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Southeast Asia celebrates New Year
April 12, 2015, 10:38 am

New Year celebrations ring out throughout much of Southeast Asia in mid-April. In Sri Lanka and other places that follow the Theravada order of Buddhism, including in Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia the celebrations mark the start of a new year, while in various states across India the event is also marked as a spring harvest festival. 

Aluth Avurudda in Sri Lanka: The Sinhalese New Year, which falls on 13 or 14 April, marks the transition of the sun from the Meena Rashiya (constellation of Pisces) to the Mesha Rashiya (constellation of Aries) and is one of two occasions when the sun is directly over Sri Lanka. The New Year, which begins the Sinhalese month of Bak that represents prosperity, is a public holiday celebrated as both, a religious festival as well as a harvest festival throughout Sri Lanka

While rituals vary based on the locale, the core of the celebrations remain in the same and usually begin with the cleaning of the house and lighting of an oil lamp. In some places, women gather to play on the Raban, a type of drum, to announce the advent of the New Year and families begin to light the fire to cook Kiribath, a milk infused rice concoction. The approach of the each auspicious time for various rituals is heralded by the unmistakable sound of firecrackers.

Songran in Thailand: Songkran festival, from the Sanskrit word saṃkrānti, which translates to passage of the sun, is celebrated in Thailand as the traditional New Year's Day from 13 to 15 April. During Songkran, most office buildings, banks as well as family-run shops and restaurants shut down completely. Bangkok experiences a mass exodus, as at least half of its residents travel back to their home towns for family re-unions.

A key component of the Songkran festival is the playful dousing of each other with water. Traditionally, water infused with fragrant herbs was poured as a symbol of washing away all sins and renewing one’s purity of mind. Chiang Mai holds the biggest, most recognized Thailand Water Festival parade, which includes statues from local temples being carried out and paraded through the streets in celebration of this very special time of the year.

Pii Mai in Laos: Laotian New Year, called Pii Mai, is officially celebrated every year from April 13 to April 15. The first day of Pii Mai is the last day of the old year when homes and communities clean surroundings and clear away all the accumulated rubbish. Perfume, water and flowers are also prepared in readiness for the New Year. The second day of the festival is the "day of no day", a day that falls in neither the old year nor in the new year. The last day of the festival marks the start of the new year.

Water perfumed with flowers or natural scents is used to wash homes, monks and images of Buddha; it is also used to soak friends, family and passers-by. Another ritual is the bringing of sand to temples to form decorated stupas or mounds that are then given to monks as a way of receiving merit. Another way to receive merit at this time is to set animals free as Laotians believe that even animals need to be free. The most commonly freed animals are tortoises, fish, crabs, birds, eels, and other small animals.

Thingyan in Myanmar: Thingyan, which translates as transit of the Sun, ‘from Pisces to Aries' around mid-April in the Burmese month of Tagu, is the Burmese New Year Water Festival. It is a Buddhist festival celebrated over a period of four to five days culminating in the New Year.

Dousing one another with water is the distinguishing feature of this festival and may be done on the first four days of the festival. It is also a time when alms and offerings are made to monks in their monasteries.

An important offering made in front of an image of the Buddha is a green coconut with its stalk intact encircled by bunches of green bananas and sprigs of jamun. Scented water is then poured over the image in a ceremonial washing from the head down. In every neighborhood pavilions or stages, with festive names are erected from bamboo, wood and beautifully decorated papier mache

Chaul Chnam Thmey in Cambodia: The Cambodian New Year or Chaul Chnam Thmey in the Khmer language, literally means, "Enter New Year".  Cambodians who use the Buddhist era to count the year will be celebrating the year 2559 BE (Buddhist Era) in 2015. The New Year holiday, which lasts for three days, and marks the end of the harvest season, starts from New Year's Day on April 13 or 14th.

