Songkran Buddhist Festival – Biography Points

Songkran Buddhist Festival

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Songkran Buddhist Festival

The Songkran Festival, known as the world’s happiest water fight, is a lively and culturally significant celebration marking the Thai New Year. Held annually from April 13th to 15th, Songkran goes beyond just water splashing, embodying deep traditions and a strong sense of community. This article explores the importance, customs, and unique experiences of Songkran, revealing why it attracts millions of visitors worldwide.

Songkran is celebrated with exuberant water festivities and marks the New Year in Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar (Burma), Laos, and parts of India and China. From April 13th to 15th, Songkran signifies the sun’s entrance into the astrological sign of Aries. Traditions include sprinkling water on Buddha statues, giving alms to monks, honoring elders, and engaging in vibrant community water fights. In 2023, UNESCO recognized Songkran as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. By 2024, the celebration was extended to almost the entire month of April. This festival coincides with other New Year celebrations in Southeast and South Asia, such as Vishu, Bihu, Pohela Boishakh, Pana Sankranti, and Vaisakhi.

Originally, the Thai New Year was celebrated on April 1st until 1888, when it was changed to January 1st in 1940. However, Songkran remains a beloved national holiday, renowned for its joyous public water fights symbolizing ritual cleansing. This celebration is popular among both Thai people and international visitors.

Country : Thailand

 Songkran Festival
13 April – 15 April
Observed Thailand
Begins 13 April
Ends 15 April
Frequency Annual
Country Thailand
Domains Social Practices
Reference Go To

Origins and Significance of Songkran Festival

Songkran, a Thai word derived from the Sanskrit term संक्रान्ति (saṅkrānti), means ‘movement’ or ‘astrological passage.’ It signifies the sun’s transition from one zodiac sign to another. While a Songkran occurs monthly according to its Sanskrit meaning, the specific period celebrated in Thailand marks the sun’s movement from Pisces to Aries. This period, known as Maha Songkran, coincides with the Thai New Year. The Songkran festival spans three days: 13 April, called Maha Songkran, is the final day of the old year when the sun enters Aries; 14 April, known as Wan Nao, is the transitional day; and 15 April, called Wan Thaloeng Sok, marks the New Year itself.

Customs and Traditions

1. Water Splashing: The most iconic feature of the Songkran Festival is the water splashing. Initially, water was gently poured over the hands of elders and statues of Buddha as a symbol of purification and to wash away bad luck. Over time, this evolved into large-scale water fights, with people using buckets, water guns, and even elephants to douse each other in fun and good spirits.

2. Sand Pagodas: Building sand pagodas at temples is another traditional activity. Locals bring sand to the temples and construct small stupas, decorating them with colorful flags and flowers. This act symbolizes the return of dirt taken away from the temple grounds throughout the year.

3. Rot Nam Dam Hua: This custom involves young people pouring fragrant water over the palms of their elders to ask for blessings and forgive any misdeeds from the past year. It is a significant gesture of respect and a way to strengthen family bonds.

4. Merit-Making: Thais visit temples to offer food, alms, and donations to monks. This practice, known as ‘making merit,’ is believed to bring good karma and fortune for the new year.

History of Songkran

The term “Songkran” is derived from the Sanskrit word “Sankranti,” which signifies the sun’s transition into a new astrological sign. This solar shift, particularly into the sign of Mesha (“ram”), is celebrated as a New Year festival in many parts of South and Southeast Asia. The festival, along with its associated astrological system, spread from South Asia to Southeast Asia during the first millennium CE, possibly through cultural exchanges and the movement of Theravada Buddhist monks from Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka, this New Year celebration is known as Aluth Avurudda; in Tamil Nadu, India, it’s called Puthandu; and in Kerala, it is celebrated as Vishu. This pattern suggests a southern origin. However, the same lunisolar calendar date also marks the New Year in Assam, India, as Bihu, and in West Bengal and Bangladesh as Pohela Boishakh, indicating the possibility of an overland spread. Hinduism and Buddhism both reached Southeast Asia during the first millennium CE, and while Songkran’s exact religious roots are uncertain, by the second millennium, it had adopted predominantly Buddhist practices, influenced by the rise of Theravada Buddhism under the Khmer and Ayutthaya empires.

