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The Formal Side of Songkran
(New Year) Festival

As may be observed in most traditional Thai festivals, there are two sides to the celebratory coin - the fun-loving and the formal. You will already be experiencing the fun-loving aspect of Songkran so let's now look at the inner meanings and actions of this New Year festival.

The word "Songkran" and the establishing of 13th April (Western Calendar) as the Thai New Year dates from the distant past. Origins are complicated, and can cause scholarly discussion, but for simplicity it is suggested that the word "Songkran" derives from the language of ancient Buddhist Scriptures -- Pali. The word "Sankhara", in Pali, refers to the Zodiacal movement of the sun -- in this case from Aries to Taurus. In Thai, the word became modified to Sangkan which eventually changed to Songgran or Songkran. The timing of the Thai New Year (officially set on 13th April) reflects the ancient use of a lunar calendar and the customary farming cycles of when the harvesting of an Old Year ends and the planting of a New Year begins.

In Chiangmai, the festival is spread over four days with each day having a different focus. Songkran Day (13th) will see people giving their houses a general tidy-up and preparing for ritual washing ceremonies. Sacred Buddha images will be taken from various temples (notably Wat Pra Singh), for gentle "washing" with scented lustral water, and taken in parade with monks, bands, decorated floats and representative groups from around Chiangmai Province.

The 14th (named Wan Nao) is a day of preparation. People will cook and prepare food for traditional merit-making ceremonies (the following day) and perhaps collect sand for the building of sand chedis in their temple compound. These sand chedis will be decorated with fluttering paper steamers, flowers and miniature pennants.

On the 15th (called Wan Payawan) the previous days preparations come to fruition. During early morning, people will go to their temple and make offerings of food, fruit, new robes and other "treats" to the monks. This is also the when, in the past a little delicate "water play" was permitted. Nowadays, this indulgence has had a growth-spurt and developed into a water free-for-all in which Chiangmai excels (see separate article).

The concluding Songkran Festival day (the 16th - entitled Wan Park Bpee) on which people remember their ancestors plus call on and pay respect to their elders and worthies of position and rank. Perfumed, lustral water is poured over the hands of those being paid the tribute of respect who, in turn, reciprocate the blessing to those participating in this gentle ceremony. Afterwards, the entire family group may proceed to their temple for a seub-chata or "life prolonging ceremony".

So despite the enthusiastic water games you will see around Chiangmai during the Songkran Festival, there is also an underpinning of faith, devotion and respect to ancestors, family, friends, customs and religion. These, then, are other facets to all of the fascinating festivals and traditions you will find in Chiang- mai. They may not be so apparent as the cascades of Songkran water - but they still endure and sustain the people of Northern Thailand.

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See the related articles:

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