During Water Festival, Burma’s Minorities Celebrate With Diverse Traditions

By Yen Saning 10 April 2015

RANGOON — A festive mood has gradually taken hold across Burma this week as preparations for the Water Festival, known locally as Thingyan, get underway ahead of its official start on Monday.

In Rangoon, huge wooden pandals and water installations are being erected where festival revelers can dance and cars loaded with party goers can pass by. But Thingyan, which marks the start of the Buddhist New Year, is about more than just water-throwing, partying and holidays, it’s also about food traditions and religious ceremonies.

In some of the country’s regions that are home to the Buddhist ethnic peoples of Mon, Shan and Arakan states a number of specific Thingyan traditions are celebrated each year. Monastery ceremonies and food are an important part of the local Thingyan traditions.

In Mon State, most people will eat at the monastery in the morning and fast in the afternoon. A traditional Water Festival rice dish called Thingyan htamin is prepared for the monks and the community, which is served with mango and prawn and fish salad.

“Throwing water, going to the monastery to fast and observing the eight Buddhist precepts are part of the same tradition. Our Mon essence is that we do good deeds in the New Year and throw water politely to mark the change to the New Year,” said Nai Soe Aung, secretary of the Mon Literature and Culture Association in Rangoon.

On the last day of Thingyan, Mon youths will go to the monastery to cut nails and wash hair of the elderly, and to clean all Buddha statues, while monks are invited to chant in many places to drive evils away ahead of the start of the New Year.

In Arakan State, water-throwing can only begin after Buddha statues at the monasteries are washed with scented water, a tradition that has led to a competition to produce scented water with the best fragrance.

“We will hold a fragrance contest on April 12 and will use the fragrance and offer it to Buddha statues at Arakan Dhamma Hall” in Rangoon, said Zaw Aye Maung, Rangoon Division’s Arakan affairs minister.

Food traditions in western Burma’s Arakan State include preparing an Arakanese glass noodle salad for the monks and the community.

Further north, in Shan State, the Shan communities make banana leaf-wrapped sweet sticky rice, a snack that is offered at monasteries and to the elderly at their homes.

“During Thingyan, we pay respect to the grandparents. We donate water to Buddha. We make devotional offerings to the village guardian spirits, and we have monks chant on the streets,” said Sai Leng Harn from the Shan Literature and Culture Association in Rangoon.