Songkran is an important festival for Theravada Buddhists from Thailand. It marks a period of reflection for the year that has passed, and a time to make resolutions for the upcoming year.
Additionally, it is a time for one’s family and community to participate in special ceremonies over the three-day long celebration.
The most well-known of these celebrations is the “Water Festival,” which originally consisted of dousing statues of Buddha in water to represent a purification from the previous year and to welcome in the new year. The festival has now evolved into a celebration where people jovially drench each other with water for the same purposes. There are similar variations of the holiday celebrated across Theravada Buddhist communities in South and Southeast Asia, such as in India, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar/Burma.
This year, on April 16th, the Thai community in the Washington DC area celebrated Songkran at Wat Thai DC (a Buddhist temple) for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic. The celebration was filled with performances of traditional Thai music and dances, vendors who sold food and souvenirs from Thailand, and members of the congregation who sprinkled water over different statues of the Buddha to ensure that the new year starts with good fortune.
Additionally, this event was seen as a coming out party for Wat Thai’s congregation of 2,500 members and the additional 12,000 people of Thai decent that live in the region. This year’s Songkran marked the return of the temple’s premises as the unofficial Thai cultural center of the region after it ceased most of its operations during the pandemic.
Wat Thai has a 50-year history in the DMV area. Its foundations trace back to a group of Thai Buddhists who moved to the DMV area in the mid-20th century. In 1971, they formed a small group known as the Assembly of Buddhists, later known as the Buddhist Association of Washington DC, to fulfil their need for a spiritual center. From renting a house in 1974 to upsizing in 1980 and again in 1986, the Buddhist Association of Washington DC continued to grow. In June 1992, the congregation finally received a permit classifying their building as a temple.
Today, Wat Thai holds chanting services both in the mornings and evenings, events for important holidays (such as Songkran), and a summer program where young students can learn the Thai language, dance, music, and culture.
Ramil Mercado is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. He is a graduate student at American University’s School of International Service, studying International Affairs with a focus on the Indo-Pacific region.