23 May 2024

Songkran is an elephant and everyone can be one of the blind men fumbling around for its shape. Road accidents make it a nightmare festival for related authorities or rescue workers. Old folks in rural areas count the days for the time when they can see their beloved youngsters again. Teenagers long to be extra-playful with the opposite sex. Foreigners yearn to let loose.

UNESCO has approved the inclusion of the Songkran festival in the tentative list of Intangible Cultural Heritages (ICH) for consideration in December this year. On the one hand, it can be understood why. On the other, it’s somewhat hard to pinpoint the cultural or artistic values that make Songkran deserve it more than, say, some other exotic shows in Thailand or abroad that wow foreign visitors.

Understandably, UNESCO declared the Khonmask dance, Thai massage and the Nora dance performance to be Intangible Cultural Heritages, in 2018, 2019 and 2021 respectively. There is no specific Songkran dance so “Khon” outperforms Songkran in this regard. Nora is the same as “Khon”. Thai massage is world-renowned but try asking the old folks to choose between the services of the “best of the best” masseuses and inexperienced kneading of their grandchildren who went to work in Bangkok.

ICH awards often feature things that are artistically wonderful and showcase local wisdom or skills that are not seen everywhere. For example, Karagöz is a form of shadow theatre in Turkey in which figures known as tasvirs made of camel or ox hide in the shape of people or things are held on rods in front of a light source to cast their shadows onto a cotton screen. While it’s relatively easy to explain why some local songs, performances and craftsmanship receive ICH, Songkran does not offer or inspire any of those.

Songkran’s dances in general can be driven by alcohol and there is hardly anything unique about it. When talking about Songkran, foreigners think about the Khao San road, not culturally exclusive shows. Sandcastles? What children build at beaches around the world can be as exquisite.

Songkran juxtaposes so many things that it’s difficult to designate one particular element as “This is the face of Songkran”. Water splashing may come to a lot of people’s minds but truth is that it represents just a part of this period, and maybe the festival involves water simply because April is hot. To add to that, throwing water is not culturally or artistically spectacular either.

During India’s Festival of Colours, or on the day of Holi, entire streets and towns turn red, green and yellow as people throw colored powder into the air and splash them on strangers. Each color even carries a meaning. Red, for example, symbolizes love and fertility.

Merit making? Thais make big merits practically every month. They simply add bathing Lord Buddha statues during Songkran. Nothing culturally memorable takes place at the temples. Just a lot of people go there.

Foods are the same, with hot-summer dishes thrown in to be eaten by people whether it’s Songkran or not. There is no “Songkran foods” so to speak. A grandmother may fry some eggs the way her visiting grandchild used to like it and that’s pretty much it. That’s Songkran for the grandma.

Floral shirt is widely seen during the period but never mistake it for the dress code. People wear it just to get a sense of festivity and because it’s easy on the eyes. There is no Songkran dress. You can go out in everyday shorts or pants and T-shirts and nobody will notice anything.

A “Songkran card” is non-existent. Youngsters travelling back home don’t have to bring anything along and those back home expecting them expect nothing else. Skill-wise, booking transport tickets and wading through crowds at bus stations require some experience but it’s no special talent deserving an international award.

Giving the elders garlands and respectfully pouring waters onto their hands are meaningful, though. It keeps the bonds solid. To some, it’s “more Songkran” than the splashing of water at crowded gatherings of young men and women.

On UNESCO’s website, the UN body explains that cultural heritage does not end at monuments or collections of objects. Cultural heritage, it says, must also include traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills that produce traditional crafts.

Songkran passes something so valuable on. That much we the blind researchers know. It’s why Bangkok streets are empty during the festival and it’s why, despite it being a time when clothes are wet and people soaked from head to toe, they feel so warm in their hearts.

Difficult as it is to ascertain some values of this period where things can get even crazy in some places, ones may wonder what took UNESCO so long.

By Tulsathit Taptim