Songkran Customs, Old and New
The word Songgran has its origins in the Pali language of the Therevada Buddhist scriptures.In Pali, the work Sankhara (Sankranti in Sanskrit) means a shift of the sun from one side of the Zodiac to another. In this case it means the movement of the sun from Aries to Taurus.The word later became Sangkan in Thai, and then Songkran or Songgran.
The Northern Thai people, however, have their own folklore to explain the word and the holiday.Songgran day itself is called Wan Sangkhan Lohng, and the day of the new year Pavenee Pee Mai. According to local legend, Wan Sangkhan Lohng is 'the day that Lady Sangkhan passes by' as the word Luang means to 'go away' or 'pass by'.Technically its is the last day of the Lanna lunar year and the start of Pavenee Pee Mai.
Although Songgran is officially set of April 13th, the festival stretches over four days, each with its different focus and activities.
The free-for-all of water throwing that greets the visitor to Thailand for his or her first experience of the Songgran Festival represents a development of customs related to the celebration of the Thai astronomical new year that some would say has gotten out of hand.
In the old days people might sprinkle a bit of scented water over your shoulder and wish you a good new year rather than drench you with a plastic bucket of ice water. But one of the important customs of the festival was to take an occasion to pay respects to family elders and persons of influence worthy of respect through the ceremony of rod naam dum hua, or paying respect through the pouring of Songgran water.
According to old Lanna custom, the family and subordinates would approach the elder to be paid respect with a vessel khun oh of water scented with dried flowers, cumin and other herbs. These small heartfelt offerings of lustral water would be poured into a large red lacquerware bowl that was placed before the seated elder. On the table were presents of mohom shirt, multipurpose length of colorful cotton call pa-khao-mah, flowers and useful items.
A representative of the persons paying respect to the elder would then speak on behalf of all the gathering asking the elder to forgive misbehavior and improper attitude on the part of the younger members of the family during the prior year. The elder would then dip his or her hands in the large offering of scented water and rub them over the sides of his head, pronouncing blessings for the new year to the group assembled to pay respect. At the conclusion of the ceremony, the group, led by the elder, would then proceed to the temple of sueb cha-dta or 'life prolonging' ceremony.,
Nowadays, the focus of Songgran is the wholesale throwing of water. While inside the city limits of Chiangmai this is allowed by law only on the three days of the festival, rural children indulge in this amusement for as long as two weeks in the time surrounding the festival. Readers who want to enjoy the beauty of the rural countryside around Chiangmai on motorcycle be warned and dress appropriately. Also be warned that Songgran revelers will frequently aim their water throwing at a motorcyclist with the face as a target or at the spark plug in order to kill the engine and drench their immobilized victim at leisure. Train travellers in non-air-conditioned coaches might want to watch the open windows, as these are favored targets of water throwers and hurlers of giant water balloons.
While the gentle customs of former times may have changed, or even gone ballistic in present-day Songgran celebrations, get into the spirit of things. Get wet, stay cool, and enjoy one of Thailand's most frenetic and fun festivals.
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