Thingyan: The festival of goodwill and loving-kindness

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Thingyan is Myanmar New Year Festival that usually occurs in middle of April. It is a Buddhist festival celebrated over a period of four to five days. Bagan era painting of Thingyan.  PHOTO: WIKIPEDIA

Myanmar people use the Lunar calendar. Months are counted according to the movement of the moon, so the month in Myanmar is ‘La’, the same word for the moon. There are two types of the month – 30-day month and 29-day month. The month which has 15 days of the waxing moon and 15 days of the waning moon is of the first type and the month which has 15 days of the waxing moon and 14 days of the waning moon is of the second type. These two types alternate in the 12-month calendar. The year always begins with the 29-day month called Tagu, and ends with the 30-day month called Tabaung. So it is customary for the Myanmar people to mark the day not only as the 1st day, 2nd day etc., of the month but also whether the day is waxing or waning moon of the month. The days of the month counted in this way have thus a serial of 1 to 15 for the first half of the month and 1 to 15 for the second half of the month of 30 days, and 1 to 15 for the first half of the month and 1 to 14 for the second half of the month of 29 days. The 15th day of the waxing moon is called Full Moon day, and the 15th (in the case of 30-day months) or 14th (in the case of 29-day months) day of the waning moon is called ‘Hidden Moon’ day.
Tagu is the first month of Myanmar 12-month calendar, and its astrological name is Mesha (Aries). Of the flowers that bloom in this month gant-gaw (Mesua ferrea) is traditionally regarded as the flower of Tagu. Myanmar people celebrate the national festival every month, and the festival of Tagu is the Thingyan festival.

Tagu is the first month of Myanmar 12-month calendar, and its astrological name is Mesha (Aries). Of the flowers that bloom in this month gant-gaw (Mesua ferrea) is traditionally regarded as the flower of Tagu. Myanmar people celebrate the national festival every month, and the festival of Tagu is the Thingyan festival.

