Many South and Southeast Asian calendars mark this season as spring, which is also the birth of a New Year. This naturally translates to cheerful celebrations of cultures and customs with prayers, reflection, processions, plenty of good food, and all round happiness.
Spring is ushered in with hope and joy in India where celebrations begin with Holi in late March, when coloured powder (representing the shades of spring) is thrown up in the air and on each other. Not stopping at just splashing colours, Indians take it a notch higher with mass dancing and singing resulting in Holi’s appeal cutting across societies.
Along with many other parts of the world, this year Paris rang in Holi with quite some gaiety as did the Philippines, where people danced to the beats of the samba.
It is April that truly awakens Asia, bringing on the festivities.
The Thai New Year Songkran is a major water festival with locals and tourists alike taking to the streets with whatever water weapons they can muster, making it one of the most fun ways to welcome a New Year!
At about the same time and in similar fashion, other parts of the region also celebrate their respective New Year.
In Myanmar it is called Thingyan, in Cambodia it is Choul Chnam Thmey and Laos calls it Pi Mai.
Further up in Bangladesh, it is New Year called Pahela Baishahk is a public holiday and celebrations are shared with neighbouring Indian states of West Bengal, Odisha, Tripura and part of Assam by people of Bengali heritage, irrespective of their religious faith.
Incidentally, Eastern Europe, namely Poland, Ukraine and Hungary, also has its own Songkran type celebration called Śmigus Dyngus held on Easter Monday, also in April. In Poland it is a public holiday well-used by participants who have turned it into a full-blown national water fight. In some cases, even fire trucks have been known to join in the festivities!
As it turns out Śmigus Dyngus has at its core the pagan spring rite of pouring water as a means of cleansing, purification, fertility and making things right with dingen—the god of nature.
In Malaysia too, April is a special month as people of various cultures celebrate their New Year. Tamils call it Puthandu, Malayalees Vishu, Telugus Ugadhi and Sikhs Vaisakhi. Christians, on the other hand, mark the crucifixion of Jesus Christ on Good Friday, every April.
Contrary to every kind of the season’s festivities is Nyepi, the Balinese New Year. Nyepi usually falls in March and is observed by Bali’s Hindus with a 24-hour period of silence, fasting and meditation to evaluate personal values such as love, truth, patience, kindness and generosity.
No fires may be lit, minimal talking is allowed and no travel, work or leisure activities are permitted. Motor vehicles are not allowed on the streets, except ambulances and police patrols in emergencies.
On this day the usually bustling island comes to a standstill with no flights in or out of its Ngurah Rai International Airport. No lights are turned on at night – it’s total darkness and seclusion island-wide. For perspective, an aeroplane flying over Bali would not be able to see the island.
All routine activities come to a complete halt. Even hotel guests are confined to their premises – but are free to enjoy the hotel’s facilities. Nobody steps outside of their home premises, except the Pecalang, traditional security men checking to see the prohibitions are being followed.
Nyepi is without doubt a wonderful opportunity for total relaxation and contemplation and the only time for mother nature to ‘reboot’ herself after 364 days of human pestering. The day following Nyepi is known as the New Year and it’s back to socialising and celebrations, and well, more pestering.
Whether we choose to celebrate in silence or noise, let the power of celebrations help us recognise our similarities and work towards tightening our unity.