As Myanmar, Cambodia and Bangladesh celebrate New Year this week, I was reminded of my childhood when we celebrated the water festival in the city that was then Rangoon.
Myanmar has 12 festivals, one each month around the full moon day. But Myanmar’s New Year water festival, Thin-gyan, is the most famous, often with street celebrations as well as various religious activities. It usually falls around mid-April and it is celebrated over a period of four to five days ending in the New Year.
There is a great deal of friendliness and goodwill among people during the festival. The sprinkling of water is intended to symbolically “wash away” one’s iniquities. In major cities such as Yangon and Mandalay, garden hoses or locally made water shooters and other devices from which water can be sprayed are used, in addition to simple bowls and cups. Sometimes water balloons and even fire hoses have been used. It is the hottest time of the year and a good dousing is welcomed by most.
During the Water Festival, the Myanmar government relaxes the restrictions on gatherings. However, the lack of water in recent years has restricted the use of large quantities of water in some parts of the country.
Temporary water-spraying stations are set up, and double as dance floors, many of them are sponsored by wealthy families and businesses. Street performances and traditional floats by puppeteers, orchestras, dance troupes, comedians, actors and singers singing and chanting slogans are commonplace. Support CAFOD’s work in Myanmar and across the world this Lent
Some people, particularly among the older generation, will enter into a week of prayerful retreats in monasteries. Others carry out alms-giving in various forms.
Some boys take part in novitiation in the tradition of Theravada Buddhism, when they join the monks and spend a period of time in a monastery immersed in the teachings of the Buddha, the Dhamma.
Young girls may also join the novicehood initiation for a short period. The girls also have a ceremony in which earlobes are pierced when they come of age, but unlike the novitiation ceremony, it is more of a social than religious event.
On New Year’s Day, it is a time for people to visit the elders and pay respect with traditional offerings. Some donate food at various places, typically providing it free to those participating in the celebrations.
What I miss most is the special festive foods that are only made at this time. Most are made from glutinous rice and coconut, and Padauk, a yellow fragrant flowers which only blossom after a splash of April rain. The fresh earthy smell reminds us that the New Year has come!
CAFOD has worked in Myanmar since 1983, helping people prepare for and respond to disasters, carrying out programmes to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS, supporting peace efforts and empowering local groups to speak out on the issues that matter most to people on the ground.