Scholars give different interpretations of the word “Thingyan”. The word ‘Thingyan’ (oBuFef) is said to have been derived from a Sanskrit word ‘Thin ka ran’ (ouF&ef), which means change. So Thingyan connotes change from the old season to a new season, old year to new year, change from the month of Tabaung, which is the twelfth month of Myanmar calendar to the month of Tagu, which is the first month of the following year. Thingyan also means move, for in summer, the sun moves from South to North, or from the Tropic of Capricorn to the Tropic of Cancer. The movement of the sun causes the seasons, and its return to the North marks the beginning of Myanmar’s three-seasonal year. The advent of Thingyan is signalled by the movement of the sun from the month of Tabaung (Mina or Pisces (rdef&moD) to the month of Tagu (Mesha or Aries (rdó&moD). In Tagu the life cycle of nature begins anew, ushering in the new year. In essence, Thingyan means change. Change from the old year to a new year, old life to new life, old cycle of seasons to a new cycle of seasons. Change is in keeping with nature, the weather and the seasons of the country. Tabaung, the last month of the year, has just passed. It is the month of transition – the transition from cold season to warm season. In the month of Tagu, the warm season has arrived in full swing. It is very appropriate that a water pouring festival is held while the weather is favourably warm.
There is a legend that tells us how the Thingyan festival originated. The two mighty devas (deities), Thagyar Min (Indra) and Athi Brahma were drawn into a controversy over the solution of a mathematical problem. They agreed to refer the matter to a sage called Kavalamine, whose verdict would be accepted as final. They also agreed that the winner should cut off the loser’s head. The sage judged that Indra’s solution was right, and so Indra cut off Athi Brahma’s head. But Athi Brahma was so omnipotent, a god, that if his head were thrown down to the Earth, the Earth would burn to ashes, if thrown into the oceans, all water would dry up. So seven goddesses of the seven days were assigned to holding his head by turn. The time when the head changes hands corresponds to Thingyan. The blood which gushed out of the head was believed to be potent and auspicious when applied to one’s body. As Athi Brahma’s body should not remain headless, Indra cut off the head of the Mahapeingala Elephant and joined it on to the Athi Brahma’s body, thereby Athi Brahma became Mahapeinne god (Ganesha). This is the legend of Thingyan.
One traditional belief which still holds sway over the conservative Myanmars is that at the time of Thingyan, Thagya Min or Indra descends from Tavatimsa, his Celestial Kingdom, to Earth for his annual round of inspection – to check whether human beings on Earth are behaving well or not. He is accompanied by two assistant gods, Witha-kyone (Vissukama) and Mateli, the former is the registrar-cum-carpenter, and the latter is the driver of the chariot vehicle which Indra rides. The registrar carries with him two Record Books, one for registering the good people who have behaved well and the other for registering bad people who have misbehaved. In life hereafter, the good people will be rewarded, and punishment awaits bad people in hells.
The above belief may have been based upon one of Myanmar fables in days of yore. It used to be one of the most edifying fables to instruct the children in good morals and manners. The elders in the usually extended Myanmar family, either grandpa, grandma, uncle, or aunt, or even old maid or nanny, would tell the young ones about the annual visit of Thagyar Min, warning them not to be naughty, wicked, and mischievous but to be good, otherwise, Thagyar Min would mark them down in the blacklist for punishment. This belief reminds not only the young ones but also the adults, all and everyone, to live a good life and to do good work for others. True to the teaching of this belief, Myanmar people since time immemorial have been celebrating the Thingyan festival with the spirit of goodwill and loving-kindness.
In the days of the Myanmar kings, Thingyan was celebrated at the Palace, where royalty and nobility participated in the water pouring. King Narathihapate (A.D. 1254-87), the last ruler of the Bagan Dynasty, was recorded in the chronicle to have built enclosed corridors running from his place to the bank of the Ayeyawady River inside which he and his queens, concubines, and courtiers revelled in water throwing. In the Lawka Byu Har Kyan (ways of the mundane world) or Inyone Sardan (Inyone Forum), a treatise on Court ceremonies and festivals, compiled by Minister Thiri Uzana, rules and rituals regarding the holding of Royal Thingyan are described in detail.
Usually, the date of the Thingyan festival falls in mid-April. Normally it lasts three days but in certain years four days. The day before the festival begins is called “Akyo Ney”, which means the eve day of Thingyan. The first day of the festival is called “Akya Ney”, which means the day Thagyar Min descends to Earth. On this day, when the signal for the exact time of his descent is announced either by beating the big drum (in the old days) or sounding the siren or by the report of the cannon, people perform the Thingyan rite of pouring lustral water out of the Atar pot. A new earthen pot of about four to six inches in diameter especially made for the Thingyan festival, is known in Myanmar as “Atar Oh”. It is filled with clear, cool and scented water and is placed in the front of the house. Sprigs of seven kinds of flora representing seven days of the week, such as Ohn let (Coconut palm leave, Cocos nucifera Linn) to represent Sunday, Gantgaw (Ironwood, Mesua Ferrea Linn) or Khayey (Starflower tree, Mimusops elengi Roxb) to represent Monday, Sein Pan (gold mohur tree, Poinciana regia) to represent Tuesday, Ywet Hla (Croton, Codiaeum variegatum) to represent Wednesday, Myey Zar (Couch grass, Cynodon dactylon Pers) to represent Thursday, Thi (Wood apple tree, Feronia elephantum Corres) or Than (Terminalia Oliveri Brandis) to represent Friday, and Dan (Henna, Lawsonia inermis Linn) to represent Saturday, are arranged in the order in the Atar (the period of Thingyan) pot. Sprigs of Thabyey (Eugenia, Eugenia jambolana Lamk) are also added because Thabyey, like Laurel, is the symbol of victory for the Myanmar people. When the report of the Thingyan cannon signals the descent of Thagyar Min, the Atar pot is raised up above the head to welcome him and then water is poured out to symbolically cleanse and purify the world and its peoples. The sprigs are then made into a bouquet to be placed at the entrance of the house to usher in the new year. Today, only the elder members of the family perform this rite.
