Why is New Year April 13, 2557?
1- Why do Thais celebrate New Year on April 13?
2- Why is this year 2557?
3- What’s with the throwing of water, anyway?
Much of Thai culture comes from India. The Tamils who dominate southern India (and are also prevalent in Sri Lanka—remember the Tamil Tiger unrest there?) celebrate their New Year on the vernal equinox. That’s when the hours of daylight and night-time are the same. It happens twice a year: on March 21 and September 21. The winter solstice is on Dec 21 when the night is longest (the ancients celebrated the winter solstice on December 25 which is why they moved Christmas to that date (originally Christmas was celebrated in August) and the summer solstice (when daylight is longest) is on June 21.
In the zodiac, March 21 is when the sun moves into the constellation Aries, which is the first constellation of the zodiac calendar. It is also when the sun begins its northward journey.
Now, here is where it gets very confusing. A solar calendar measures the time from one vernal equinox to the next, and that becomes the solar year. But the Tamils used what is called a sideral calendar, which measures the time it takes for the sun to return to the same position with respect to certain stars (sidereal comes from the Latin word “star”). According to the sidereal calendar, the vernal equinox is on April 13.
Now the Sanskrit word (much of Thai language comes from Sanskrit) for “movement” or “change” is sankranta whence the word songkran derives. This describes the “movement” of the sun into Aries.
The great ruling dynasty of the Tamils was the Cholas. Around 1000AD. one of their great kings expanded their rule geographically, conquering parts of Myanmar, Malaysia, and Thailand. During the Chola occupation of Thailand, they brought their culture and traditions, including their New Year celebrations on April 13. In addition to southern India today, April 13 is also celebrated as New Year in Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, and Sri Lanka in addition to Thailand.
(By the way, in 8th c. Germany the month of April was named after a pagan goddess Ostara (whose name came from an ancient word meaning “dawn”). When the Saxons came to England they brought much of their culture with them. Ostara became known in England as “Eostre” and the early Christians in celebrating the death of Jesus named their April holiday “Easter”).
Now in Thailand, two methods of dating years were traditionally employed: the sacred and the popular.
The popular year counting system changed over time. Rama V (Chulalongkorn) declared that the founding of the Chakri dynasty with Rama I in 6 April 1782 was to be Year 1.
But Rama VI decided that Thais should count using the sacred calendar, based on the date of the death of the Buddha, 11 March 543 BC. Always remember the numbers “543” because when you add them to the Christian year you get the Thai year (2014 + 543 = 2557). Rama VI also (this was in 1912 AD) changed the start of the New Year to April 1.
Prime Minister Phibun in 1941 changed the New Year start to January 1, to align with the rest of the world.
(Another by the way—Julius Caesar declared Jan 1 to be the start of the New Year, but by the Middle Ages in Europe the Christian calendar had taken over. March 25 or Annunciation (when Gabriel told Mary she was pregnant) was New Years in many countries, including England until the 18th c. Even today the British tax year starts on April 6, which is the New Year of March 25 plus an additional 12 days accounting for the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar).
In other European countries (especially France), New Years started the day after Good Friday, while Germany, England and Spain also sometimes dated the New Year from Christmas. Jan 1 was only used as the start of the New Year in most of Europe in the 16th c, and not in the UK until the 18th c.)
By the way (#3), the Romans dated the years by the start of a new Emperor’s reign, and each time the Emperor died there was a new year 1. Sometime in the 6th c AD a monk decided to create a new system of dating years based on the birth of Jesus. He went back in time to count the years. But there was a mass of confusion especially since there were some years where there were up to three emperors, and therefore many “Year 1”. He finally decided that it had been 525 years since the birth of Jesus and announced that the next year would be 525 anno domini (meaning “year of lord”.) Unfortunately, he was off by about 4 years, since most scholars today (the point continues to be debated) reckon the birth of Jesus to be in 4BC.
Back to Thailand. At the start of the New Year (Songkran, April 13) it is customary to go to the temple and wash (or bathe) the Buddha statues. This custom is still followed today. After you have washed the statue, the used water is now “holy”. People would take the holy water and bathe their family or friends with it, thus washing them in the same water that washed the Buddha. This is the origin of the water throwing that many people now despise but is certainly a popular event in the Kingdom.
Suk san wan Songkran.