Happy Thingyan

Posted by the ISY Communications Team

19 March 2019

Thin-gyan is a word derived from Sanskrit meaning the end of one year and the beginning of a new year. It is not purely a Buddhist tradition, but a combination of a Brahmanism and a Burmese tradition which has been practiced since the 10th century.

Since the beginning of March, the weather has been hot and dry and the whole countryside lies parched and barren. The harvest has been gathered and celebrated at the festival of the full moon called Tabaung (this Tabaung festival is a Buddhist festival now, but in the remote pass it used to be simply a harvest festival). It is now near the middle of April, and the Burmese cultivator, like his paddy field and his plough-oxen, finds the weather trying and the enforced holiday monotonous. However, there is a excitement in the air, for the Feast of the New Year is swiftly approaching.

The king of the heavens, Thagyamin, is coming down to the earth on his annual visit. He will come and spend the last two days (sometimes three) of the old year in the realm of the human beings, and the exact moment of his departure will bring in the New Year. The Feast lasts for three days (sometimes four), and the day of his arrival is known as the Day of Descent, the day of his departure the Day of Ascent, and the day in between (sometimes two days in between) the Day of Sojourn. During these three days (or four days) elderly people fast and go to the monasteries and pagodas to offer alms-food.

At home people prepare cooling drinks and sweet cakes to be presented to neighbors. The children are warned to be on their best behavior, for the king of the heavens, Thagyamin, brings with him two big volumes, one bound in dogs-skin hide, the other in Gold, and he records in the Dog-skin book the names of those who have committed miss-deeds during the course of the year, and in the Gold book, the names of those who have performed acts of merit.

The exact times of the arrival and departure of the Thagyamin, will be celebrated by devotees and monks at the monasteries, and on the front porch of every house there stand the New Year welcoming pots filled with special flowers and special leaves to welcome the visiting Thagyamin. Traditionally, at the exact time of his arrival, the head of the household (as both the husband and the wife are joint heads of the family these ceremonials are performed either by the husband or the wife) lifts up the pots towards the sky as a gesture of homage, and the exact time of his departure the head of household pours out slowly the water from the pots on to the ground with the prayer for good fortune, good rainfall, and good harvest for the coming year. However, this tradition is fading now and may only be practiced by the older generation. 

The Feast of the New Year is also the merry Festival of Water. Since dawn, teams of young men and young women have been occupying strategic points on the roadside with pails and buckets of water. Groups of young men and young women are also to be found in the gaily decorated temporary structures which have sprung up almost overnight at every street corner.  There are all kinds of sweet cakes, and cool drinks for all the passers-by and the merry-makers. No passers-by will escape the drenching, no matter whether he or she is a Buddhist or non-Buddhist, Burmese or non-Burmese. Only the monks and the sick and the infirm are spared the deluge. Gaily dressed young men and young women in decorated cars or carts drive round the town or village, throwing water and getting drenched in return. Sometimes a bunch of young men will challenge another group of young men or a group of young women to throw more water on them by shouting slogans and singing songs.

The modern celebration of Thingyan in Myanmar can be quite alarming to the newcomer.  One cannot expect to walk the streets without getting very wet and a good sense of humor is a must.  Some caution is recommended for visitors although in general the celebration should be a fun time and a good opportunity to witness the local people in an unusual setting.