers on an exotic journey into Thai Buddhism and debunk a number of myths about Buddhism. If you have any specific queries, or ideas for articles, please email firstname.lastname@example.org, and we will do our best to accommodate your interests.