Annually, from 13 to 15 April, the people of Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia celebrate their traditional New Year—Paveni Pi Mai Muang or the Songkran Festival, which is also known as the Water Splashing Festival. According to Northern Thai or Lanna culture, Songkran is traditionally celebrated during the seventh lunar month of the Lanna calendar. Establishing April as the first month of the year coincides with the movement of the sun through the zodiac, a pattern that reflects the changing seasons and accords with the natural rhythm of nature and the universe. This time of year provides an opportunity for family members to gather and make merit through traditional rituals, such as washing Buddha images and other water blessing ceremonies. Each day of the New Year festival serves a particular purpose as outlined in this article.
Wan Sangkhan Lohng
Wan Sangkhan Lohng is determined by the sun’s position and movement in relation to the zodiac to indicate the end of the old astrological year. Local people mark the time of change in the sun’s position at 3 o’clock, 30 minutes, and 26 seconds with a ritual colloquially referred to as the “exorcism” for bad luck.
The day of transition, also known as Wan Da, is when items and food are prepared for ceremonies and merit-making that will take place the following day. Children and elders spend the day collecting sand from rivers that they will carry to the temple the next day to form sand pagodas. The Lanna people believe this day has the power to prevent decay. Logging wood to construct a wooden house on Wan Nao will render the timber impervious to rot and wood-eating insects. The Lanna people also believe that any bad behavior—verbal or physical, intentional or accidental—on Wan Nao, will result in bad fortune for the following year and that scolding children on this day will cause them to retain their bad habits forever. On this day, everything related to the most significant cultural beliefs and traditions must be prepared.
Wan Phayawan, the third day of the New Year festival, officially marks the start of the New Year. Merit-making and religious ceremonies begin early in the morning. These ceremonies include veneration rituals for deceased relatives and ancestors; food-offering rituals; Lanna-mantra readings; the placement of tung, embroidered flags, into sand pagodas; and listening to readings and addresses wishing for good luck and virtue in the New Year.
Wan Paak Bpee
The fourth day of the New Year festival and first day of the New Year is Wan Paak Bpee. This is an important day on which the Lanna people gather to pay respect, bring merit to their homes, and remove negative energy. A traditional ritual involves asking elders for forgiveness for any past wrongdoings and is usually followed by a life-prolonging ceremony in the evening, which is conducted at a local temple by village elders and community leaders and includes candle lighting, prayer, and worship to bring good fortune and auspiciousness to family homes.
Yor Suay Wai Sa Phraya Mangrai or Homage to Phraya Mangrai Ceremonies of Chiang Mai
Yor Suay Wai Sa Phraya Mangrai or Homage to Phraya Mangrai Ceremonies of Chiang Mai is held on 12 April to commemorate the city’s establishment and its founder, Phraya Mangrai. Families pay respect to the great king for prosperity and a safe and happy new year. The event is organized with the collaboration of the Chiang Mai Community Network, official representatives of Chiang Mai City, and other relevant agencies, exemplifying the culture of mutual generosity and cooperation that Chiang Mai is known for.
Served at the event is a traditional dessert believed to have originated during the Phraya Mangrai era. It is used symbolically to pay homage. The main purpose of the homage is to inspire a sense of ancestry and connection with the ancient founders, including the great king who conceived the city, ensured protection and peace for all on the land, and deeply instilled Lanna pride within its people.
The main ceremony consists of dedication and worship rituals, including offerings of sweet and savory foods, traditional dances, drumming, and ornate bowls of flowers, an offering unique to Lanna culture. A procession of over 700 people from different communities moves from the downtown area to the Three Kings Monument to demonstrate harmony and unity. The homage is a celebration of the city’s 722-year history, Lanna traditions, and, of course, Phraya Mangrai. The occasion is one on which individuals come to pay respect, to receive blessings for themselves and their families, and to be inspired by their inherited a culture and faith that was founded on collective goodwill, universal respect, and social harmony.
Dr. Woralun Boonyasurat, Associate Professor, Faculty of Fine Arts, Chiang Mai University, Thailand