By Shyamal Sinha
Thingyan from Sanskrit saṁkrānti, which means “transit [of the Sun from Pisces to Aries is the Burmese New Year Festival and usually falls around mid-April. It is a Buddhist festival celebrated over a period of four to five days, culminating in the New Year. The dates of the Thingyan Festival are calculated according to the Burmese calendar.Thingyan is comparable to other festivities in the region such as the Songkran in Laos, the Songkran in Thailand, the Cambodian New Year, and the Sinhalese New Year.
While many people in South and Southeast Asia last week welcomed the Buddhist New Year by spraying copious amounts of water over each other, for Buddhists in Myanmar the festival is also a time for spiritual enrichment as many women spend the week-long holiday as temporarily ordained nuns.
The traditional celebration is known as Thingyan in Myanmar, which means “change;” moving from the past year into the next. This change is celebrated by people across the country by sprinkling water over each other to wash away ill health and bad luck, and to shower one another in blessings of peace, health, happiness, and prosperity. The festival is not only about merrymaking; many make time to pay tribute to the Triple Gem—the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha—to chant from the Tipitaka, to listen to a Dhamma talk, to bathe images of the Buddha, and to pay respect to community elders. In addition, an increasing number of girls and women take the week long holiday as an opportunity to temporarily ordain as nuns and experience a devout and monastic life.
On the first day of the holiday, the women and girls who have decided to undergo temporary ordination and their families meet with senior nuns to receive a blessing, before shaving their heads and putting on pink robes. The shaving off their hair can be difficult for some of the women, but it is a key part of the experience: “For nuns to cut off and shave off their hair . . . reminds us that it [hair] really has no sense or spiritual value. It’s a good reminder that while they are on our body, we try to beautify our hair and skin . . . but when it is removed from the body it doesn’t have any worth.” said Dr. Yuzana Nyani, a lecturer of the International Theravada Buddhist Missionary University. (DVB)
Explaining the significance of the occasion, she observed: “When people think of Thingyan, they think of fun and throwing water, but that fun or joy is only temporary. . . . For us nuns, joining the nunhood is priceless. It’s very peaceful.” (DVB)
Life as a nun is not easy as it involves strict discipline and a lot of meditation and fasting. Ten-year-old Venus, who was ordained at a nunnery in Yangon (formerly Rangoon), mentioned that she thought the first day was the hardest because she felt hungry. The following day was much better, and she proudly explained that that on the second day she “stayed calm.” Another of the girls ordained in Yangon, 12-year-old May Thet Chayay, said that she hoped to please and show respect to her parents through temporary ordination. (DVB)
The number of women choosing to be temporarily ordained during Thingyan has grown over the years. When asked for a reason for this growth, Daw Vijjesi, a teacher at the Yangon nunnery, replied: “Because more believe that becoming a nun is peaceful and becoming a nun is totally different, noble and meaningful. It’s a kind of joy you can only experience yourself.” (DVB)
Serving the Buddha as a nun or monk is an ideal for most Buddhists in Myanmar, since taking the vows is a way of making merit and taking a few steps closer to Nirvana, where one is free from all suffering.
While much of the country is celebrating Thingyan with merrymaking and posting water-throwing photos on social media, the nuns in Yangon celebrate the holiday in a more spiritual and peaceful way.
Thingyan is also a favourite time for shinbyu, novitiation ceremonies for boys in the tradition of Theravada Buddhism when they will join the monks (Sangha) and spend a short time, perhaps longer, in a monastery immersed in the teachings of the Buddha, the Dhamma. It is akin to rites of passage or coming of age ceremonies in other religions.