The Origins of the Songkran Festival
The Astrological New Year
and the Thai Lunar Calender
Thailand's Songkran Festival is by far the most important event of the year for the Thai people. It's a time of fun and a special time for new year ritual and respect for water, the most important element in the agricultural culture of Southeast Asia. Songkran falls in mid-April every year and has its origins in ancient astrology and the position of the sun. The term Songkran itself means, ''a move or change in the position of the sun from Aries to Taurus,'' it falls sometime between April 10 and April 18 and in Thai tradition it includes the celebration of the end of one year -- 'Troot' -- and the beginning of a new year - 'Songkran'. The phases of the moon and the lunar calendar also play an important role in determining the Thai New Year. Thus, the Thai New Year is a product of astrological as well as lunar features according, to the old Thai lunar calendar.
Today, the official Thai New Year falls in the fifth month of the Thai lunar year. As we will see, at one time in the past it was celebrated in the first lunar month. The reasons for the many factors that determine the timing of Songkran, as well as the reasons for the change from the first lunar month to the fifth lunar month, are partially found in the origins of the Tai peoples in southern China, to their culture of rice farming throughout the ages, and to their adherence to a Buddhist philosophy which incorporates a large degree of astrological belief from ancient Hindu culture. These features as well as the Thai systems of days, dates, months and seasons are the subject of this article, and it is hoped that from these readers will gain a deeper appreciation for the underlying significance of the Thai New Year.
TAI ORIGINS AND THE THAI NEW YEAR The Tais migrated southward into Thailand from their farming, areas of southern China long ago. With them they brought their culture, customs and beliefs which were based on a combination of Chinese models and local climatic features of crop sowing, and harvest times. The calendar was lunar and based on the farming cycle of their area, which began in the first lunar month of Deuan Ai (late November - early December: See Chart 1: Months of the Thai Lunar Calendar) and ended in the twelfth lunar month of Deuan Sib Sorng (late October - early November).After migrating southward to the more tropical climate of Thailand and adapting to new cultures already in the area as well as somewhat different weather patterns, a change took place and the flew Year eventually came to be celebrated in April (Deuan Ha or Deuan Hok according, to the Thai calendar: see Chart 1).
Chart 1: Months of the Thai Lunar Calender
BUDDHISM AND THE THAI NEW YEAR Buddhism has a relation to both the astrological and lunar features of the Thai calendar. Having originated in northern India, in a Hindu setting Buddhism often carried with it astrological ritual features from Brahman India. In addition, as Buddhism easily accommodated many other beliefs, such as the Tai animism, it was early adopted by the Tais of southern China long before the founding of Thailand. Many old temple structures built by Tai kings had an astrological base in terms of design and construction and these were built to represent the universe and its astronomical bodies. The aspect of the position of the sun and its movement from Aries into Taurus would have become important to the Thais in later years because of the emphasis placed on auspicious movements of heavenly bodies, and it would have become even more important to the Thais because of the importance placed on the Thai 12-year cycle in conjunction with the 12 astrological signs of the zodiac (See Chart 2: The 1 2-year Cycle and Associated Animals).
Chart 2: The 12-Year Cycle and Associated Animals
Chart 3: Phases of the moon for Each Thai Month
Another aspect of Buddhism as it evolved in Southeast Asia relates to the lunar feature of the Thai calendar and the Thai New Year. In Buddhism, the phases of the moon are extremely important as indicators of auspicious days of each month for Buddhist holy days. These auspicious days always fall on one of the four following moon-days: the 8th day of a Waxing moon (Keun 8 Kumm), the 15th day of a waxing moon (Keun 15 Kumm), the 8th day of a waning moon (Raem 8 Kumm), or the 15th day of a waning moon (Raem 15 Kumm). Chart 3, Phases of the moon for each Thai month shows the waxing, and waning moon for every day of the year by the month and the total number of days in each month.
This chart of moon phases is taken from the ancient Siamese calendar. Above, in reference to Buddhist holy days, and on the chart in far right column, top, the word 'Kumm' is used and means 'night'. This is a unique feature of Siamese calendar date reckoning where the ancients used the term night instead of 'day' because night is when we can see the moon. Taking the lunar feature even further, because it is of such importance in Thai reckoning there is a special form for providing the date and day in the Thai lunar style.
Buddhism clearly plays an important role in the astrological and lunar features of the Thai calendar and the Thai New Year, but the basis of the old lunar calendar of Siam is believed to have been a agriculture and the annual growing season.
SIAM'S OLD LUNAR CALENDER
In the days prior to the formation of the first Thai kingdom of Siam, in central Thailand, that rich agricultural area was ruled and managed first by the Mon Dvaravati Kingdom (5th to 9th centuries) and then by the Khmer Angkor Kingdom (10th to 12th centuries). The Mons and the Khmers were both highly skilled agriculturalists and developed advanced irrigation and rice farming systems by making use of the Chao Phraya River. When the Tais assumed control of the area in the 13th century, they adopted the Mon-Khmer systems. This highly skilled agricultural culture, which became strongly attached to Buddhism, was a society based almost entirely on these two features, and that combination has been passed on to many Thai countryside areas of today.
Again referring to Chart 1, Months of the Thai Lunar Calendar, we see that in the old calendar, which was based on the growing seasons, the first lunar month occurred sometime between late November and early December. From this we can assume that at that time either weather patterns were quite different from those of today or the peoples of old designated the New Year as the time of the rice harvest rather than a new growing season. Today in many of the rural villages of Thailand, farmers continue to celebrate their New Year according to the old calendar, that is, at the end of November, despite the fact that the New Year is now in April, which is in the 5th lunar month of the old calendar.
Another look at charts 1, 2 and 3 -- Months, Phases of the Moon and Date & Day, according to the old lunar calendar -- shows how the old lunar dates for Thai New Year are reconciled with the contemporary western calendar dates. The first two days together make up what is called the 'Troot Festival', where 'Troot' has a double meaning :'the end of something combined with the beginning of something new'. The larger Songkran Festival as it is celebrated today is comprised of four days. The first two are the 'Troot Festival', and the second two immediately follow and are a time for relaxation and merriment after attending to family and religious duties.