Water Festival (1) by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi

Poets who have known the disturbing beauty of spring in temperate lands write about the month of April with a quivering nostalgia, fascinated, and perhaps a little frightened, by its uncertain glory. April in tropical Burma is of a totally different order from “… the cruelest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land, stirring Dull roots with spring rain.”

The cruelty of April in Burma lies not in the pain of returning life but in the searing heat and brassy glare of the sun that saps strength and energy, leaving people as parched and exhausted as the cracked earth. It is during this hot and draining month that the Burmese New Year falls. And fittingly the New Year is celebrated with a water festival.

Water Festival Myanmar/Burma

The name of the festival is /Thingyan/. Thingyan denotes a changeover and the suffix /maha/, great, is often added to indicate the major change from an old to a new year which the festival celebrates. We also use the suffix /ata/, ending, as the festival actually takes place during the last four days of the old year and the ata water that we pour on each other as part of the festivities symbolizes peace and prosperity and the washing away of impurities.

The form of the Thingyan festival has changed perceptibly over the last 200 years. An Englishman, Captain Symes, sent by the Viceroy of India on an embassy to the Burmese court at Ava in 1795 left a description of the water festival in which he took part:

“To wash away the impurities of the past and begin the new year free from stain, women on this day throw water on every man they meet, and the men are allowed to throw water on them in return. This permission to throw water on one another gives rise to a great deal of harmless merriment, especially amongst the young women, who, armed with large syringes or squirts and vessels, try to wet every man that goes along the street, and in their turn receive a wetting with the utmost good nature. “The slightest indecency is never shown in this or in any other of their sports. Dirty water is never thrown. A man is not allowed to lay hold of a woman, but may throw as much water over her as he pleases, provided she has started first.”

The age of chivalry when only women were allowed to start throwing water first have long gone by. And these days water hoses fitted with nozzles that spurt out strong jets of water have largely replaced syringes and squirts and dainty vessels. And many Burmese, especially those belonging to the older generations, would sadly admit that it can no longer be claimed that “the slightest indecency is never shown” during the festival, especially since alcoholic excess has come to be associated with thingyan. In modern times it has become the practice to set up temporary buildings for the purpose of throwing water and provide entertainment in the form of songs and dances on the sides of city streets. Carloads of merrymakers go from street to street getting wetter and wetter and in some cases getting more and more intoxicated.

But there is more to thingyan than throwing water and having fun. It is a time for taking stock of the past year and using the last few days before the new year comes in to balance our “merit book.” Some people spend the period of the water festival in meditating, worshiping at pagodas, observing the eight precepts, releasing caged birds and fishes and performing other meritorious deeds. Children are told that /Sakya/ comes down from his heavenly abode to wander in the human world during the days of thingyan, carrying with him two large books, one bound in gold and the other bound in dog leather. The names of those who perform meritorious acts are entered in the golden book while the names of those who do not behave properly are noted down in the dog leather tome. It is especially important not to get angry during thingyan or to make others angry. It is therefore considered wrong to throw water at anybody who is unwilling to be doused.

Myanmar Thingyan Shwe Yin AyeThere are special foods associated with thingyan. One of the most popular of these are small boiled rice dumplings with a stuffing of palm sugar, eaten with a sprinkling of shredded fresh coconut. Often hot chilies are put in place of the palm sugar in a few dumplings and there is much good humored laughter when some unfortunate bites into one of these lethal sweetmeats and vociferously expresses his chagrin. Because it is such a hot time of the year sweet, cooling drinks made from coconut milk, swirling with bits of rice pasta tinted a pale green, sagu, seaweed jelly and other garnishes are served as part of the festivities.

A traditional part of the water festival has disappeared in recent years: the /thingyan thangyat/, rhyming choruses that provide pungently witty commentaries on topical subjects, particularly on the government. It was a way of allowing people to let off steam healthily once a year and also a way of allowing sensible governments to know how the people truly feel about them. But the SLORC is incapable of coping with criticism. Members of the NLD who sung such choruses in 1989 were imprisoned.

Ref: Water Festival (1).Mainichi Daily News Monday, May 6, 1996