Tai New Year
Tai New Year:
How, Not If We Have It
Tai is a big family in the Mongoloid race consisting of “four major geographical groups associated with six rivers” : the Chao Phraya, the Mekong, Salween and the Black and Red rivers in Vietnam and Brhamaputra River in India. Around 80 million people in Asia speak some variation of the Tai language.
Today Tais, mainly the Tais of Shan State, celebrate 2096th New Year with religious and social significance. How and when did the Tai lunar year begin is a question increasingly asked among the Tais as we attempt to find the root of our culture to justify our place in modern world. It is this important question that this short paper intends to take as a point to begin with in our inevitably long search of cultural history.
Mythical Nature of Calendar
Before embarking on what is largely theoretical propositions, I may call your attention to the nature of controversy around most of the calendars in the world. Myths and novelty are often associated with the beginning of a calendar. Look at the Buddhist, Christ and Burmese calendar, to take some familiar ones as examples. The Buddhist calendar began by the death of the historical Buddha, Gotama. There is a disagreement between southern and northern Buddhists as to the exact date of his mahaparinibbana (demise), although western scholars believe it to be 486 BC or even 386 BC. Nonetheless, they all agree roughly that the Buddhist era if commenced by the death of the Buddha, probably started in the 5th BC. The Christian year is supposed to have started the year Jesus was born. The anno domini, AD, or the year of Our Lord is a confused one as most scholars now agree that Jesus was actually born much later than that date. What more! when the Eastern Orthodox Christians, the Russians and Greeks celebrate Christmas, the Birthday of Jesus in February in stead of 25th December. The Burmese believe their year, adopted from Sakra-year of the northern Indian tradition, started from the grandfather of the Lord Buddha, Anchana. The beginning of the Sakra and the modification of the Burmese era during the Pagan period bear almost no relationship from ethnologically. This and the incompatibility of Burmese culture with the adopted Sakra year were some of the reasons that Bodawpaya (1778-1819) attempted to create a pure Burmese calendar called Pondaw calendar. Due to strong opposition from the monastic Order, Bodawpaya gave it up after a few years. The Pondaw has been studied in recent years by Dr. Yin Yin and Dr. Than Tun. Despite myths often associated with calendars it is clear that calendar has been in use at least during the time of the Buddha as witnessed in some Buddhist scriptures.
How, Not If
My arguments in the following paragraphs will be that Tais have had and in deed used their own calendar as early as the first century BC. While the circumstances surrounding the of Tai calendar will still remain obscure at the end of arguments, I expect at the end of my arguments the question among us to clearly shift from if we had a lunar calendar of our own to what were the socio-political and cultural milieu in which the Tai lunar calendar emerged.
Since the end of the World War II, some scholarly attention has been given to study of social organisation of Tais: Hansheng Chon’s academic enquiry on the issue culminating in his work “Frontier land Systems in Southernmost China: A Comparative Study of Agrarian problems and Social organisation among Pai Yi (Tai) people of Yunnan and the Kamba people of Sikang” (Institute of pacific Studies, New York, 1949), P. Gogai’s The Tai and The Tai Kingdoms”, Gauhati University, 1969, a collective work of scholars at the Department of Linguistics, Australian National University, Canberra entitled “Tai Studies in Honour of William J. Gedney, T. W. Gelling and Nguyen Dan Liem, 1979, Lu-fan Chen’s “When Came the Tai Race?”, Taiwan, 1990 are some of the well known works we take pride in mentioning them here.
Three factors will cited here to support our proposition that Tais might have used their own calendar in their heydays: the first relates to the fact that the Tais were seen by the Chinese as a threat long before the birth of Christ and century-long wars between the two consequently ensued. An early book of Chinese history recorded the Tais, Bai Yues (Pai Yi), as people with different surnames dispersed over vast areas from Jiao Zhi (Hanoi region, Vietnam) to Hui Ji (Shao Xin, Zheing Province, China). In fact, as early as Han dynasty, the forerunners of the Tais (Dais) were already noted in Chinese records (206 BC) under the name of Dian Yue, who lived over large areas in the south and west of Yunnan. This fact indicates how highly Tai socio-cultural organization might have been so as to merit rivalry of the now one of the most powerful cultures. (Another rival of the Chinese, the Tibetans, seen by Beijing for centuries up to the present as culturally too strong to be assimilated, had also developed culturally long before Buddhism arrived in their homeland in the 7 AD. Indeed, Buddhism had had to make enormous comprise with the existing culture in order to take root in Tibet.) While easy access to India and the hostile geographical conditions may have saved the Tibetans until relatively a recent time, the Tais who developed culture of farming and agriculture so successfully in the plain might have become a reason for the Chinese to consider us as their immediate foes.
