Thursday, February 17, 2011

Joorshital - new year celebration in Tharu culture

- Lakshmi Narayan Chaudhary

New year brings with it new hopes.
1. Introduction

Joorshital” a festival of water, blessing, amusement and merrymaking is widely celebrated by Tharus in Nepal. This festival falls in 13th or 14th in the month of April each year (i.e. 1st of Baisakh) depending on the lunar calendar and it marks the arrival of New Year. Throughout the country of Nepal, 1st of Baisakh is acknowledged as the beginning of New Year while for the Tharu community people this period has yet another greater significance in the form of their greatest festival. They also call this festival “Siruwa Pawain” or simply Siruwa, for it comes in the beginning of each year and comes first among all the festivals of the year. “Joorshital” literally means cooling by means of water. Hence, “Joorshital” as the name signifies – is the festival of waters and is celebrated by throwing water on each other. In Nepal, Tharus are the only people who celebrate this festival in the form of their greatest festival. Now a days, some other community people living in Terai have started observing Joorshital as a festival.

It is to be remembered that this Joorshital festival is not limited to Tharu community in Nepal rather it has crossed the international boundaries and reached some parts of south-east Asian Buddhist countries like Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Sri Lanka with different names. In Kingdom of Thailand, it is the greatest national festival celebrated with great joy and splendor by throwing water at each other for 3 to 4 days observing holiday throughout the country. They call it “Maha Songkran” or simply Songkran. It is celebrated in the same way by throwing water at each other in Burma, Cambodia and Laos as well. In Sri Lanka, this is called Sinhalese/Tamil new year and is celebrated both by Sinhalese and Tamil communities observing holidays for 4 to 5 days to ensure good fortune in the coming year. Public calendars are published in Sri Lanka marked with several auspicious days with time during period to celebrate the new year festival.

At this stage, the author is a bit skeptical about the names that may confuse the readers. In fact, it is optional to call this festival as “Joorshital” and or “Songkran”. Very soon, we will find that Joorshital and Songkran are one and the same. Hence, the author will like to call it by both the names as per the context and hopes that the names of the festival should not bring any confusion to the readers.

2. Origin

Joor – Joor is Tharu word which means cool. Naturally, the best cooling affect can be brought about by means of water in one form or the other. It is assumed the word “Joorshital” meaning cool, has been directly transformed from synonymous word like Joor –Joor. Jooralai means also transition of time and occasion to enable one to be lucky. In Thailand, as already mentioned above the festival is called Songkran which is an extract from Sankranti, a Sanskrit word. Joorshital or Songkran means the transition from cold to cool and signifies the entry of Sun into the sign of Aries of Zodiac. Thus, Joorshital is the celebration of Vernal Equinox similar to those of Chinese Ching Ming, Indian Holi festival and the Christian festival of Easter. No specific starting date could be affixed for such festivals.

3. History

In this context, the author would like to first narrate the story of this festival as is told in Tharu community of Nepal followed by the Thai, Burmese and Laos versions of the story and let the readers compare, co-relate, evaluate and judge the same.

There is a very well known story among Tharus about the origin of the Joorshital festival as narrated by the ancestors and carried over from generation to generation. There was once a young prince who was prodigious in learning. He was not only the greatest linguist of his time but could understand even the languages of the animals and birds. This learning excited the jealousy of Kapil – one of the gods in the heavenly realm. He came down to Earth to challenge the young prince and posed him three Sphinx-like riddles with the wager that if the young prince failed to give right answers within seven days, he would loose his head but if he succeeded, then the god himself would give his own head.

Like all the folk tales, the young prince was at his wit’s end to answer such a difficult riddles and he preferred to kill himself rather than face the defeat and loose his reputation. In utter dilemma, he stopped at the foot of a tall tree located on the bank of the river; at the top of which there was an aerie. By chance, the young prince heard the mother eagle comforting her eaglets who were crying for more food. That they would be gratified soon by feasting on the body of the young man (prince) who would fail to solve the riddles. She then narrated the story of the wager between the god and the young prince and in answer to her eaglets’ questions; the mother eagle satisfied them with the right answers to those three riddles.

The young prince availed of this information and walked away slowly as if nothing has happened. On the appointed day, he answered the god with three right answers. The god, according to the tale, lost the wager and in turn cut off his own head. His head was terrible one, for if it touched the Earth there would be universal conflagration and if it fell into the sea, the sea would dry up through the intense heat and mountain would turn to ashes by its enormous heat if kept on the mountain. Hence to avoid all these troubles, the seven daughters of the god Kapil carried his head all the times round the Meru (pivotal wheel) taking turns. This turn would be shifted in one year time and only on this Joorshital day when another sister would take up the responsibility to carry the head till next year.