Songkran Legend

A well-known legend attributes the origin of Songkran to a contest of intelligence between a young prodigy named Dhammapala and the deity Brahma. According to the tale, Brahma posed three riddles to Dhammapala, with the stipulation that if he failed to solve them, he would have to sacrifice his own head. Conversely, if he succeeded, Brahma would forfeit his head. Unable to solve the riddles immediately, Dhammapala overheard a mother eagle explaining the answers to her eaglets and used this knowledge to answer Brahma’s riddles correctly. As a result, Brahma had to cut off his own head. However, Brahma’s head was so powerful that it could either burn the earth or dry up the ocean, so his seven daughters, representing the days of the week, hid it in a celestial cave. Each year, as the sun enters the sign of the ram, one daughter takes the head out, washes it, and parades it around the celestial Mount Meru, at the universe’s center. This celestial event is mirrored on earth with a similar procession and ceremonial washing.

Religious and Cultural

Songkran, like many New Year holidays worldwide, blends religious observances, cultural traditions, family rituals, and lively public festivities. In Thailand, where most people follow Theravada Buddhism, the holiday’s religious aspect includes sprinkling water on Buddha statues. This act symbolizes cleansing and washing away impurities and bad luck, ushering in a fresh start for the New Year. People also engage in merit-making activities, which are Buddhist practices intended to earn merit (punya) for themselves and their relatives, both living and deceased, to enhance their karma. These activities often involve acts of generosity, such as giving alms to monks or releasing captive animals. Within families, water is also sprinkled on elders, typically on their palms, as a form of blessing. In return, elders bless the younger family members. Cleaning homes and other spaces is another important aspect of the holiday.

The public water fights add a joyful and playful element to the more solemn religious and family traditions. During Songkran, community water sprinklings become a fun and spontaneous celebration where everyone can get wet. People take to the streets with various water-spraying tools, from bowls and squirt guns to hoses and even elephants. April is one of Thailand’s hottest months, so the cooling water offers relief from the heat while also serving a spiritually cleansing purpose. Participants sometimes apply a white chalky paste made from minerals and water, called din sor pong, on each other. The holiday also features other cultural festivities, including music, parades, and plenty of food.

Regional Variations

On April 13, 2019, members of the Tai community in Jinghong, Yunnan province, China, celebrated Songkran (Poshui Jie) by lighting lanterns. This water-filled New Year festival is also observed in Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, and China, each with its unique regional variations. It is celebrated by various Tai ethnic communities throughout Southeast Asia. For instance, the Tai Khamti in Arunachal Pradesh, India, celebrate it as Sangken, while the Tai people in Yunnan, China, refer to it as Poshui Jie, which means “water-sprinkling festival” in Chinese. Lantern lighting is a notable feature of the celebrations in Yunnan.

In Cambodia, the festival is called Chaul Chnam Thmey, meaning “entering the new year” in Khmer, or Sangkranta. It shares many similarities with Thai Songkran, such as water splashing, but also includes building sand stupas in Buddhist temples. In Laos, the festival is known as Pbeemai or Pi Mai and is celebrated similarly with the creation of sand stupas and water festivities.

In Myanmar, the festival is called Thingyan. Its origin myth involves a contest of wits between Brahma and Indra, the king of the gods. During Thingyan, it is believed that Indra descends from heaven to record people’s good and bad deeds.

Songkran Festival in Different Regions

While Songkran is celebrated throughout Thailand, different regions have unique customs and festivities:

  • Chiang Mai: Considered the heart of Songkran celebrations, Chiang Mai hosts elaborate parades, traditional Lanna performances, and the famous Buddha image procession. The moat around the old city becomes the epicenter of water fights, attracting thousands of participants.

  • Bangkok: In the capital city, the bustling Khao San Road and Silom Road turn into massive water fight zones, with live music, dance performances, and street food adding to the festive atmosphere.

  • Pattaya: Known for extending the festival to a week-long celebration, Pattaya offers beachside fun with water activities, concerts, and beauty pageants.

Maha Songkran and Thaloengsok table
Year Chinese Zodiac Songkran Starts Thaloengsok Songkran Ends
2019 Pig 14 April 2019, 15:14:24 16 April 2019, 19:12:00
2020 Rat 13 April 2020, 21:27:00 16 April 2020, 01:24:36
2021 Ox 14 April 2021, 03:39:36 16 April 2021, 07:37:12
2022 Tiger 14 April 2022, 09:52:12 16 April 2022, 13:49:48
2023 Rabbit 14 April 2023, 16:04:48 16 April 2023, 20:02:24
2024 Dragon 13 April 2024, 22:17:24 16 April 2024, 02:15:00
2025 Snake 14 April 2025, 04:30:00 16 April 2025, 08:27:36
2026 Horse 14 April 2026, 10:42:36 16 April 2026, 14:40:12
2027 Goat 14 April 2027, 16:55:12 16 April 2027, 20:52:48
2028 Monkey 13 April 2028, 23:07:48 16 April 2028, 03:05:24
2029 Rooster 14 April 2029, 05:20:24 16 April 2029, 09:18:00

