Thingyan Water Festival
Commonly referred to as the Water Festival, Maha Thingyan allows people to celebrate the Burmese New Year. Despite this, Maha Thingyan is observed in mid-April on the Gregorian calendar. While the Water Festival is a Buddhist event, the Burmese government has made it a legal public holiday. This ensures that many Burmese citizens have the opportunity to enjoy the Water Festival. Maha Thingyan is a time for happiness and friendly attitudes.
The Myth of Arsi and Sakra
The Maha Thingyan celebrations originated from the myth of Arsi and Sakra. This a popular story that is known by many Hindus and Theravada Buddhists. According to this myth, Arsi, the King of Brahmas, challenged Sakra, the King of Devas. Arsi lost the wager, so he was decapitated by Sakra. Arsi’s head was replaced by the head of an elephant. This caused Arsi to be transformed into Ganesha, a powerful deity. Ganesha was very powerful; if his head was placed into the ocean, all of the water would instantly evaporate. To prevent Ganesha from destroying large portions of the world, the elephant head was placed into the custody of a princess. Each year, the elephant head of Ganesha was transferred to a different princess. Traditionally, Maha Thingyan celebrated the transition of the elephant head and the continued existence of the world.
Thingyan Eve Celebrations
The first Thingyan celebrations begin on the day before the Water Festival. Thingyan Eve, or A-Kyo Nei, is a time for observing Buddhist beliefs.
Many Buddhists observe Thingyan Eve through fasting. People who decide to fast for Thingyan Eve usually eat a single basic meal prior to noon. This meal is often very bland.
Observing the Eight Precepts
During Thingyan Eve, Buddhists are expected to observe the Eight Precepts of Buddhism. These Eight Precepts are similar to the Five Precepts. While observing the Eight Precepts, Buddhists must do the following:
- Refrain from killing living creatures
- Refrain from stealing
- Refrain from sexual activity
- Refrain from lying or using incorrect speech
- Refrain from using alcohol or drugs
- Refrain from seeking entertainment
- Refrain from eating during fasting periods
- Refrain from sleeping on high places
Offerings to Monks
Many people in Myanmar celebrate Thingyan Eve by visiting a Buddhist temple. When visiting these temples, it is considered proper to leave an offering of green coconuts and bananas. These kinds of offerings usually consist of a single green coconut surrounded by a circle of bananas.
Washing the Buddha
Burmese people will also wash Buddha statues with sacred water that has been scented with flower extract. When washing Buddha statues, people start at the top by drizzling water over the head.
After the religious formalities of Thingyan Eve have been observed, Burmese people begin to relax and enjoy themselves. There are many lively celebrations that occur during the night of Thingyan Eve.
Music, Song, and Dance
While the Eight Precepts prohibit Buddhists from enjoying entertainment of any kind during the daytime, people are allowed to party to their hearts’ content as soon as night arrives. In nearly every village, city, and town in Myanmar, large stages are erected for the purpose of enjoying entertainment. These stages are made of wood and elaborately decorated with papier-mache and paint. Woman will dance to classical and contemporary music while wearing flower skirts. In addition to these flower skirts, Burmese women often wear padauck blossoms in their hair. The padauck blossom is also commonly referred to as the Thingyan flower due to its rarity and use during Maha Thingyan.
Parade of Locals
After enjoying live music and dancing, people celebrating Maha Thingyan parade the streets of their town or city while enjoying alcohol and the company of their friends and family members. These parades often consist of vehicles and decorated floats. Gyat, a form of Burmese rap, is commonly performed during these parades. Gyat is fairly controversial because it is a popular way of expressing distaste for social and political issues through music.
Water Festival Celebrations
The primary event of Maha Thingyan is the Water Festival. This huge event is meant to celebrate the descent of Thagyamin, a celestial Buddhist figure, to Earth. The beginning of the Water Festival, or A-Kya Nei, is marked with the firing of a water cannon into a public area. While the cannon is fired, people run out to collect the water with pots and buckets. The collected water is then poured over the ground. This is followed by a short prayer. Just like Thingyan Eve, these religious rituals are followed by festive activities. Water throwing with toy guns, balloons, and hoses takes place in many areas of Myanmar.
Maha Thingyan is a Burmese public holiday that allows Buddhists to celebrate their religion while reconnecting with their cultural roots.