Several hundred members of the Thai community in the Washington area, lured by spicy cuisine and the attraction of renewing an ancient religious tradition in a new land, gathered in Silver Spring yesterday to celebrate the start of a Kao Pansa festival sometimes described as the Buddhist Lent.

"There are maybe four or five major Buddhist holidays and this is one," said Dr. Prasarn Nilprabhassorn at the large house at 9033 Georgia Ave. that is known as Wat Thai Washington (wat is an Asian word for temple) and serves Thais and Thai Americans from Pennsylvania to Florida.

At least 200 people clustered in and around the temple yesterday, meeting and greeting each other, watching ornately costumed young girls perform classical Thai dances and enjoying the special delicacies of their far-off homeland.

Based on the explanations offered by Dr. Nilprabhassorn, a radiologist in Howard County who is president of the Thai Buddhist Association of Washington, yesterday's observance combined centuries-old philosophy and custom with some efforts at adaptation to the demands of life in America.

The holiday itself marked the start of a three-month period of retreat and contemplation, a time for the monks of the temple to cloister themselves within, for reflection and meditation. The period coincides with the rainy season in Southeast Asia and has been observed for centuries as a distinctive feature of the school of Buddhism dominant in Thailand.

During the period, according to one of the temple's monks, Keriang Chauteh, Thai Buddhists customarily seek to correct some failing or suppress some undesirable habit or trait.

In Asia, Dr. Nilprabhassorn said, most Buddhist families as a matter of course bring to the temple special delicacies they have prepared for the monks and for sharing with other celebrants of the festival.

But, the Thai community leader said, echoing the comments of spokesmen for so many others of the distinctive ethnic and cultural groups that have come to America, "It's not easy for us to follow traditions here."

He said it is necessary to modify Thai traditions to suit the circumstances of American life, in which the Thai community is few in number and geographically dispersed.

So, he explained, rather than being brought by most community members to the temple, Asiatic delicacies were being sold to them. The proceeds were being used to support the temple, and the hot meat dishes spiced with red peppers, lemon grass and garlic fish sauces, were used to draw the community to the wat.

While the dancing was not a specific part of the Buddhist ritual, it was also seen as a valuable attraction, that along with the temple itself, served the ultimate purpose of uniting the estimated 4,000 or 5,000 Thais in the Washington area.