Celebrating Sangken: Arunachal’s version of a water dousing fest!

Come April, the state of Arunachal Pradesh gets drenched in scented water and merry-making, thanks to the Sangken festival.
Sangken is a water festival celebrated across arunachal pradesh and parts of assam.
Sangken is a water festival celebrated across Arunachal Pradesh and parts of Assam. Image: Shutterstock/digantarajkhowa.

Balmy weather had kept Namsai company all day, giving it a soft golden glow from the melting sun that evening. The air was filled with a peaceful silence, except for the rhythmic beating of the drums and gongs; orange robe-clad bhikkus (Buddhist monks), old and young, ambled along a cobbled pathway amid lush lawns; local men and women walked next to them in neat lines, holding little figurines of Buddha; kids carried buckets full of water and fresh flowers. And in the backdrop, an aureate monument shimmered under the inky blue sky. The Golden Pagoda in Arunachal Pradesh looks no less than a dream during Sangken festival every year.

The golden pagoda in namsai.
The Golden Pagoda in Namsai. Image: Shutterstock/Karun Roy.

Popularly known as Kongmu Kham in local Khamti language, it sits atop a plateau overlooking the Patkai Hills and is the centre of Theravada Buddhism (one of the two major offshoots of the religion). Across the road, there’s Noi Cheynam Meditation Centre with the highest bamboo statue of Buddha in the world. Every April, these sites act as magnets for locals and tourists alike, for this is the time when Sangken is celebrated to mark the beginning of the Theravada Buddhist New Year.

Fragrant water is sprinkled on holy statues and people during the festival.
Fragrant water is sprinkled on holy statues and people during the festival. Image: Shutterstock/Phawat.

Four years back, I was road-tripping through Arunachal’s eastern region, covering Namsai, Roing, and Pasighat, when the opportunity to witness the celebration came knocking the door, and I took it in a beat. From April 13-15 every year, Sangken (akin to Holi in North India and Songkran in Thailand) is celebrated with great gusto by the Khampti, Singpho, Tai Khamyang, and Tangsa tribes.

On the first day of Sangken, the festival begins with the ceremony of loung fra — carrying out huge processions and bringing out the statues of Buddha from the main temple to a temporary shrine called kyongfra. Inside the shrine, fresh scented water is poured down the statues, and incense sticks are lit. The act of bathing the Buddha symbolises inviting peace and purity into the lives. At Golden Pagoda, I experienced a unique balance of peace and elation in my heart, as everybody prayed and performed rituals together.

The holy buddhist sites come alive with the beatings of drums and gongs.
The holy Buddhist sites come alive with the beatings of drums and gongs. Image: Courtesy Sushmita Srivastav.
Monks carrying buddha statues to the temporary shrine.
Monks carrying Buddha statues to the temporary shrine. Image: Courtesy Sushmita Srivastav.

I remember arriving at a Buddhist temple in Empong the next day, to find almost everyone dressed in colourful traditional sarongs, throwing water on each other. Women were sitting in circles and singing to the rhythm of drums and kids running around with buckets of water. Hundreds of people flooded the site to indulge in all-day water dousing!

Sangken is akin to thailand's songkran festival.
Sangken is akin to Thailand’s Songkran festival. Image: Shutterstock/Suriya99.

With a small bucket in my hand, I watched the merry-making from a corner, feeling a bit alienated, until a group of young men and ladies doused me from head to toe, giggling and shouting ‘Happy Sangken!’. I joined in, and indulged in what must be the most competitive, fun water gun fight of my life! Later, we all sat down in a field and shared local booze and homemade sweets. Another fun ritual that revelers love to take part in. And just like that, I was no more an outsider.

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