A Nationwide Waterfight: Myanmar’s Thingyan Festival
A nation-wide water fight to mark the end of the old year and the start of the new? Myanmar knows a thing or two about that.
Thingyan (pronounced “theh-jan”) is Myanmar’s famous water festival, and it takes place during end of the lunar new year, according to the Buddhist religious calendar. People in Myanmar look forward to Thingyan the same way many westerners anticipate Christmas. Because Thingyan is a public holiday and officially lasts for five days, many people travel home to their ancestral villages to spend the festival with family. As a result, most businesses are closed during the water festival while people spend the holiday traveling.
If you venture out of doors during the first four days of the Thingyan water festival, you are guaranteed to get soaked. The four day-long water fight itself has little to no religious significance for Myanmar people, but it descends from the symbolic Buddhist practice of cleansing one’s self from evil at the end of an old year, in order to start fresh in the new year. Anyone who leaves their home for any reason during this time can expect to get doused, although the elderly, pregnant women and monks are supposed to be left undisturbed.
In smaller neighborhoods, families set up water stations with buckets, cups, small water guns, or a hose (sometimes even a pressure washer!) and wet passersby from dawn till dusk. At some of the bigger intersections in large cities such as Yangon and Mandalay, large stages are erected as giant water stations, and hundreds of young people will gather beneath them to get doused while enjoying pop music and live performances by Myanmar musicians.
Men and women who do not care for the wetness and general chaos of Thingyan’s water fight will often retreat to local monasteries for the duration of the holiday. There they will live as the monks do, fasting after 11 am each day, meditating, and doing chores around the monastery on behalf of the monks.
The final day of the Thingyan festival is the most religious: it marks the first day of the lunar New Year. On this day, the water throwing has ended and those who sequestered themselves at a local monastery can now make it home without getting wet. On New Year’s Day, devout Buddhists will visit their local temple to make offerings and to participate in cleaning the pagoda together with their community. They will also spend New Year’s day cleaning and freshening their household shrines, and—if they can afford it—buying special New Year’s bouquets with which to decorate their shrine. Devout Buddhists see these activities as important for gaining merit (karma), and so they try to do all of these things at the start of the New Year.
The first day of the New Year is also set aside for special care of the elderly. Looking after the elderly is something that Myanmar people prioritize all year long, but on the first day of the Buddhist New Year, families will traditionally pamper their elderly relatives, washing their hair with a traditional hair wash, clipping their nails, and applying lotion to their skin. This is seen as an act of honor toward one’s elders, and an auspicious way to begin the New Year.
Because the year’s end is calculated by the lunar calendar, the dates for the festival vary from one year to the next, the one constant being that the festival always takes place in the month of April. For this year (2019) the dates for the Thingyan celebration are April 13-17th, with the New Year officially beginning on April 17th.