Thai flowers at a Thai New Year ceremony
The Thai New Year (songkran) marks the beginning of the rainy season, the beginning of the Thai farmer’s year and the end of the drought. This year 2555 (543 years ahead of 2012) marks the number of years since the death of Lord Buddha. Since his death is considered the time of reaching enlightenment and breaking the cycle of rebirth, this is more important than his birthday, which according to legend happened many times. The administrative year 2555 actually began on January 1st, to synchronize with the rest of the world, but since 1940 April 13 is the fixed Thai new year. Before 1888 the Thai new year had different dates based on when the sun moved into the Aries Zodiac (mesha sankranti in Sanskrit language).
During songkran many Thai families perform a ceremony called ‘rot nam dam hoa’, where children and grandchildren ask their parents and grandparents for forgiveness and they exchange blessings about long and healthy lives. In today’s ceremony at Dokmai Garden in Chiang Mai, Nived and Densak Seehamongkol held flowers of orange jessamine (Murraya paniculata, Rutaceae) between their hands, making a wai. An inferior Thai wais a superior Thai, and the superior may wai back, or just nod. A ‘wai’ is not similar to a handshake or greeting, it is a sign of submission. Being older means being superior to the children, and so the elders sat on a teak bench while the children held their heads lower sitting on cushions on the floor, feet pointed away. During the exchange of blessings, the children and grandchildren poured scented water with orange jessamine flowers over the hands of the elderly. This native flower was selected because it is white, the colour of purity, innocence and religion, and because it is scented.
While many western ceremonies are stiff and everyone terrified of doing something wrong, the Thai farmer’s ceremonies are ‘sabai sabai’ (easy going) full of giggles, jokes and chattering. It is perfectly OK to use an exclusive mai dhaeng (Xylia xylocarpa) mother of pearl bowl next to a turquoise plastic bucket. In the eyes of many Thais, a uniform perfected style is not important, while the core of the activity, the actual blessing, is. This view pervades garden design and architecture. Function is more important than a coherent uniform theme. Although a farang (a westerner) feels like Mr Bean during such a ceremony, his presence is appreciated and his mistakes forgiven.
Pouring water would wash away anything dirty and bad. This ancient tradition has evolved into modern days water war downtown Chiang Mai.
Nam op thai, 15 Baht a bottle, is commonly sold at any Thai market. It is a source for making scented water. We have failed to track down its ingredients, as the microscopical telephone number only goes to the distributor and they were unwilling to reveal the manufacturer.