Time and Location
The annual Water Splashing Festival of the Dai ethnic minority falls during the New Year celebrations of the Dai Calendar. Held during the sixth month of the Dai calendar, usually falling in mid-April of the Gregorian calendar, the Water Splashing Festival is also known as the Festival for Bathing the Buddha. It is the most important festival observed by the Dai ethnic people of Xishuangbanna Prefecture, and, similar to neighboring Thailand's Songkran Festival, it involves three days of celebrations that include sincere, yet light-hearted religious rituals that invariably end in merrymaking, where everyone ends up getting splashed, sprayed or doused with water.
Although there are numerous legends about the origin of the festival, one of the best-known tells of the long-ago days when there was a devil in the village where the Dai people lived, doing all manner of evil things. All the people hated him but his magic was too powerful for them to overcome.
One day in the sixth month of the year, his seventh wife, who had been kidnapped from the village, tricked him into revealing his weaknesses. As he slept, his wives used his hair to cut off his head. But the head began to burn when it touched the ground, and the fire would die only if one of the women held the head tightly in her arms. So the seven wives took turns holding the head, each for a period of one year. Every year when they changed, people would splash water on the woman who had been holding the head for the past year to wash away the blood and a year of fatigue.
As time went by, the ritual became a happy way to send off the old year and greet the new. And splashing water on one another became a way to vanquish the devil and symbolically express the wish for good luck and a better future.
The First Two Days
The festival lasts for three days. The first two days' activities are concentrated on the banks of the Lancang River. On the first day, a grand celebration marks the beginning of the festival. An outdoor market is set up, where locals go for new year shopping. It is also a great place to purchase local souvenirs. Local food and snacks are other highlights travelers may not want to miss. Artists create sand cavings on open space close to the market. A dragon boat race is held on the Lancang River to ring out the old year in the afternoon. At night, the banks of the river are colorfully lit, and locals float river lanterns on the river. Floating river lanterns is an old tradition in China, which is still preserved in many cities today. The practice is thought to drive bad luck away and bring good luck.
The second day is known as Neuter Day, which belongs to neither the old nor the new, year. On this day, according to custom, people usually stay at home.
The Third Day
The third day, the climax of the festival, is reserved for water splashing. On that day, the Dai put on their newest and best clothes, then assemble at the local Buddhist temple, where the monks chant Buddhist scriptures. Afterward, a symbolic water splashing ritual is enacted whereby a Buddhist statue, with pomp and ceremony, is first coaxed out of the temple to the courtyard, then is splashed with water. This important ritual is called 'Bathing the Buddha'.
The completion of the 'Bathing the Buddha' ritual serves as the signal that encourages ordinary mortals to themselves engage in mutual water splashing. Accordingly, people flock to the streets with pots, pans, bottles, or whatever, where they uninhibitedly splash, spray and douse each other with water, with the same gusto with which Westerners engage in a good snowball free-for-all. At night, music accompanied by drumbeats reverberates throughout the villages, and people enjoy dancing and singing to their hearts' content.
The Water Splashing ceremony, however, is more than just good-natured fun; it also contains a religious element: water is regarded by the Dai as a symbol, firstly, of religious purification, but also of goodwill among people. Therefore, splashing a fellow human being with water during the Water Splashing Festival, whether a close neighbor or a fellow villager, or even a stranger, is an expression of the desire for good luck and prosperity to that person.
The Water Splashing Festival vividly exhibits the Dai's homage to water and the culture of music and dance, food, and costumes. It is also a cultural bridge between Xishuangbanna and Southeast Asian countries that share the same festive culture of water-splashing.
For the tourist interested in interacting directly with the Dai ethnic minority of Xishangbanna Prefecture in an informal and fun-filled manner, the annual Water Splashing Festival that takes place in the month of April is the perfect occasion.