Festivals play an important role in the social and cultural life of Thai people. The Thais look forward to and celebrate festivals through the collective efforts of the community for merit and fun, which are typical Thai values.
Festivals are so deeply rooted in Thai life that they have become part of its fabric. Thailand displays a remarkable talent for celebrating festivals since the earliest period of its history. The festival at the end of the Buddhist lent was mentioned in the stone inscription of 1292, found in the ruins of the first Thai capital at Sukhothai. There, the people went on frequent merit-making trips to a forest monastery located outside the walls. Then when they were ready to return to the city they walked together, forming a line all the way from the monastery to the parade-ground. They joined together in striking up the sound of musical instruments, chanting and singing. Whoever wanted to make merry did so; whoever wanted to laugh did so. As the city of Sukhothai had four very big gates, and as the people always crowded together to come in and watch the lighting of candles and setting off of fireworks, the city was as noisy as though it had been bursting. Even in this rapid changing society, most of the traditional features of Thai festivals such as music, dance and high spirits of the crowds as described in the stone inscription still persist.
One of the famous traditional festivals handed down since the Sukhothai period is known as Loy Krathong, festival of floating lights in the vessels. It has been integrated as part of Thai life since the dawn of Thai history. Loy Krathong has nothing to do with any recognized ceremony or rite. It is merely a matter of rejoicing in which all the people take part and is not only for royalty. Loy Krathong has some connection with the floating of lanterns as observed by Thai kings when Sukhothai became the capital in the thirteenth century. The floating of lanterns is a Brahmanical ceremony to worship the divine trinity of Brahma (the Creator), Vishnu (the Preserver) and Shiva (the Destroyer). Later on, , the ceremony is observed in accordance with the Buddhist concept of floating lanterns to worship a pagoda containing Lord Buddha’s topknot cut off at his self-ordination situated in Tavatimsa, the second level of heaven as well as the legendary footprint of Lord Buddha left on the sand shore of Nammada river of India. Nang Noppamas, the chief consort of King Phra Ruang of Sukhothai described that, in the twelfth month, the country was normally flooded. The King and his court went for a picnic on the river to witness the people enjoying themselves during the water festival at night. On this occasion, Nang Noppamas introduced a new kind of Krathong or vessel in the shape of a lotus blossom for the King to float in the running stream. This, she further adorned with fresh flowers, incense sticks and a lighted candle. The King was so delighted with Krathong that he ordered to have Krathong floated to worship Lord Buddha’s footprint on the bank of Nammada river on the full moon night of the twelfth lunar month eternally.
In Northern Thailand, it was written in the Yonok chronicle and the book of Jamadevivongs that cholera made a great number of people die in Lamphoon city in 947 A.D. The rest had to migrate to Burma. After living there for six years, some of them returned to Lamphoon city. At the anniversary of coming back home, the people arranged offerings in Krathong and floated it down the river to be presented to their relatives in Burma. The practice is traditionally known as Loy Kamode. Kamode is the name of forest spirit seen as flickering light at night. Loy Kamode refers to the floating of flickering light. It happens on the full moon night of the Northern Thai style twelfth month called Yee Peng month.
In the Central plain of Thailand, Loy Krathong festival is originally based on the rite related to water, which plays an essential role in folk life including rice cycle. As a matter of fact, Loy Krathong is a direct produce of the Central plain basin. It generally happens around the twelfth lunar months when the tide is at its peak. In the Royal Family Law of the early period of Ayudhya, the second capital of Thailand, the Brahmanical ceremony known as lantern floating is mentioned as one of the King’s ceremonies in the twelfth lunar month. In the early period of Bangkok, in order to boost the morale of the Thais, King Rama I revitalizes the ceremony of Loy Krathong at the end of Buddhist lent for about three days. There are Krathong made of paper in the shape of lotus and celebrations with beautiful fireworks at the bank of the river.