The second day of Thingyan is called “Akyat Ney”, which means the day Thagyar Min goes around inspecting the moral behaviour of human beings. Usually, the inspection day is one day. But according to the calculations of the astrologers, there can be two inspection days in certain years. Next comes the ‘Atet Ney’, which means the day Thagyar Min ascends to his Celestial Kingdom. The exact time of the ascent is announced by a signal such as a beating drum or cannon report. Thingyan Sa (bulletin predicting the time of transition into the New Year and climatic and crop conditions to be excepted in that year) is issued by a board of eminent astrologers. It is a bulletin predicting the time of transition into the new year. Sometimes future situation of the world is foretold in it.
Goodwill, loving-kindness and cheerful heart vibrate the spirit of Thingyan. People go out to perform religious and social works such as keeping Sabbath, meditating, visiting pagodas and monasteries for worshipping or alms offering, paying homage to the monks, parents, elders,  superiors and teachers, bathing and shampooing the aged, cleaning up one’s home and surrounding, and throwing cool scented water at the passerby to cleanse him. Thingyan is a Myanmar national festival held on a grand scale, in which all Myanmar nationalities, regardless of age, race, class, and religion, participate and revel in water pouring.
More than that, Thingyan has assumed an international character since the days of Myanmar kings. It is a free-for-all-fun-lovers festival in which people of every clime and creed can participate benevolently and joyously. The following is an account of the Thingyan Festival participated by Major Michael Symes, an English Envoy despatched to the Court of Inwa, in A.D 1795, during the reign of King Bodawpaya (A.D. 1782-1819).
“On the 12th of April, the last day of the Birman year, we were invited by the Maywoon to bear a part ourselves in a sport that is universally practised throughout the Birman dominions on the concluding day of their annual cycle. To wash away the impurities of the past and commence the new year free from satin, women on this day are accustomed to throwing water on every man they meet, which the men have the privilege of retorting; this licence gives rise to a great deal of harmless merriment, particularly the young women, who armed with larger syringes and flagons, endeavour to wet every man that goes along the street, and, in their turn, receive a wetting with perfect good humour; nor is the smallest indecency ever manifested in this or in any other of their sports. Dirty water is never cast; a man is not allowed to lay hold of a woman, but may fling as much water over her as he pleases provided she has been the aggressor; but if a woman warns a man that she does not mean to join in the diversion, it is considered as an avowal of pregnancy, and she passes without molestation”.
‘About an hour before sunset, we went to the Maywoon’s and found that his lady had provided plentifully to give us a wet reception. In the hall were placed three large china jars, full of water, with bowls and ladles to fling it. Each of us, on entering, had a bottle of rosewater presented to him, a little of which we in turn poured into the palm of the Maywoon’s hand, who sprinkled it over his own vest of fine flowered muslin,; the lady then made her appearance at the door and gave us to understand that she did not mean to join in the sport herself, but made her eldest daughter, a pretty child, in the nurse’s arms, pour from a golden cup some rosewater mixed with sandal-wood, first over her father, and then over each of the English gentleman; this was a signal for the sport to begin. We were prepared, being dressed in linen waistcoats. From ten to twenty women; young and middle-aged rushed into the hall from the inner apartments, who surrounded and deluged without mercy four men ill able to maintain so unequal a contest. The Maywoon was soon driven from the field; but Mr Wood having got possession of one of the jars, we were enabled to preserve our ground till the water was exhausted; it seemed to afford them great diversion, especially if we appeared at all distressed by the quantity of water flung in our faces. All parties being tired and completely drenched, we went home to change our clothes and in the way met many damsels who would willingly have renewed the sport; they, however, were afraid to begin without receiving encouragement from us, not knowing how it might be taken by strangers; but they assailed Baba-sheen and his Birman attendants with little ceremony. No inconvenient consequences were to be apprehended from the wetting; the weather was favourable, and we ran no risk of taking cold. Having put on my dry clothes, we returned to the Maywoon’s and were entertained with a dance and puppet show that lasted till eleven”.
(Michael Symes, An Account of an Embassy to the Kingdom of Ava, London 1800, pp. 178-180)


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