The year is 2558. Sun-kissed men, donned in Tiger Lily-orange robes and with shaved heads, sit outside a temple in an outstretched row of chairs under a white tent, as women, men and children pour water into their cupped hands, bow, then make a wish.
The monks whisper a short Buddhist mantra of prosperity then pour a trickle of water onto the peoples' lowered heads, washing away troubles from the old year and blessing them for the new one. Nearby, kids and some grown-ups drench each other with super-soaker water guns, during the 90 degree day. Water, and the celebration of it, is the theme of the Thai New Year, known as Songkran, which transpires every April in Thailand and is observed on the grounds of Wat Buddharangsri, an ornate white and gold Buddhist temple in Homestead.
In Southeast Asia, people follow a lunisolar calendar. Its date is 543 years ahead of our calendar and signifies both the moon phases and the time of the solar year. Hence, 2015 is 2558, their time.
The Water Festival, a free event open to the public on a recent Sunday, could have been mistaken for a market scene in Thailand, with vendors selling traditional Thai food and exotic fruit drinks such as lychee, pennywort and chrysanthemum in between mango and longan trees that line the five-acre property. Porcelain trinkets imported from Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand, as well as jade jewelry and hanging plants growing out of coconut and conch shells, were on display, complete with the usual bartering of a marketplace.
On stage, in the middle of the fair, three men sang and played traditional Thai music under a large tent, where people from all parts of Miami sat, communal style, eating Thai meals and exchanging words about the assortment of flavors. La's Thai Desserts, one of the half-dozen food vendors there, mixed flour, eggs and coconut milk to make Lotus Flower Blossom Cookies, and shaped them to look like blooming carnation flowers with the flavor of sweet fortune cookies. Other specialties included pad Thai, spring rolls stuffed with clear noodles and veggies, krayasart – sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves and Thai iced tea, which is made with sweetened condensed milk and black tea.
The Water Festival is an annual collaboration between Wat Buddharangsri (wat means temple) and the Thai American Association, which helps to raise funds for the nonprofit temple. Khanya Moolsiri, secretary of the temple and founder and chairwoman of the Thai American Association, thinks it's important for people from Miami to visit the temple and its events for many reasons.
“They can have the taste of Thailand for a day,” she says of the Water Festival. “The Thai New Year is one of the most important events for this culture. You'd have to go to Thailand to see this, and here you have a chance to see everything.” She adds that every year, kids beg their parents to take them to the festival, so they can spend the day drenching new friends with multi-colored squirt guns.
The land where Wat Buddharangsri sits was purchased in 1986 by Surachett Boonnom, known also as “The Ajarna,” a Buddhist monk and high scholar from the western part of Thailand. Construction of five buildings which include a religious hall, an all-purpose building, two classrooms, and a bell tower, started in 1996 and was completed six years later, serving as a place of worship and for hosting events that showcase the union of Thai culture and Buddhism. The in-between years yielded zoning troubles, an appeal to commissioners, initial prejudice from the community and Hurricane Andrew, which destroyed the first structures that were being built. Five more acres of land in a connecting lot were recently purchased to make room for parking, a community center and space for more fruit trees.
Every weekend, from 3 to 5 p.m., the wat hosts free meditation classes – in Spanish on Saturdays and in English on Sundays. Summer camp at the wat, which teaches kids from all over Miami the fundamentals of Thai culture, is also offered for free.
Giuliano Carrafelli, who co-owns and runs Ricky Thai Bistro, a mom-and-pop restaurant in North Miami with his Thai wife, says he and his family have been coming to different events at the wat for years. “It's the perfect environment for kids and families. It's open for everybody.”
“It's really peaceful” he says of the temple, which is open everyday from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. for visitors, “you can really let your mind go.”
He hopes that more people in Miami will open themselves up to learning more about Buddhism. “I come from the Western world and I'm a Catholic-born person but Buddhism is more than a religion – it's a philosophy.” He recommends that visitors to go inside the temple so they can experience the peacefulness for themselves. Monks, who live on the premises, often interact with guests and give blessings.
Incense sticks burn low as the sun sets and the food vendors and musicians pack up their belongings. The monks retreat for their evening chants and parents and kids pack their super-soakers into mini vans and drive off. The festivities of the Water Festival have come to an end. Before the big red gates close, people line up and dip plastic Dixie cups into porcelain pots, sometimes referred to as treasure vases, which hold water with orchid and bougainvillea petals, colored deep shades of fuchsia.
Men and women who represent Miami's melting pot of nationalities, pour the flowered water onto golden statues of the Buddha, who's shown in different poses. The positions signify an important event in Buddha's life or past lives and have different meanings: protection, serenity, health, and so on. People pour water on one, several or all of the statues of the deity and make more wishes before they depart. The year may still be 2015 with eight more months until our new year, but the openness of experiencing a culture outside ones own makes the meaning of Songkran — washing away the old and welcoming the new — that much more genuine and transformative.
If you go
▪ For more information about Wat Buddharangsi of Miami and upcoming events, visit http://thaitemplemiami.com or call 305-245-2702
▪ Open daily from 7 a.m. to 5p.m. at 15200 S.W. 240th St., Homestead
▪ Free meditation sessions every weekend from 3 to 5 p.m. (Spanish on Saturdays, English on Sundays)