Out of the country’s national and regional festivals, the most popular is the Burmese New Year Festival, locally known as Thingyan Festival. The four-dafestival is enjoyed bypeople from all walks of life. The festival usually falls in mid-April, the hottest time of the year, when the temperatures go as high up as 40 Celsius.
During Thingyanpeople throw water onto one another, earning it a name “Water Festival”. You are bound to get wet soon after you leave your house but the intention is to make you merry. The tradition of throwing water is said to have started during 11th to 13th Century.
The pandals are built beside major roads, where ladies hose the groups of revellers down who move from the pandal to the pandal in trucks, jeeps, on bicycles, motorbikes or on foot. At larger pandals, traditional as well as western music and dances are also performed by troupes of young ladies. Most people enjoying the festival get drunk and there are sometimes fights and clashes.
In the countryside, water throwing is much simpler. People use bowls or buckets to douse to hurl water around. They would also sing songs of amusement or satire, known as thanjat. It is a period when the whole country is soaked with water and is taken up by the noise of chants, songs and musical instruments.
Historically water is thrown during the festival to wash away misdeeds but it does not hurt that it is the hottest time of year and throwing water is a great way to cool down.
During the festival, people hand out with snacks such as mont-lon-yébaw (balls of dough boiled with palm sugar inside) and mont-lat-saung (bits of sticky rice in jaggery syrup and coconut milk). Almost every household makes these snacks and share with each other, friends and complete strangers who walk past – supposedly to encourage good will and prosperity.
Thingyaninvolves not only merrymaking but also religious duties. People who are not interested in partying go to monasteries to keep the Sabbath (eight precepts) or to meditation centres to purify their minds.
Many parents let their sons and daughters join the Buddhist order as novices and nuns and learn the teachings of the Buddha during the festival.
On New Year’s Day, people wash statues of Buddha image and clean their houses. They also visit the elderly in our community to bathe them, wash their heads and cut their nails before they pay our respects to them. Some people set animals free too and donations are made at pagodas, hospitals and homes for the aged. Some people even make New Year’s resolutions.
The Buddhist Intha, native people of Inle Lake, boast of having about 100 monasteries and many stupas around the lake. Paung Daw Oo Pagoda is regarded as one of the state’s holiest sites and holds five images covered in gold leaf. According to legend, the images – three of which are said to be Buddha statues and the other two disciples of his – date back to the time of the Bagan king Alaung Sithu (1112-1167AD).
Every year, from the first waxing day to the third waning day of the full moon of the lunar month of Thadingyut, which usually falls in October, the biggest event in the region takes place at Inle Lake. During the 20-day festival, the images from Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda are carried on a royal barge from village to village to bless the people. Food stalls, souvenir shops, magic shows, puppet shows and dramas add to the festive atmosphere. The festival also features traditional boat races where men and women show off their unique leg-rowing skills.
In November in Taunggyi, the capital of Shan State, Myanmar’s biggest ethnic state,ethnic Pa-O and Shan people hold a special festival that features a spectacular hot-air balloon competition. Participants spend many weeks and months leading up to the festival trying to make the most attractive balloons – up to 17 to 20 feet high and 16 to 18 feet in diameter – out of local Shan paper material.
A single competing group might be made up of as many 400 people who work in smaller teams to make different elements of the balloon separately and only piece them together just before the festival into a unified form, which might take the shape of anything from a traditional hot-air balloon to a giant animal, fruit or house. The sides of the balloon are often decorated with the name of the competing group, a religious logo or a floral pattern.
The wicks, which can weigh more than 30 pounds, are made by soaking pieces of cloth in oil dregs, crude oil, turpentine, wax and camphor oil for a number of days before being wrapped up on an iron frame. When the flame is lit, the balloon takes to the sky as if it is ready to ascend all the way to the moon.