What’s the Thingyan Festival in Myanmar? Date, Origin & Traditions

Updated

Thingyan or the Myanmar New Year is the longest and most significant festival in the country. Over 90 percent of the population is Buddhist, and Myanmar’s deep Buddhist roots appear in Thingyan, a celebration of the past, present, and future. 

Jump ahead to these sections:

Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) is no stranger to celebrations of life. This small nation has one of the largest numbers of national holidays. In fact, there’s a public holiday for each month of the year.

Although Thingyan, the largest celebration, might seem like a party, it’s actually an ancient tradition. In this guide, we’ll explore how to celebrate the New Year in one of the world’s best-kept, secret, bucket-list destinations.

Religion in Myanmar 

Myanmar’s people are overwhelmingly Buddhist, and as a result, it’s not surprising that Buddhist rituals are a large part of the New Year. Before learning about Thingyan traditions, let’s explore what Buddhism is and why it’s important. 

The people of Myanmar practice Theravada Buddhism, an ancient belief in nirvana, a place of peace and happiness. Buddhism is part of the national identity and has been since the year 1044. It’s said that Buddha, the religious leader, visited the country four times to spread his teachings. 

Buddhists believe in reincarnation. To escape the cycle of rebirth, a person must build positive energy or merit. Buddhists follow special traditions to do this.

The eight precepts are pillars of Buddhist teachings. They are especially important to follow during Thingyan. They include not harming any living creatures, giving offerings, and being kind to others.

Myanmar isn’t the only country with Buddhist festivals. Cambodia celebrates Pchum Ben and Songkran, or Thailand's New Year celebration, is a bucket-list destination for many. 

What is Thingyan (Burmese Water) Festival?

Thingyan is a four-day celebration of the New Year in Myanmar. It’s the most important holiday on the national calendar, showcasing its Buddhist beginnings and rich culture. 

Thingyan is a time for people to learn from the past and look to the future. Before sharing how you can celebrate, let’s take a look at how it began.

History

Thingyan dates back to over 900 hundred years ago. It was borrowed from the Indian harvest celebration Holi. Like Thingyan, Holi celebrates the seasonal changes of the sun. People around the world celebrate seasonal changes like the Harvest of the Moon festival in Korea. 

Although the Myanmarese are Buddhist, their religion has ties with Hinduism. In fact, Thingyan’s origin story comes from the Buddhist translation of a Hindu myth. Buddhist call the Hindu God Indra, Thagyarmin

The story says that Thagyarmin won a bet with another king. Although Thagyarmin cut off the king’s head, the king didn’t die but instead became a powerful being called Ganesha.

He is worshipped in cultures around the world for his lucky powers. The king’s decapitated head was too powerful to simply discard. Instead, it must be carried each year to prevent the end of the world. 

Meaning

Each year, people gather to celebrate Thagyarmin’s arrival earthside. People believe he observes them to ensure they follow Buddhist teachings and traditions. It’s a special time where participants can interact with this celestial being directly. 

It’s said that Thagyarmin was a man named Magha. Magha’s good works led him to the ultimate Buddhist goal—escaping the cycle of rebirth. Because he dedicated his life to being selfless, he was reborn as a king of celestial beings.

During Thingyan, participants focus on selfless actions like Magha did, to ensure good fortune in the coming year. 

Where it’s celebrated

Myanmar celebrates Thingyan all over—from the countryside to major cities. Smaller towns celebrate traditionally with rituals, cleaning, and offerings. Larger towns like the capital city of Nay Pyi Taw set up padals or large stages. Performers take to the stage as the audience as large water guns hose down the audience. 

It’s unusual to see people without their families during Thingyan. Many people choose to go back to their hometowns to celebrate or gather together in bigger towns. The government shuts down transportation and streets close, making room for stages. 

Thingyan isn’t the only water festival in April. Laos and Thailand both have their own water festivities to celebrate life and honor tradition. 

When is Thingyan Festival?

Myanmar doesn’t have the same calendar as other countries. Instead, they use a lunar calendar based on the position of the sun and moon. Unlike in the West, the New Year begins in April. 