4. Compatibility

Thailand version of foregoing tales matches substantially with this story. The difference are as follows: The god’s head was deposited in certain cave in the heaven and on every New Year that is on Songkran day one of the god’s seven daughters will carry her father’s head in procession with millions of other gods and goddess circumbulating like the Sun round the Meru, the Buddhists Olympic Mount (central pivotal axis of the Sun). After that, there are feasts among the celestial beings who enjoyed themselves with drinks made from the juices of chamunad creeper or the soma juice and enjoy intoxication. The god’s head is then taken back to the cave after the feast and is taken out again on the Songkran day, next year.

Prof. and historian Phya Anuman Rajdhon in his book “Thailand Culture Series 5, (1950)” has written as follows:

“In Thailand, every year before the advent of this festival, the royal astrologer in Thailand will present his calculations (based on position of planets and stars) to His Majesty the King giving all the traditional information, as predicted by the calculations of the coming year. The artists attached to the court will paint a picture based on the above information showing the Songkran Lady and the celestial procession of the god’s head”.

There is an elaborate description of Songkran in Thai versions which are mostly important for the astrological purposes and need not be described here.

Similarly, the Burmese (Myanmar) version of the foregoing tales agrees quite well. The name of the god who lost his head in the wager was Kabil Maha Phrom in Thai version and Asi Brahma in Burmese one. Kapil in Nepali has become Kabil in Thai version. Instead of depositing into the cave as in Thai version, Burmese say that it was carried all the time by one of the seven daughters and she relieved of her duty only on the New Year’s day when one of her sisters whose turn it was, came to carry her father’s head for the next year and the cycle was repeated thus.

Laos version of story matches with Thai version. According to Prof. Nimal Desilva (University of Moratuwa) no such folk tale exists in Sri Lanka.

5. Science of Astrology

We find the tales of the Joorshital in Nepal or Songkran in Thailand, Laos, Burma (Myanmar) all match together. Both fall in the same time and day each year, carry the same folk tale, same custom of celebrating the festival i.e. by throwing water at each other. Hence we can easily conclude that Joorshital in Nepal and Songkran in Thailand, Burma, Laos and Cambodia are one and the same but the names appear different. Although, no folk tale exists in Sri Lanka, however, the date and time are one and the same. Additionally, it is also concluded that the story is nothing but about the Solar System and the god Kapil or Kabil Maha Phrom or Asi head is no other than the Sun himself and seven daughters are the seven days of the week. The names of all the seven days of a week are named after the planets such as Saturday (Saturn), Sunday (Sun), Monday (Moon), Tuesday (Mars), Wednesday (Venus), Thursday (Brihaspat) and Friday (Sukra). Similarly, the change of seasons, the positions of planets and stars and their affects on each and every human beings luck, were distinguished with respect to the movement of the Sun. In fact, that was the period from whence ancient people had started calculation of the movement of the Solar System in greater depth and probably that was the beginning of the Science of Astrology itself!!

6. Three Questions

Before we describe how this festival is celebrated in the aforesaid south and south-east Asian countries and that in Tharu community of Nepal, one will wonder as what were the three riddles like and what were their answers. The three riddles were:
Where does the good luck (vasanawewa-as Sinhalese say) of a man rest?
(i) in the morning (ii) at the noon and (iii) in the night?

The corresponding answers given by the mother eagle were:
(i) on the face (ii) on the body and (iii) at the feet respectively.

7. Custom of Celebration

Now it will be worth to describe how this festival is celebrated by Tharu community in Nepal and that in above mentioned countries. Let us start with the Tharu community.

On the eve of the Joorshital, Tharu people clean their houses and burn all the refuse. This is the spring cleaning done as a duty in the belief that anything bad belonging to the old year will be unlucky to the owner if left and carried over to the coming New Year. On this occasion, they put on new clothes. One day before, they prepare different kinds of foods to be eaten on the following year i.e. on the Joorshital day. This is done in the belief that if one has sufficient good foods cooked on the eve and eaten on the next year day i.e. Joorshital day, the following New Year will be also equally good in terms of foods and clothes.

On this festival day, Tharu people bless and amuse themselves by throwing water at one another. The elderly Tharu people will get up early, take up bath and carry clean water in lota (jug) and will start sprinkling water on the heads of the juniors with some words of blessings while the juniors will put water on the feet of the elders. People of equal ranks, young boys and girls and friends will throw water on the body of each other. This is done in order to get well wishes and blessings from elders and friends and also to lessen the summer heat so that the New Year arrived will be cool, fruitful and beneficial throughout. Even the passersby (strangers) are poured water on their heads or hands depending upon their age and sex. Throwing water on this day is not a mere amusement, but there is a popular belief that it has some connection with the magic of having abundant rain for the coming season for cultivation. If one throws water and soaked one another abundantly on the Joorshital day, it will produce the same result on the actual rains to come on the principle of imitative magic. Furthermore, it is common belief among Tharus that there must be a rainfall on this day because on this day even the gods and goddesses amuse themselves by throwing water on each other. According to popular belief it rains because the Nagas (mythical serpents) sport themselves by spouting water from the celestial ocean. The more the spout the more abundantly the rain will fall.