In Thailand Festivals

In the Central Region, as Songkran approaches, households undergo thorough cleaning. Everyone adorns themselves in vibrant attire or traditional Thai clothing. Following the tradition, food offerings are presented to monks, followed by remembrance rituals for ancestors. Meritorious acts, such as contributing sand for temple construction or repairing and releasing birds and fish, are ordinary. Recently, larger animals like buffaloes and cows have been set free. Phra Pradaeng hosts age-old ceremonies of the Mon people, featuring lively parades in their colourful garbs and showcasing folklore performances. Down south, residents adhere to three Songkran guidelines: minimizing work and expenditure, refraining from harming others or animals and abstaining from falsehoods.

In the North, on April 7th, Baan Had Siew in Si Satchanalai District witnesses the spectacular ‘Elephant Procession Ordination’, where men in traditional attire are escorted to temples atop elephants. April 13th is marked in northern Thailand with gunfire or firecrackers to ward off ill fortune. The subsequent day involves preparations of food and essentials for offering to monks, alongside temple visits for making merits, bathing Buddha statues, and seeking blessings from elders with ceremonial water pouring.

Moving to the East, similar festivities occur, yet the locals emphasize continuous temple merit-making and the construction of sand pagodas throughout the Songkran Festival. Additionally, after temple offerings, some prepare meals for elderly family members. In the Capital, Bangkok, Khao San Road, Silom Road, ande emerge as epicentres of contemporary Songkran celebrations. These areas are transformed into vibrant zones where traffic halts, and water-filled buckets and guns dominate the scene. The festivities here persist both day and night.

During the Songkran festival, marking the dawn of the Siamese solar year, a customary practice involves bathing Buddha images, monks, and elders. It’s a joyous occasion for the youth, who engage in playful water splashing accompanied by laughter and revelry.

Controversies Surrounding Roadway Fatalities

During the annual Songkran holiday, Thailand witnesses a disturbing surge in roadway fatalities, as per police statistics. Comparing non-holiday periods from 2009 to 2013 to Songkran, the death toll doubles, with an average of 27 deaths per day outside the holiday and 52 during Songkran. Thailand’s traffic fatality rates rank among the highest globally, alongside Liberia, Congo, and Tanzania. Notably, motorcycle accidents contribute significantly, constituting 70–80% of accidents during this extended holiday period, claiming about 10,000 lives annually.

To address this grave issue, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) took action during Songkran 2016, reporting 110,909 arrests and impounding 5,772 vehicles across Thailand. By 2018, these numbers surged to 146,589 arrests at 2,029 checkpoints. Shockingly, many offenders lacked basic safety measures; 39,572 weren’t wearing helmets, and 37,779 had no driving licenses. In response, government officials pledged stricter law enforcement and heightened public awareness campaigns. Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan vowed to ensure compliance with helmet laws, emphasizing the severity of the situation.

This perilous period, dubbed locally as the “7 dangerous days,” witnesses a grim tally of accidents and casualties. For instance, during 11–17 April 2018, there were 3,724 accidents resulting in 418 deaths and 3,987 injuries.

Arrests Made During Songkran

The enforcement of regulations during Songkran isn’t limited to traffic violations. In 2016, a British tourist faced legal repercussions in Chiang Mai for violating decency standards by going shirtless during a water fight. Despite the scorching 41 °C weather, the tourist was fined 100 baht and released.

Similarly, in 2016, a man was arrested for sharing a video of a topless woman dancing during the 2015 Songkran festival, violating the Computer Crime Act. Though released on bail, he faced legal consequences for sharing the year-old footage.

Intellectual Property Disputes

In 2014, controversy arose over “Celebrate Singapore,” a water festival reminiscent of Songkran. Thailand claimed exclusive rights to the festival, sparking discussions about intellectual property. While some argued for Thailand’s exclusive ownership, others, including Cultural Promotion Department chief Chai Nakhonchai and historian Charnvit Kasetsiri, emphasized Songkran’s shared heritage across Southeast Asia. The dispute intensified when the Singaporean government intervened, limiting the festival’s activities and duration in response to Thai objections.


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