In the Northeastern part at this time the floating of Hua Fai or the floating of oil lamp-lit boats is observed to worship the footprint of Lord Buddha. Loy Krathong, the Central plain basin tradition, organized in the same concept, is adopted as a part of Northeast Thai tradition. Loy Krathong of the Central Plain basin of Ayudhya and the floating of Hua Fai of the Northeast are the prototype of the present day Loy Krathong festival.
In sum, the origin of Loy Krathong can be traced. Primarily, it is no doubt a yearly offering to the water spirit or the floating away to the depths of all sins and calamities. Secondly, it is in a sense a thanksgiving to the Goddess of Water. It is probably confined to agricultural people who rely on the abundance of water as a source of economic life. Thirdly, it is a pastime for spending an evening outdoors amidst pleasant surroundings.
There is another explanation for the origin of Loy Krathong in the nature of a folktale of the Buddhist Jataka. It tells of a couple of white crows that make their nest on top of a big tree on the bank of a river in Himavan forest. One day, while looking for food, the male crow has lost his way back home. The female crow sits anxiously on her five eggs waiting for her husband to return. A violent thunderstorm breaks loose and tears the tree asunder. Separating from the eggs, the crow mother dies amidst her sorrow and has become a divine being. All five eggs drop to the water with no damage to them. Each egg is picked up and tended by a pious creature. The first(Kakusantho) by a hen, the second(Konakamano) a serpent, the third (Kasapo) a tortoise, the forth(Kotamo) a cow and the fifth(Metio) a king-lion. All five eggs are hatched and give birth to five boys. Upon growing to be young man, all of them choose the life of an ascetic. Without knowledge of each other, all of them meditate and undergo awesome austerity in the Himavan forest. It suddenly dawns on them that they are all brothers from the same parents. They all make a wish that if they could reach enlightenment and become Lord Buddha; they should be allowed to see their own mother. The divine mother appears at once as a white crow in front of them, telling them about their birth. As a sign of paying homage to their mother, she instructs them to tie the wicks with a thread in the shape of a crow foot and put them together with a candle and incense sticks in Krathong and float Krathong down the river on the full moon night of the twelfth lunar month. From then on, people float Krathong to worship the divine crow mother as well as the legendary footprint on the bank of Nammada river.
Traditionally speaking, the Thais have a very good reason for their choice of the date to celebrate Loy Krathong. The rainy season has just ended. The Central plain is flooded by water from upstream and there is water everywhere. The peasants who constitute a great majority of the population are waiting for the floods to go down to harvest their crops. They have plenty of free time. The weather has turned dry and cool and the moon is so bright. The time, the place and the people are all just right for the celebrations.
On the night of the highest water already for many centuries, people carry Krathong to the bank of the canal or river which is brimful from the last of the rains. They place Krathong in the canal or river and watch them float sluggishly along the water for sometime until they float far away or out of sight. Some people raise their hands in worship to the floating of Krathong. It is an aesthetic pleasure to see many Krathong with their flickering candle lights bobbing gently up and down, borne along the silent and placid flooded water under the light of the full moon. Fireworks are lighted as a part of celebrations in the same spirit as candles are lighted as an act of worship.
The celebrations of the floating of lights in Krathong and the floating of lanterns portray the Buddhist and Brahmin concepts transmitted from the court to the folk people who have already had their own tradition of Loy Krathong. Some people put the top of baby rice stalks in Krathong as a manifestation of spirit worship. It is believed that the first agricultural products should be made as offerings in gratitude of the spirit. Besides, by putting many different things in Krathong and float them down the river, people may request assistance from the supernatural. Last but not least, lights, fireworks and firecrackers have been an indispensable part of Loy Krathong celebrations since Sukhothai period for over 700 years. The phenomena could be external influences from China and India.
Loy Krathong festival undoubtedly reflects the gratitude the Thais pay to water as a precious resource of life in an agricultural society. Some people believe that Loy Krathong is to honour Phra Mae Khongkha.(Goddess of water). Elaborate lotus – shaped creations bearing traditional offerings of flowers, incense sticks, candles and a coin floated in countless numbers on streams, lakes, ponds and even the open sea are to pay homage to the Goddess of water. Others say that Loy Krathong is to pay gratitude to Lord Buddha as Krathong are floated to worship His footprint and His topknot. It is also believed that Krathong are floated to worship the ancestors spirits as a manifestation of paying gratitude to the ancestors. No matter how different the beliefs are, the common value of Loy Krathong is gratitude.