Thailand observes the longest holidays (4-5 days) during this Songkran festival. In Thailand, early on the day of Songkran day, people both young and old in their new clothing repair the Wats (temples or monastery belonging to their villages or districts) and offer food to the monks there. A long table is erected in the compound of Wat where monks’ alms bowls stand in a row on either side of the table. People put boiled rice in the bowls and fruits and sweetmeats on the covers of the bowls. Such performance can be seen at Wats outside of Bangkok on Songkran day. In the afternoon, bathing ceremony of the Lord Buddha images and also of the abbot takes place. After which the well known “Water Throwing Feast” begins. Similar are the beliefs and customs of celebrating this festival in Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia.

In Sri Lankan both Sinhalese and Tamil people observe this festival. Sinhala people celebrate the new year as one of the greatest festivals with great joy and splendor by offering betel leaves and getting coconut oil on their heads from elders and monks to get blessings. They observe various traditional rituals following the various auspicious time and days during this period. They consider this period as astrological auspicious. During this period houses are spring cleaned, take bath, put on new purl color clothes and newly harvested rice cooked in milk in new pots, observe religious activities, play traditional games and music and invite friends, relatives and passing visitors and to join them to celebrate the festival. They distribute food, new clothes and give donation (dana) to temples and Buddhist monks in Viharas.

8. Beliefs

Each and every festival is rooted to some short of beliefs and so is the case with Songkran festival. Some examples of the belief in rainfall have been quoted as follow:
Sir James in his famous book “The Golden Bough Vol 1 (1958)” has written:

“Certainly the custom of drenching with water a leaf-loaded person who undoubtedly personifies vegetation, is still resorted to in Europe for the express purpose of producing rain. Similarly, the custom of throwing water on the last corn cut at harvest, or on the person who brings it home (a custom observation in Germany and France, and till lately in England and Scotland), is in some places practised with the avid intent to procure rain for the next years’ crops”.

Lung Phadung Kwaen Prachant in his book “Customs of Laos, (1964)” has written:
“Throwing of water at Songkran is an ancient custom. They believe that if the people old and young do not throw water at one another in any year, there will be a dearth of rain in that year. They believe that the playing or throwing water at each other is an imitation of the Nagas serpents sporting themselves in the cool waters of Anodat Lake (Anavatapta Lake of Himalaya Fairy Land). Such being the case, the throwing of water at each other is, therefore, a very popular custom, for it will bring rain in abundance”.

9. Appraisal/Conclusion

From the available literature, it is clear that this festival has travelled along with Buddhism from Nepal-Indian-Sri Lanka to the Indo-Chinese region of the World thousands of years ago. It is to be remembered that the Buddhism along with the new year festival in Thailand has migrated from Sri Lanka. No matter whether we call it as Joorshital or Songkran, it is one and the same, the story is same, the theme is same and vividly represents the similarity in cultures. Although, this festival has undergone several ups and downs in terms of time and space together with politically, socially and culturally, however, the essence of the festival has had remained intact-the same. This testifies the saying, “Culture never dies, it replicates.”

We find the names of seven days of a week all are named after planets and stars globally and all have affects on life of human beings. Thailand follows the names of the twelve months same as the names of horoscopes (rasis) in chronological order. The three questions indicate that the rasi (lagna-Sinhalese say) is a mobile entity with time and hence the good luck of a person. This study has opened an arena to further explore the relationship between cultures and the Science of Astrology.

In Nepal, it is pity to observe that this festival has never been given a place in the national level. It is, in fact an irony that the Tharu community so rich in culture has never ever been explored. Had this festival among Tharus of Nepal been properly explored and preserved, it would not only help to strengthen the cultural relationship between the aforesaid countries rather would change the face of the Himalyan country and it would be then a different Nepal.

The author believes if this festival is properly explored, preserved and integrated, it would definitely help to strengthen the cultural relationship, and understanding along with peace and prosperity among these countries.

photo credit: bsayanthan via photopin cc


  1. I think Tharu community is in Nepal which means we can learn more of the things from it. And can be celebrated with great adventurous mood. I like all the mention things here.

  2. You know the country that celebrates its New Year with all the seven daughters of Kapil Muha Brahma, is Cambodia. You seemed to mention a lot of Thailand which has only Joorshital, throwing blessing water on the streets as another fun activity. In fact most of the Hindu legends in South East Asia took place in the oldest civilization, Khmer empire, aka Cambodia.