While some countries in Asia celebrate the new year like many countries in the west, other countries in the orient welcome the new year according to their own calculations. The ways in which they celebrate the events are also different. For example, Thailand’s New Year, which is called Songkran, combines religious and traditional rituals with a huge water gun fight in many streets around the nation.
In the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar or Burma, they are welcoming the New Year on April 13 to 16. The festival is called Thingyan, which is also a Water Festival. In South Asia, separated from the Indian subcontinent, Sri Lankans will be celebrating their Sinhalese and Tamil New Year on April 14.
Both countries’ celebrations are focused on their traditions yet they also have fun ways to greet their New Year. Myanmar has the water festival while the Sri Lankans have different games that test the strength of the participants.
The origin of Thingyan is Buddhist, which practitioners based on a Hindu mythical story. According to legend, Arsi the King of Brahmas and Śakra (Thagya Min), King of Devas had a wager. Arsi lost and according to their agreement, Śakra cut off Arsi’s head and replaced it with an elephant’s head.
Arsi became Ganesha, a powerful Brahma whose head could dry up the sea, scorch the land or cause the sky to burst up in flames depending on where the elephant’s head is thrown. To prevent the destruction of the world, Śakra ordered that a princess devi should carry the head of Brahma for one full year, in succession. The passing of the responsibility from one princess devi to another symbolizes the New Year for the Burmese.
Eve of the Thingyan
The first day or the eve of the Thingyan is called (in the Burmese language) as a-kyo nei and the beginning of the various religious activities for the Buddhists, including following the Eight Precepts (rules of personal conduct) and fasting. They prepare the offerings and alms that they would give the monks when they visit the monasteries. They also prepare other offerings for Buddha, such as sprigs of Java plum or black plum (Syzygium cumini) and nga pyaw pwè oun pwè or green coconut with stalk and encircled by green bananas in bunches. Statues of Buddha would be bathed in scented water from the head down to the feet.
When evening falls, everyone is ready to have fun. There would be plenty of music, merrymaking, dancing and singing. Everything is in preparation for the water festival. Local girls and women anticipate the song and dance they would be performing in the streets. Each group of girls will be wearing colorful costumes and flower garlands. Their faces will have fragrant thanaka paste that acts as astringent and sunblock and their hair adorned with golden yellow padauk blossoms that emit a sweet scent. Padauk is Myanmar’s national flower.
Large groups of people, either walking or riding various modes of transport will go around the various pavilions in their village to make music. There would be floats with orchestras and bands performing especially created Thingyan songs and a leader from each group performing the gyat. It is a type of rap-style music where they criticize everything that is wrong with Myanmar.
Thingyan Water Festival
The following day, which is called a-kya nei, is the actual day for the Thingyan. According to their legend, it was the time when Thagyamin arrived from his home in the heavens. At an assigned time, a Thingyan a-hmyauk cannon is fired. Once the signal is heard, people come out with sprigs of thabyay (water apple or Malay apple) and with a prayer, pour water on the ground. The Brahmins would announce the New Year prophecy or Thingyan sa.
After the entire country has done the a-kya nei, the water dousing begins. The traditional dousing tradition involves a silver bowl filled with scented water. The sprigs of thabyay is used to sprinkle people with the water from the bowl – a gesture that symbolizes the ”washing away” of a person’s sins from the past year.
But that has been replaced with more serious water throwing, using different water implements such as syringes, garden hoses, water pistols and other devices that can squirt water. Everyone, except pregnant women and monks, is not exempt from getting wet. Young women often play pranks on young men by catching them and smearing their faces with soot from cooking pots.
People on the floats also carry water to douse spectators. Of course people on the streets would retaliate.
Maha Thingyan (Water Festival) is a Buddhist festival but the government of Myanmar has made it an official holiday to allow the citizens to have fun and be happy.
Sinhala and Tamil New Year Festival
April 14 is a public holiday in Sri Lanka as the country celebrates the Sinhala (Sinhalese) and Tamil New Year or Aluth Avurudda. It signals the end of the harvest season and the arrival of spring. The entire festival lasts for one full week. It is a joint New Year celebration for the Sinhalese Buddhists and Tamil Hindus who live in Sri Lanka.
The date is timed when the new moon is sighted in the month of Bak (April). Also, the date coincides with the time that the sun is directly over Sri Lanka.
The welcoming of the New Year in Sri Lanka begins with Nonagathe, where people perform religious ceremonies and visit the temples. People avoid material pursuits and are encouraged to only engage in traditional games and religious activities.
Buddhists and Hindus in Sri Lanka believe that their New Year starts when the village women begin playing the rabana drums. Preparing for the new year involves a variety of rituals that are performed after careful astrological calculations. The rituals may be based on the practices within the area or the family’s own traditions. Generally, people would be whitewashing their homes, lighting a special oil lamp and buying new clothes. Domestic traditions include making kiribath (kiri=milk, bath=rice) and preparing gifts to exchange with family and friends. Residents flock together to cook kokis and kaung (local sweet delicacies) to be shared by everyone.
Astrology is very important for the Sinhalese and Hindu people, and they use it to carefully calculate when to light the fire to cook the kiribath, eat their first food for the year or enter a business transaction.
After the rituals
After the Sinhalese and the Tamil Hindus have performed the required New Year rituals, they open their homes, allow their children to go out and play while adults socialize on the streets. They share plantain, kavum (kevum) or oil cakes, kokis (crispy sweetmeat), achcharu (pickle), mung guli, dodol and other sweets.
The Sinhalese and Tamil New Year celebrations are very tame compared to the rowdiness and larger scale of the Water Festival in Thailand. Although both locations observe their traditional rituals, the fun activities afterwards are different.
In Sri Lanka, the focus is more on family and community relationships. They do have their own water festival but it is still steeped in local traditions.
After the performance of the religious rituals, the Buddhists and Hindus in Sri Lanka engage in a variety of local games. They have a marathon which often starts the games. Women participate in the coconut scraping competition.
Kana Muti is a game for everyone. Clay pots, each filled with sand or water and one pot filled with blue water are hanged on a clothesline. The object is to hit the blue pot, while the participant is blindfolded and given a bamboo stick.
Another game that delights the crowd is Kotta pora or pillow fight. Two participants climb on a horizontal pole two meters off the ground and given a small sack filled with hay or other light materials. With one hand on their back, each person will try to dislodge the opponent by beating each other with the pillow.
Lissana Gaha Nageema is a game played by several teams. The game literally means, ”climbing the slippery pole.” A very tall timber pole stripped of its bark and coated with grease is planted on the ground. At its top is a flag. Team members take turns in climbing the pole to get the flag. Cash prize is awarded to the winning team. A similar game is played in the Philippines. It is called Palosébo (palo-sebo), derived from the Spanish term for greasy pole. Filipinos use bamboo poles instead of tree poles.
Burmese and Sri Lankan communities around the world celebrate the coming of their New Year, sharing their traditions and rituals to the global community.
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