On the other hand, Loy Krathong festival is a time to show the true artistic value of arranging flowers, where stitch-craft, painting and sculpture blend beautifully, with delicate, small fragrant flowers as raw materials. For the Thais, there exists over a thousand ways of making garlands and floral offerings. Traditionally, banana leaf cups are employed in making offerings of all sorts. Imagination and artistic skills are put into them resulting in floating flora barges, palaces, houses or even high-rises.
The true value derived from Loy Krathong as shown in the spirit of environmental awareness is in line with the Hanoi Plan of Action, envisioned as the first in a series of action to realise the goals of ASEAN Vision 2020. Issued in the Sixth ASEAN Summit in Hanoi, 15-16 December 1998, the Plan of Action indicates the protection of environment especially the implementation of an ASEAN regional water conservation programme. It makes Loy Krathong day more meaningful to the people , reviving the old values which have been the basis of Thai society. Loy Krathong festival is undoubtedly the embodiment of traditional Thai values.
Loy Krathong festival is currently celebrated all over the country both in cities and in the most remote rural hamlets in its true spirit of merriment. It is the most favoured, festive and romantic festival of Thailand especially in modern times. In the morning after making merit by offering food to monks, observing five Buddhist precepts, listening to sermons, people group together cleaning rivers and canals making them clean enough for all to float Krathong in gratitude of the Goddess of water. In the evening, they gather under the full moon along rivers and canals, as well as beaches and even around ponds and swimming pools, to enjoy assorted amusements and let Krathong float away with the current. As such, every stretch of water glitters with the bobbing lights of thousands of candles inside the beautiful little banana leaf baskets. Fireworks display roar on through out the night while costume parades and dances and music presentations are everywhere. From dawn to midnight, the radio plays Loy Krathong song with the joyous tuneful Thai melody. There is something special about the song that is deserving notice. It proves that the festival of Loy Krathong with the true characteristics of music, dance and merry making is an integral part of Thai life. The Ramwong dance with an infectious beat, joined by young and old alike adds to general high spirits of Loy Krathong. The lyrics and tune of Loy Krathong song were composed spontaneously on the full moon night of the twelfth lunar month on the bank of Chao Phya river in 1952 by Keo Achariyakul, a great song composer and Ua Sunthornsanan, the founder and leader of Suntaraporn Band of the Public Relations Department.On that day, a party was organized to celebrate the anniversary of Thammasart University, coincided with Loy Krathong festival. Suntaraporn Band was there to entertain the honourable guests. Before midnight, Ua Suntornsanan was asked by the host to play something special in order to fascinate all the guests. With musical talent, Ua Suntornsanan whistled the tune while Keo Achariyakul wrote the lyrics impromptu. Winai Julabusapa was then nominated to be a singer and Dhanit Pholprasert was to perform a musical accompaniment. In fifteen minutes, Loy Krathong song was ready for the public at midnight. It was really a great success. Everybody was overwhelmed with joy. The floor was full with all the guests dancing Ramwong to celebrate Loy Krathong festival.
The translation of Loy Krathong song is as follows:
On Twelfth-month full moon,
Water overflows the Klong (canals)
All of us, men and women
Have lots of fun on Loy Krathong
Loy Loy Krathong, Loy Loy Krathong
When we’ve floated our Krathong
We ask the girls to dance Ramwong
Ramwong on Loy Krathong Day
Ramwong on Loy Krathong Day
Good deeds will bring us happiness
Good deeds will bring us happiness.
Apart from rendering joy and unity in the community, Loy Krathong festival plays the role of transmitting Thai custom and tradition to the young generation. Loy Krathong festival represents the time when all the children and youth ought to appreciate traditional Thai values and choose what they consider the best way to uphold and maintain Loy Krathong festival as the Thai cultural heritage.
Written by Suttinee Yavaprapas