If you happen to be in Arunachal Pradesh on the 13th of April, Stay Indoors. Or step out if you love water…. and getting wet! For it’s a given that you won’t escape the water balloons and buckets of water as the Tai Khamptis, Singphoos and Tangsas (Tikhaks) communities celebrate the Sangken, the New Year Water festival.
Sangken festival is celebrated with fervor and zeal in the Tai Khamptis, Singphoos and Tangsas (Tikhaks) inhabited districts. It marks the advent of the New Year and is celebrated in April. A festival or gala is an event, usually and ordinarily staged by a local community, which centers on and celebrates some unique aspect of that community or a festival. This three day festival is celebrated with tremendous gusto with people throwing water at each other. Festivals, of many types, serve to meet specific needs, as well as to provide entertainment. These times of celebration offer a sense of belonging to religious, social, or geographical groups. Modern festivals that focus on cultural or ethnic topics seek to inform members of their traditions.
Sangken is akin to the festival of Holi and Thailand festival of Songkran. Though it is celebrated all over the Tai Khamptis, Singphoos and Tangsas (Tikhaks) inhabited districts with great enthusiasm, it is in The Land of the Golden Pagoda Namsai and Chongkham, Empong, Phaneng and Karoni (Assam) that these communities hold the very important ritual of bathing the Buddha and people from all over come to witness this event. The pouring of water is symbolic of the cleansing of the spirit, mind and body.
Sangken the New Year Water Festival that usually falls around the month of April (Noun Ha) is the first month of the year. It is a Theravada Buddhist festival celebrated over a period of three days culminating in the New Year. The dates of the festival are observed as the most important public holiday throughout the Tai Khamptis, Singphoos and Tangsas (Tikhak) inhabited districts of Arunachal Pradesh. Water throwing or dousing one another from any shape or form of vessel or device that delivers water is the distinguishing feature of this festival and may be done on all days of the festival.
During the festival, statues of Lord Buddha are brought out of the Chong (temple) and placed in a chapel (temporary shrine) in the premises then ceremoniously washed with clean water on all days. Buddhist scriptures (Lik), Peepal tree (toun Puthi) and monks are given a symbolic wash with clean and scented water.
Before the festival officially begins, homes are cleaned and sweet aromas fill the air from the preparation of sweets like khau-tek, khaomun sen (fried biscuit), khaomun tong tep (biscuit wrapped in leaf) etc. All preparations like plucking of flowers and procuring of candles and incense sticks for prayer are done well in advance and everyone eagerly awaits the sound of the drum beats and gongs from the temple which herald the beginning of the festival with the removing of the idols from inside the Chong to the chapel in the premises. People stream towards the Chong and offer their prayers and sweets and sprinkle holy water over each of these. Only after this is done are the sweets distributed to different houses and consumed.
Every Khampti village has a temple which is the centre of the community’s activities and during the Sangken festival, this is where the people of the village go to first, to offer their prayers and for Son- Fra (to pour water over the idols, peepal tree, scriptures etc) to cleanse their soul and pour clean water/holy water over others to enjoy and bond and also as an expression of happiness over the good year gone by.
Some places like Empong (Chongkham circle), Phaneng (Piyong circle) and Karuni (Assam) are considered holy places (Ti Met) where people specially go to pray to be blessed with good luck and to have their wishes fulfilled.
People go to the temple in the morning and evening during the two-three days of Sangken to offer prayers and for Son-Fra. The reinstalling of the idols inside the temple at the designated time marks the end of the festival celebrations.
With time comes change and changes can be seen even in the celebration of the festivals while adhering to the true spirit of the festival. Change can also be seen in the perception of the reasons for the celebration of the festivals. Earlier it was a religious festival during which the people would go to the village temple to offer their prayers together. Now each and every preparation for and during the celebration has a different significance for different people. On being asked, a sister of mine said that the best part about Sangken was the anticipation of the exact time for the festival to begin and the preparation and distribution of sweets to families/ houses in the village. The distribution of sweets for her meant the sharing of joy and happiness to all and also means a visit to friends and relatives and enjoying the treats they had prepared. Another said that the best part was the sense of calm and quiet that prevails during Sangken with the slowing of the pace of life. Everyone is in a happy mood, smiles are everywhere and fewer vehicles and crowds are seen on the roads. In the morning and evening mothers with enthusiastic children, young girls in groups in traditional attire, old and young men, all holding small buckets and baskets filled with flowers, candles and incense sticks can be seen proceeding towards the Chong.
For a friend, going to the temple for prayers and Son-Fra, drenching friends with water and visiting the temples of the holy places is not only a means of enjoying the spirit of celebration and a way of bonding with family and friends, but is also a way of atonement and washing away of sins committed, in the process, cleansing the soul so that the new year can be started with a fresh perspective.
Buddhism, for the Tai- Khampti people, is not just a religion but a way of life. Although it is difficult to follow all the teachings of Lord Buddha to the letter in day to day lives, it is done during the festival time. The Five Precepts constitute the basic Buddhist code of ethics, undertaken by lay followers of the Buddha Gautama in the Theravada as well as in Mahayana traditions. The precepts in both traditions are essentially identical and are commitments to abstain from harming living beings, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and intoxication. Undertaking the five precepts is part of both lay Buddhist initiation and regular lay Buddhist devotional practices. They are not formulated as imperatives, but as training rules that laypeople undertake voluntarily to facilitate practice. It is during Sangken (from the time of Long-Fra to Fra- Khun) that all the people maintain and follow the Five Precepts of Buddha during which people maintain a strict abstinence from killing and hurting animals and plants, imbibing in intoxicants and spending money besides trying to stay away from the lure of worldly temptations.
So the Sangken is not just a festival to mark the end of the old and the beginning of the New Year, but it is a celebration of the end of old wounds, hurt and bad feelings and the start of friendships, relationships and life anew with a pure mind, heart and soul.
The water is supposed to wash away bad luck - so consider yourself blessed if you get drenched!
By:- Chow Bilaseng Namchoom