Thingyan begins on April 13, and festivities end on April 16. The celebration ends with New Year, which falls on April 17th of each year. Some families choose to prepare in advance as far as eight days before the New Year. 

Thingyan Festival Traditions and Activities

The Thingyan festival is the largest, longest, and most exciting celebration of the year. It’s the only time of the year that restrictions are lifted for gatherings. Myanmar has traditionally been a military state. Although it's undergoing a transition to democracy, there are still rules that all citizens must follow. 

During Thingyan, the rules are relaxed. Participants of all backgrounds come together to reflect on the past year and plan for the future.

Regional traditions

First, let’s take a look at regional traditions. Depending on the minority group, the festival is celebrated differently. There are also different traditions in the countryside versus major cities.

There are seven ethnic minority states in Myanmar. Each minority group has their own customs to celebrate the New Year. 

For example, the Rakhine minority group uses a traditional style of water throwing for courtship. Girls and boys choose a partner. Then, they water each other with special bowls on bamboo platforms. The girls make a special treat, nantha, while the boys sing and play music. Later, they offer the treat to monks for good fortune in the coming year. 

In large cities like Yangon, the bamboo platforms are far more elaborate. They extend out into the streets with water cannons.

Concerts with famous musicians are common. Music (both Myanmar-style and Western) plays while young people dance until sunset. Many people save funds for the entire year for a chance to partake in the festival. 

Water 

Walk down the street during Thingyan, and you’re likely to be soaked with a water gun, bucket, or cannon. Water is the most important part of the festivities. Although live music and hoses are a modern change, the tradition of water dates back to the tenth century.

Back then, royals washed their hair in thingyantaw kor or ritual hair washing to prepare for the New Year. It’s said the hair washing purifies the mind, body, and spirit. Later, servants began splashing each other and the rest is Thingyan history.

Today, after the water dousing festivities, it’s customary to focus on gaining merit or positive energy for the coming year. People wash the elderly’s hair or offer water to monks. These actions help people gain merit and wash away the wrongs of the past year.

Acts of kindness

As mentioned before, after the festivities subside, Myanmar’s people focus on acts of kindness to prepare a great start to the New Year. At this time, many people visit their family members if they haven’t already. 

One of the most popular ways to show kindness is to offer food to the monks. This is a year-round practice, but monasteries are the busiest on New Year’s Day.

Everyone must follow the eight precepts or principles of Buddhism. Some other kind acts include: releasing animals like birds and fish, cleaning homes, and making offerings to images of Buddha.

Food and drink

Food is a large part of any festival, and Thingyan is no exception. Treats and alcohol are plentiful to provide festival-goers with energy to participate.

Myanmar’s most important crop is rice, so you’re very likely to find sweet and tangy rice dishes. Sticky rice balls and fresh fruit and vegetables are common staples. 

Cultural shows

The people of Myanmar are very proud of Thingyan. For a usually secretive nation, it’s a time to open doors to foreigners and showcase their culture.

Around the nation, traditional dancers wearing long colorful dresses perform. Especially popular is the Thingyan Yein or group dance. Dancers use their hands and feet in synchronized movement while traditional music plays. Performers play the Pat Waing, a special drum circle reserved for important celebrations. 

Celebrate the New Year 

Good deeds bring all the people of Myanmar together on Thingyan. It’s a time to reflect on the past year and plan with an intent for the future. 

Have you thought about your future lately? Not all of us have the opportunity to visit Myanmar, but we can reflect on our goals for the next year. Starting end-of-life planning is a great way to begin your journey. 


Sources

  1. Lwin, Sandar. “Thingyan: Explained.” The Myanmar Times. 30 March 2016. www.mmtimes.com/special-features/220-thingyan-2016/19770-thingyan-explained.html
  2. “Myanmar.” World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples. www./minorityrights.org/country/myanmarburma/
  3. The New Light of Myanmar. Burma Library. www.burmalibrary.org/docs15/NLM-2013-04-17-red.pdf
  4. “In Myanmar, Celebrating With Water, Letting Off Steam.” International Herald Tribune. 16 April 2009. www.nytimes.com/2009/04/17/world/asia/17yangon.html

Icons sourced from FlatIcon.