Second, evidence to our hypothesis comes from the Tais of Ahom who founded a Tai kingdom in Assam since 13th century and ruled continuously for six hundred years (1228-1826 AD). Tai Ahoms posses a diverse range of literature, including one on Buddhism. One of the most famous Buddhist works is “Phra-tra-along” still held in veneration by the Tai Ahoms today. This work is of great interest to Buddhologists as much as is to historians. For despite the profession of Theravada Buddhism by Tais in almost all parts of Southeast Asia and India, this work is considered to belong to Mahayana school of Buddhism. In Tai language those days as in today, “phra” means the Buddha, “tra” is his teaching and “along” denotes bodhisatta, the aspirant of buddhahood. The work in question effectively deals the Triple Gem, but instead of the sangha as in the Theravada, it is the bodhisatta, the Buddha-would-be, that forms the third component here. It is important here to distinguish between the early Tai Ahoms and the later arrivals, Tai Khamtis who went to Assam in the 18th century when the early Kong-Baung Kings of Burma invaded Assam and Manipur. Equally imperative here is to note that until Swargadeva Susengpha (Hsosengpha) or Burha raja or Pratap Singh (1603-1641 AD), the Tai king who converted to Hinduism, Assam had no contact with Burmese culture. It is therefore possible to state that Tais did not use Sakra that the Burmese adopted as their lunar calendar, not before the Kong-Baung period when some of the Tai Saophas did receive some royal orders from the Burmese court at Ava and Amarapura. So, what calendar then did the Tai courts use is the right question that should imply here.
The third and last indication that Tais had used their own calendar is that Tais were still using their own calculation of months by the end of 18th century when Bodaypaya attempting to create Pondaw calendar. Sao Garng Hso, one of our greatest Pandits made all his predictions about the future of Shan States, for which he was exiled to Chiangsen, based on a sixty-days month of Tai lunar system. The book is called “ Pay-tarng Sao Garng Hso” but the way to calculate is shown in his work entitled “Jatisaranyan”. Most of the Tai calendars published inside Shan State have these sixty days in them. The sixty days are calculated from ten mother-years, “mea-pi” and 12 son-years, “look-pi”. Based on this calculation that we know when the new year day falls. Loong Sarng Sam from Mongkeng is the best living scholar of this subject at the moment. According to this calculation the New Year day falls on 16th December this year, although when fallowed Burmese lunar months, it was on 30th November (Lern Zieng mai won nurng). The Thai used this calendar before cahnging to Sakra year and then Buddhist era.
We can thus suggest that Tais had used their own calendar before changing Sakra under the influence of Indian culture that swept through Southeast Asia as late as 10th century. The late Loong Khun Maha of Mongai and Sai Fa are of the opinion that the Tai calendar might have started when Mong Loong and Mong Pa were flourishing as the capitals of Tais. The exact circumstances though still require substantial research to be discovered. We may be closer to unearthing our lost cultural history if we first discover how we lost our surnames, for they were still in use when the Chinese recorded us as Dien Yue.
For now, signs of New Year are largely found in our vocabulary of months and in activities of harvest season. Lurn Zieng means the month of beginning. Zieng is a classical Tai word to describe a beginning or the birth of something; when a baby learns how to walk, his mother would repeat zieng, zieng, zieng, because the word signifies not only the beginning but also being auspicious. A local leader in Khaisim village, Nampong, Lashio told me that lurn zieng was the first month Brhama created. Loong Zaray Wiling clearly drew his authority for his interpretation from Purusha Sukta of Upnishadic literature of Hinduism. It is doubtful if Tais of other parts of the world would interpret in the same way. The second month, lurn gam is the month of religious devotion; gam literary means to abstain (from bad activities and also from normal routine). a new mother takes a month staying indoor after giving a birth to a baby. It is possible that in ancient days the Tais did not work in the second month, perhaps due to extreme cold weather or they took a month (four weeks) of annual holidays after harvesting their crop.
Since Zieng is closely associated with harvesting, one of the essential features of celebrating Tai New Year is to gin zieng, a ritual party where people get together and feed each other. Since our system places importance on months due to our calculation of the movement of the earth around the moon, not around the sun, Tai word “lurn” means both month and moon. In other word, Tai calendar is not a solar one.
Well, I have promised at the beginning that at the end of my arguments one will remain as uninformed as he was concerning the circumstances in which Tai lunar year began. Nevertheless, I am confident that you have now shifted your quest from an earlier position of if Tais really had lunar year to how we Tais began it and how we have gone through it all.
Mai Soong Pi Mai Tai 2096th.
 Vasana Chinvarakorn, Tai Nector, Bangkok Post, 13th November 2001.
 Peter Harvey, Introduction to Buddhism, Cambridge, 1998 (reprint), p. 9.
 Than Tun, The Royal Orders of Burma, Vol. IV. Tokyo, 1986.
 Sasananda, History of Buddhism in Assam, New Delhi, 1986, p. 176.
 S.K. Bhuyan, Studies in the History of Assam, Gauhati, 1965, p. 9.