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Buddhist New Year, Hindu New Year and songs of spring

Discovering a little bit of India in Thailand

By Anoothi Vishal

At Khao San Road, Bangkok, backpacker-paradise, buckets are in big demand. “Buy a bucket…***” say placards, and not necessarily in polite terms, even as you jostle through the impossible crowd, boisterous and high-spirited. It’s the spirit of Songkran, you soon realize, rather like Holi in India, when the pursuit of fun is a single-point agenda and social mores loosen up. There are many uses for the mini buckets: Enthusiastic revelers may think nothing of drenching you with their waterload. But enterprising bars put them to another use altogether— in ‘bucket cocktails’.

The only experience comparable to this one is when i slurped wine, quite indelicately from an inverted bottle. But bucket cocktails are quite another thing. Sitting squatly on tables, complete with straws to sip your deadly poison from, they far outclass the biggest of beer mugs and the tallest of drinks. In India, I have no doubt, they would be an instant hit, should an enterprising bar put them on the menu. For me, they embody the sense of fun that Songkran, the Thai new year, the beginning of spring, ushers in in the entire country this time of the year.

Like the Indian “Shankrant” (the date when the sun officially “moves” into the northern hemisphere, thus ending the cold, dark of winters) and like other agrarian festivials in many regions of India that usher in the new year (Bihu, Poila Boishak, Baisakhi…) in this part of the world, Songkran too marks the beginning of a new fertility cycle. It’s the Buddhist new year —not the Gregorian one, we observe thanks to Colonial roots. And water is a way of renewing energies. Cleansing the past. Anointing the new. Perhaps.

Washing idols of Buddha – in a way that Shiva is worshipfully bathed with water from the ganga in India — is one of the most charming rituals that I observe in Bangkok. And in Ayutthya, a town named after the Indian Ayodhya (the birth place of the mythic Ram; Thailand is full of references to the Hindu universe but more perhaps as a result of the Khmer influence than any direct linkages; the country is overwhelmingly Buddhist). A two-hour drive from the capital, this is the old capital, twice decimated by the Burmese armies, and now the setting for a world heritage temple and palace.

The ruined brick temple stands quietly surveying modern enterprise — and sometimes perfidy. I am told of a Western tourist who had quietly removed a piece of brick from the premises, and taken it home. A few months later, he posted it back to the local tourist authority saying it had brought him bad luck and that he was now trying to undo that karma. We will never know whether this was mere pyschosis. But, the power that the ancient site exerts is sometimes tangible.

A shinning new temple, covered in gold foil, like all Thai Buddhist marvels, stands next door. As I step in to bow before the Buddha—and yes, sprinkle water on his idol—the temptation to indulge in some soothsaying is irresistible. A bowl of wooden sticks (all numbered) is placed in my hands, before the gods. I shake them up well and pick one and then take my number to be interpreted. Well, let some things be left unsaid.

Elsewhere, on less quiet streets, the action picks up. A local band is entertaining Songkran revelers and two baby elephants have been pressed into service— not merely to participate in a parade of sorts but to sprinkle water on passersby. Someone puts a smear of clay – quite fragrant, really—on my temple. But this festival is by and large civilized at least for those of us who have borne the full brunt of a drunken north Indian holi.

There are water guns and mock street fights; jeeps with roofs down zip past with their armies of players and sometimes you may find water being splashed your way. There is also a hideously pink Fanta being sold at a stall nearby, by the street, should you want to quench your thirst amidst so much water. I miss bhang. Or perhaps, I do not.

Instead, of chaat and gujiyas that are brought out at home, street stalls do brisk business in pad thai and sweet pancakes. And we sit down tamely on the equivalent of a chatai, mat, to partake of the feast. There is a calm that is part of the way of life here.

In the evening, as the sun goes down and the water wars end—only to be refreshed the next day, we sit down to an enchanting meal. The lights are flickering, a distant jazz band plays on, Sam. The champagne flute in my hand glistens, the River of Kings flows below, an enchanted grand canal. And there are the ghosts of Songkrans past, future….
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