Every culture has its own unique celebration to pay tribute or seek divine energies and in Thailand, one of the most magical events is the sky lantern festival.
The Loy Krathong festival is celebrated on the evening of the full moon of the 12th month in the traditional Thai lunar calendar. I made a trip to Chiang Mai on Nov 3 to experience the sacred event that also has a carnival mood.
Over 5,000 spiritual seekers and holidaymakers were at the ceremony held at the 80ha Royal Flora Ratchaphruek Park.
Upon my arrival at the park entrance I was welcomed by beauty pageant contestants before being taken on a long walk in the sprawling park which boasts thousands of species of tropical plants, flowers, ponds and gardens.
Amid the peaceful surroundings is a majestic teak building where a golden statue of Lord Buddha sits on a dais and I offered to pay my obeisance and prayers.
There are several versions of the ceremony now, which was originally a gathering where people paid their respects to three different gods – Lord Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma – several hundred years ago.
According to records written by King Rama IV in 1863, the Brahmanical festival was later adapted by Thai Buddhists to honour the Buddha, Prince Siddhartha Gautama.
The evening started off with a live band, songs and dances followed by the freeing of the krathong or floats in the pond.
I waited my turn to release the small handmade floats decorated with candles, incense and flowers.The candle honours the Buddha with light and the freeing of the floats symbolises the letting go of anger, hatred, ill thoughts, bad habits and also to seek renewed energies.
Some Thais place fingernail clippings, hair and coins in the float as a representation of freeing themselves from their past and misfortune. The water symbolises the drifting away of bad luck.
The festival also shows appreciation for the Goddess of Water Phra Mae Kong Ka, the Thai form of the Ganges River in India for providing transport and life to the people.
Dinner was served on the grounds but the highlight of the festival was the spectacular launch of sky lanterns. Nine Buddhist monks chanted prayers for about 15 minutes, then walked along the aisle sprinkling blessed water on people who bowed with their hands clasped in prayer and hope before the ritual began.
I was given a huge white rice paper lantern and I wrote on it a dozen names of my family members and friends who asked me to perform the rite on their behalf. Their wishes include hope for improved health, education, peace, happiness and liberation.
After the candle was lit to fill the lantern with hot air, I waited for the signal to release my lantern collectively with others into the night.
It was at the moment when I held the lantern over my head for release that emotions welled in my mind. I could feel the heavy baggage (wishes, hopes and dreams) I loaded it with.
When the time came to release the lantern, I could sense instantly a huge weight being lifted off my shoulders. The lantern struggled at first to float but a gust of wind blew it up to join thousands in the sky.
Many people there had one expression on their face: hope, and they did the ritual as a family, couple or group to renew relationships, strengthen friendships, love and unity.
Strangers greeted each other with joy and laughter and there was an air of festivity as they clapped and cheered at each successful take-off.
Some broke down in tears after lanterns floated and later tilted in the air and caught fire. A few lanterns got stuck on trees and overhead cables.
Chiang Mai airport cancelled and rescheduled 78 domestic and international flights over two evenings for safety because the sky was lit by the hot-air lanterns.
The spectacular celebration could be watched and felt all over the Chiang Mai sky and rivers and it is an important annual festival for locals and foreigners who value its significance.
The night ended with fireworks and I returned home the following day satisfied because I managed to fulfil my five-year wish to be part of the meaningful festival.
T. Selva is the author of the Vasthu Sastra Guide and the first disciple of 7th-generation Vasthu Sastra master Yuvaraj Sowma from Chennai, India. You can follow him on twitter at @tselvas and write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column appears on the last Sunday of every month.