It is a time when farmers enjoy the fruits of their labor before the rainy season begins. Maha Songkran is the name of the first day of the New Year celebration. It is the end of the year and the beginning of a new one. People dress up and light candles and burn incense sticks at shrines, where the members of each family pay homage to offer thanks for the Buddha's teachings by bowing, kneeling and prostrating themselves three times before his image.

On the second day or Virak Wanabat, people contribute charity to the less fortunate by helping the poor, servants, homeless, and low-income families. Families attend a dedication ceremony to their ancestors at the monastery. On the third day or T'ngai Leang Saka, Buddha images are bathed in perfumed water as it considered to bring longevity, good luck, happiness and prosperity in life.

Pohela Boishakh in Bangladesh and India’s West Bengal state: New Year day in the Bengali calendar falls on 14 April and is celebrated in Bangladesh and in the Indian state of West Bengal, by the Bengali people and also by minor Bengali communities in other Indian states, including Assam, Tripura, Jharkhand and Odisha.

The Bengali New Year begins at dawn, and the day is marked with singing, processions, and fairs. Traditionally, businesses start this day with a new ledger, clearing out the old. The event is marked by fairs and festivals, singing of traditional songs, vendors selling conventional foods and artisans selling traditional handicrafts. People also enjoy traditional jatra plays on the occasion.

Poila Boishakh is also an observance of cultural unity without distinction between class, race and religious affiliations. Of the major holidays celebrated in Bangladesh and West Bengal, only Pôila Boishakh comes without any preexisting expectations and is about celebrating the simpler, unifying rural roots of the Bengal.

Vaisakh in Punjab: Vaisakhi is the most important festival in the Sikh calendar, taking place on the first lunar month of Vaisakh, which falls on 14 April each year. Vaisakhi is especially important for the Sikh community as it marks the establishment in 1699 of the Panth Khalsa on the Vaisakhi Day by the 10th Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh.

Hindus and other people in the Punjab Region regard Vaisakhi as a harvest festival and the start of the Punjabi new year and is celebrated with ritualistic bathing and worshipping.

Farmers pay their tribute to God and thank him for the abundant harvest and pray for future prosperity. Apart from the Sikhs and Hindus, Vaisakhi is an important day for the Buddhists as well, as it commemorates the Birth, the Awakening and the Enlightened Passing Away of Gautama Buddha.

Puthandu in Tamilnadu: People in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry in India, as well as the Tamil population in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore, Réunion and Mauritius celebrate the first day of the Tamil Calendar in mid-April with great pomp. On this day, Tamil people greet each other by saying "Puthandu Vazthukal”.

The Tamil New Year follows the Nirayanam vernal equinox, which generally falls on 14 April of the Gregorian year, and marks the first day of the traditional Tamil calendar. On the eve of Puthandu, a tray arranged with three fruits (mango, banana and jack fruit), betel leaves and arecanut, gold or silver jewelry, coins or money, flowers and a mirror is placed. This is to be viewed upon waking in the morning. The day is marked with a feast in Tamil homes and entrances to the houses are decorated elaborately with kolams, or floral designs.

Vishu in Kerala: One of the most important festivals celebrated in Kerala, Vishu falls in the month of ‘Medam’ corresponding to mid-April in the Gregorian calendar. It is also celebrated with much fanfare and vigor as Bisu in the Mangalore and Udupi districts of Karnataka state.

Vishu is considered a festival of light and fireworks and decorating lights and bursting of firecrackers is part of the celebration. The most important event in Vishu is the Vishukkani, which literally means ‘the first thing seen on the day of Vishu’. The Vishukkani consists of a ritual arrangement of auspicious articles intended to signify prosperity, including rice, fruits and vegetables, betel leaves, arecanut, metal mirror and yellow flowers of the ‘konna’ tree.

Other elements of the festival include buying of new clothes for the occasion, the tradition of giving money called Vishukkaineetam and the Vishu feast or Sadya, which consist of equal proportions of salty, sweet, sour and bitter items.

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