BRINGING IN THE
By Khin Khin Lay
Westerners bring in the New Year on 31st December nights with champagne and
fireworks. The Chinese celebrate with dragon dances and firecrackers. Myanmar,
Thailand and Cambodia, the Theravada Buddhist countries, have a different
approach to welcome the New Year: splashing people with water from head to toe
until they are soaking, dripping wet, so that through this kind act of yours
they may go forth bravely into the future, cleansed of all past ills. Some may
understandably be none too appreciative of your efforts, but most people who are
out and about during the four days preceding the New Year, in the period called
Thingyan, are out there just to be so splashed. People who are out in the
streets only through dire necessity can ask not to be wetted down so thoroughly,
in which case a cupful may be poured carefully on his shoulders instead of a
bucket being up-ended over his head.
This year, our New Year falls on April 17th, bringing in 1365 Myanmar Era.
Myanmar years are not marked with animal or other symbols, but the fortunes of
the year change every April when the Thagya Min, King of the Celestials, comes
down from his heavenly abode riding on a creature of his choice just a few days
before New Year's Day.
When he descends it is time for Thingyan to begin. Households welcome him by
putting out a flowerpot on verandahs or balconies or lacking either, on a chair
The pots, especially sold for the occasion, are round terracotta pots with a
wide mouth. The requisite flowers and leaves are put there, such as a few
strands of the coconut palm, some Thabye leaves, etc. Flower sellers make up
ready-to-use bouquets so that you would not forget some items.
Months beforehand, indeed as far away as six months in advance, the Board of
Astrologers, a body of learned men especially delegated with the task, would do
calculations as to the paths of planets and the sun and so on, and bring forth a
detailed Report of Thingyan for the next year. As the day of the week a person
is born on is important to one’s fortune, every birth-day has a detailed account
of do’s and don'ts during the coming year, such as advice on when to marry or
the sort of goods to deal in.
The most important feature in this Thingyan Report is the visit of the Thagya
Min, who will return to his cloudy abode the day before New Year's Day. The
astrologers in their wisdom are able to predict what colour clothes he would be
wearing, and being a King, to ride on a particular creature chosen for the year.
Kings, especially Celestial ones, do not walk!
By the colour of his raiment and what creature he rides on, the astrologers
predict the fortunes for the whole year. This year he will descend on the 14th
of April, at precisely 13.59 hours and 57 seconds, riding a snake, and wearing
raiment of a milky white colour. The predictions are that people will be free of
illnesses, that new cures will be found, and that prosperity will come to all.
Little children are told that if they have been good through out the year, the
Thagya Min would enter their names in a book of gold, and if they had been
naughty, noted down in one covered with dog-skin.
Many shops stay open and the morning bazaars are busy as well, for Thingyan is
the time that people clean every item in the house, wash out the floors and pay
specially attention to cleaning every inch of the shrine room and shrines. The
household Buddha images are brought outdoors where the men of the house wash
them reverently with perfumed water.
After the house has thus been cleaned, the first act would be to invite some
monks to recite sutras and partake of Soon, or lunch. The enterprising bazaar
ladies who don't mind getting wet do a brisk business. In fact, with jokes and
songs on everyone's lips, it is only the shy, the staid or the old who do not
enjoy the fun.
If the housewife is not prepared to face the watery mayhem, she would refuse to
go to the bazaar but just cook from her prepared store of dry good: sardines,
dried salt fish, potatoes, eggs and beans. Or she may just throw up her hands
and retire to a monastery to spend her days in meditation.
The young people take this chance to have fun and make new friends. The boys and
girls go riding around in open cars, wrapped in thick towels, or they may opt to
stay at the high wooden pandals to spray water on the passing cars. Bigger
pandals entertain passer-bys with songs and dances.
Sidewalk cafés do good trade by selling soft drinks, beer, chips and hamburgers.
Western fast-food is never more convenient than when you just need to jump out
of a car to buy some and jump in again while everyone is stuck in traffic jams.
The traditional foods prepared at pandals and served to friends and strangers
who pass by and drop in range from the more elaborate fried vegetable or shrimp
crisps to sticky-rice balls with bits of jaggery inside. As a joke the women who
prepare this may, from time to time, replace the jaggery with green chilies.
Some housewives prepare delicious desserts of coconut and jelly, and instead of
inviting people, send out the children with boxes of it to be delivered to
neighbours and friends.
By New Year's Day, apart from a few regions where they continue splashing water,
the people are yet again on their best behavior. The nine or ten precepts of the
Buddhist philosophy would be kept, monks invited for Soon, and good deeds done,
such as to wash the hair of the elderly and trim their nails. After a few days
of riotous fun, the people have released any stress and frustrations they may
have, and feel once more invigorated in body and spirit to face another year.