The Tradition of Freeing Fish and Birds
Among many traditions of the Thai people, that of freeing fish and birds is a very old one which has been practised from time immemorial.
In the past, it was performed on Songkran Day only, but now it is done on many occasions, for example, as a merit making on one's birthday, in the homage-paying fair of a local temple and on other Buddhist holidays. In some places such as Phra Pradaeng where the Songkran Festivals is celebrated in a grand form, this activity is even performed by a large group of beautifully clad women women who walk to the waterfront in procession.
Thai people who are devout Buddhists usually free fishes and birds on their birthdays or when they are seriously ill, believing that this meritorious act will prolong their lives. This belief may have originated from a story in the Buddhist scripture which runs as follows.
In the time of the Lord Buddha, there was a temple named Chetawan Wihan Which was under the charge of Saributr, the right chief disciple of the Buddha. One summer day, a young novice went to pay respect to Saributr as usual, the chief monk noticed an abnormal sign on the novice's face and knew immediately from his special ability that the novice would die seven days later. Out of pity, he told the poor novice about this and tried to console him. The novice then asked for leave to go home to bid farewell to his parents and relatives. He promised that he would come back to Chetawan temple within seven days in order to die there.
Two events happened on his way home. First, when he passed a water-hole and tried to get some water to drink, he saw fish struggling in the mud. He felt pity on them, so he took off his robe, caught all the fish and put them in his robe. He walked to a nearby pond and freed the fish there.
Later, when the novice reached an old farm he saw three birds get stuck in snares. He wanted to free them, but he couldn't because that would mean violating the second precept of the Buddhist moral code (i.e. to abstain from stealing). So the novice just stood still looking at the birds and prayed for their safety. He concentrated in praying for a long time until there was a gust blowing at the direction where the birds were stuck. The snares shook severely until the wires broke and the birds flew away.
When the novice arrived home and told his relatives about his expected imminent death, they were so sad that they decided to make merit for him. They weighed the novice and prepared a quantity of rice equaling the weight of the novice. They boiled the rice and presented it to the monks. They took good care of him day and night. Surprisingly, seven days passed and the novice was still alive and healthy, so he went back to Chetawan Temple.
When Saributr saw the novice, he was very surprised as his predictions had never failed before. So he asked the novice to explain to him thoroughly what he had done in the past seven days. After hearing the account, Saributr understood that the novice's escape from death was due to his meritorious acts done from his compassionate heart-freeing fishes, helping birds to flee and presenting boiled rice to the monks. All these merits added together were strong enough to prolong his life. That is believed to be the origin of the Buddhist tradition of freeing fish and birds that has been observed by Thais as well as other Buddhists since the ancient times.