Instinct is a wonderful thing if you are prepared to act on it. My instinct is nearly always right. This time something had told me I should have taken the car. But I ignored it and brushed any fears aside. I would use sheer cunning to outsmart potential revelers instead. After all it’s only a short distance to the local supermarket from our condominium.
It is true I have been caught many times before. This year, however, was going to be different. I dodged down the side alleys, neatly avoiding the crowded streets on the way to the shops. Coming back I decided to use the pathway that runs behind the old grocery store. It was a convenient short cut and usually deserted apart from a stray dog or two.
I was almost home and dry. Just a few meters more to the entrance of my building. I smiled. The metal grill was pulled securely across the front of the grocery store. It must be closed for the holidays. The shopkeeper’s children would be away on some festive jaunt. I was elated. Nearly home.
But then, whoosh! Twin jets of icy water shot out, catching me full on the back of the neck. The grill was flung aside to reveal the grocer’s two young daughters, gigantic water pistols in hand, laughing gleefully at my soaking.
Sawasdee Pi Mai – Happy New Year I spluttered after recovering from the shock of the dousing. I threw them a few coins, as is the custom, to show there were no hard feelings. But inside I was smarting. Once again I had been ambushed by a couple of young kids determined to impose their fun on every passerby. I should have taken the car. After all, this is Songkran.
Songkran celebrates the traditional Thai New Year. Each year I carefully plot how to avoid the drenching that goes hand in hand with the celebrations. But to no avail. Nobody, I have now concluded, escapes Songkran.
In Bangkok, as well as in every town and village around the country, young and old celebrate the New Year by throwing water over each other. Scoops from a silver bowl are traditional. These days, however, more effective soakings come from hoses, constantly refilled plastic buckets, pump-action water guns and even oil drums with stirrup pumps mounted on the back of family utilities. Indeed it is not unusual to see convoys containing entire families, all crammed into the rear of their vehicles, spraying and being sprayed.
The fun is contagious. So much so that the celebrations go on for at least three days or more! So characteristic are the festivities that the next day’s newspapers invariably carry photographs capturing the more riotous action, with Thais and foreigners alike, all soaked to the skin, their faces smeared with white baby powder. Yes. That’s right. White powder!
Songkran is a spectacularly spirited affair, not always for the faint-hearted. Yet there is also a deeply spiritual aspect to what is Thailand’s most enthusiastically exuberant annual festival.
The word songkran derives from Sanskrit and refers to the movement of astrological bodies. In this case the shifting of the sun into Aries, which marks the beginning of the solar year.
Songkran is a time of rituals, of family gatherings to honor the elderly and remember departed ancestors. It is an excuse for wild partying as much as a time for washing away the sins of the past year. The use of water is multi-faceted, symbolizing the act of purification, invoking the life-giving monsoon rains and, as the Thais are essentially pragmatic people, of graciously accepting a cold shower on one of the hottest days of the year.
Typically, on the eve of Songkran, people give their homes a thorough spring cleaning. Worn-out household effects, clothing and other rubbish are burned according to the belief that anything old must be discarded or else it may bring bad luck to the owner.
Songkran serves a multitude of social and spiritual functions. For Buddhists the festival itself begins with a visit to the local temple. Here food and other offerings are given to the monks in return for a blessing. Caged birds are freed into the air and fish are released into the klongs. Indeed the more traditional farmers still retain a few young fish that have been trapped after the floods of the wet season recede, keeping them at home especially to be able to release them during Songkran.
Later, on new year’s day, revered Buddha images are paraded and ritually bathed in lustral water. In private ceremonies away from the temple, parents, grandparents, older relatives and teachers gather to be honored by young people in an ancient rite. Although I have witnessed these wondrous activities before, I had never been the recipient. Until this week...
Suna and I were just too busy to make the long journey home this year. I had to go to Chennai on business and she was reluctant to undertake the ten hour drive on her own. Suna’s village is in the far north-east of Thailand, in a region of Isaan known as SakonNakhon. It is always a tiresome drive. But at this time of the year it is especially dangerous. The traffic queues stretch for miles. Besides there are always delays due to accidents and road works. Over the four day holiday period several hundred people are killed and many more injured on the roads.
Choosing not to go home, however, was no simple decision for Suna, for whom it has been an annual quest for as long as she has been living in Bangkok. But if she had to stay in the city she was at least going to make the most of it! Or so she vowed the night before as I drifted into sleep.
I first realized what she meant when I saw our beautiful daughter (a Peugeot 307 cabriolet actually) plastered in white powder. Only the windscreen and side windows had been left clear. Suna was standing back admiring her work. Her face was a picture of bliss and contentment. I was flabbergasted. All I could do was to stare in amazement. But that, my friends, was only the beginning...
The spring cleaning started very early the next morning. By lunchtime everything was ready. Our living room was cleared and we had assembled our many images of the Buddha on a small table. I was sent out to buy some water and some candles from the religious aisle in the supermarket. It was while returning from that task that I received the drenching.
By this time I was ready for any eventuality. Or so I thought. What happened next reduced me to silence and near tears. Suna seated me at the table and presented me with a small bouquet of scented blossoms, the kind one sees hanging around the many shrines dotted around this city each day. Placing my palms together she gently anointed me with perfumed water. I gasped as the cold water trickled down the back of my neck.
Then, looking deeply into my eyes and smiling that beautiful smile of hers that stays with me even when I am half a world away, she said sorry for any hurt she had brought me during the past year, wished me good luck, and prayed that we would enjoy a long, healthy and happy life together. It was truly one of the most sacred moments in my life. It staggered me.
The symbolic significance of water runs like a silver thread through the Thai cultural fabric. This is best summed up by the Thai word for river, maenam, which literally translates as mother water, suggesting both the nurturing value of this most primal element and the respect it thus commands.
When coupled with Buddhist philosophy water, both sustaining and transparent, becomes a symbol for the spiritual support and purity of the Buddha’s teachings. It is also widely associated with the practice of mindfulness, serenity and meditation, in which mental clarity and a lucidity of mind are symbolically linked to the crystal waters of a running stream.
Nowhere, however, is the symbolic importance of water more vividly witnessed than in the celebration of Songkran, during which the present-day riotous water splashing in no way belies the essential acts of purification, blessing and merit-making. Like all festivals in Thailand, however, it is celebrated with a zest and passion for having a good time that is utterly characteristic.
As I write this blog most of Bangkok will be partying. Meanwhile I am in a hotel in Chennai preparing for tomorrow's work. Dusk is beginning to cast a mystical light across the ramshackle buildings in the old part of the city. The birds are flocking and in the distance I can faintly hear the Muslim call to prayer.
Next week I will be in Melbourne where I have the task of moderating a national forum. The theme of this forum is innovation. Innovation in water technologies to be precise. The citizens of Melbourne have been enduring severe water restrictions for some time as a result of a lengthy drought, not uncommon on the planet's driest continent. But troubling nevertheless.
Not for them the luxury of spraying water on each other for days on end. Even the gardens in 'the garden state' are looking decidedly dessicated. Sadly regulations are likely to become even more draconian in the near term as temperatures, together with the number of extreme weather conditions, continue to escalate out of control.
I sometimes have great difficulty reconciling the various worlds I straddle, with their different value systems, priorities and divergent lifestyles. Perhaps new technologies will indeed help us to deal with climate change in time to avert catastrophe. Then again perhaps a more reflective and mindful existence, grounded in life’s essentials and practiced in the spirit of community and love, also has a place.
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