Khmer New Year Highlights Connections Between East and West

One of Cambodia’s most eagerly awaited celebrations is coming up this month, with Khmer New year (Choul Chnam Thmei) that will run for three days from 14 to 16 April. The festivities begin on the first day, Moha Sangkran, with ritual cleaning of house and body, a washing away of the year just passed and freshening for the year to come. Thanks are given to the Buddha for what has been, and for blessings yet to come, and time is taken to connect with family, honour ancestors and enjoy traditional feasts, games and ceremonies. It also marks the end of one harvest season, as farmers and workers enjoy the fruits of their labour.

But why does New Year’s Day take place now? The clue is in the name, and it also shows us how Eastern and Western traditions are not so far apart as some might think.

Sangkran is a derivative of the Sanskrit word Sankranti which refers to the migration of the sun from one zodiac to another in Indian astronomy. Within India, Nepal and elsewhere in South and Southeast Asia, it is a harvest festival that marks the end of winter solstice and the beginning of the sun’s journey northwards, bringing longer days and warmer weather. As here, Sangkranti is a time for joy and celebration among families, with gifts, games and traditional rituals.

That means that the beginning of each month in the Hindu calendar is Sankranti, but not all are celebrated in the same way and Mesha Sankranti (from which Moha Sangkran is derived) is one of the most important, marking the beginning of the New Year as the sun moves into Aries, which generally falls on 14 or 15 April, and is the first day of the solar cycle year. Anyone who follows Western astrology now knows why Aries is always listed first.

In the west, we follow a tropical calendar based on the seasons, which is why our New Year falls on January 1, though that is a relatively recent phenomenon for which we can thank the Romans. Until 700BCE, our New Year was celebrated in March, in line with the spring equinox.

But if you examine contemporary Western language used to describe this period of the sun moving into Aries, you’ll find it has a great deal in common with Cambodian beliefs about this time of year. It is a time of energy, renewal, change and transformation, a time for new beginnings and fresh starts. It is also about sheep! Aries is signified by the ram, or male sheep. So you see, we’re not so different after all.

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