John Nisbet.

Burma under British rule--and before; (Volume 2) online

. (page 16 of 41)
Online LibraryJohn NisbetBurma under British rule--and before; (Volume 2) → online text (page 16 of 41)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

is attained only through excellence in the religious gifts of



meditation, contemplation, mental abstraction, and ecstatic
trance. The priest desirous of attaining- this state must
withdraw to some secluded spot and shut himself out
from the world. Here, sitting cross-legged, he must
so concentrate his mind upon one single thought that
his soul becomes filled with supernatural ecstasy and
serenity, while his mind, exalted and purified, rises
above all emotions of pleasure or of pain and enables
him to traverse space at will. Exaltation into this state
of beatific religious trance is beyond the attainment of
ordinary mortals ; but if any " extraordinary person "
{Lusunkaung) be the lucky possessor of a particular
kind of precious stone [Zawda), he can, by inserting it
in his mouth, acquire the power of flying through the
air or of diving below water. This term is also applied
to those who have escaped from prison by marvellous
leaps, or by rendering themselves invisible and so on.
But in the great majority of cases the word is employed
in a bad sense, and its most frequent use is perhaps
with reference to bold determined thieves and men of
notoriously bad character.

Among so superstitious a race it is of course inevitable
that magic [H7?taw) must play a great part. The Bur-
mese have their warlocks (Sim) and witches {Sicnjiia),
for combating the power of whose spells the aid of the
sorcerer, wizard, or wise man ( Weza) is invoked. Some
of the spells are of the most fatal character, such as sub-
stances magically inserted into the stomach or other part
of the body for the purpose of producing death iyApiii).
The Burmese magic is more particularly that influence
by means of which various orders of beings are con-
trolled ; hence the necromancer i^Hmawwhi) possessed of
it is the most important of all those practising this branch
of occult science. But differences exist even in cases of
possession or of injury inflicted through witchcraft, for
whereas bewitchment by means of a wizard or a witch is
a spell {Py7csa), that caused by some such superhuman
agency as ghosts or by the spirit of any deceased person
who has met with a violent and unnatural death is looked
on as a " seizure " (Pansa). Old age, ugliness, and can-
tankerousness are apt to cause a woman to be branded



as a witch ; while to be the mother of seven sons or seven
daughters, without having borne any intermediate child
of the opposite sex, is a sure indication of possession of
certain supernatural powers. The wise men whose aid
is summoned to counteract the influence of witches and
warlocks are supposed to be endowed with the three
miraculous powers of taking a retrospective view of
deeds and actions that occurred during past ages of
existence, of knowing the influence of a good or evil
deed which causes an immediate result in the present
state of existence, and of possessing the kind of wisdom
attained by the extinction of evil desire. There are four
kinds of wise men {Weza), of whom the most highly
esteemed practise their art by means of calculations on
tables divided into columns, or squares, or other compart-
ments {Inweza). Even in necromancy it is well to be
accurate. Are not figures almost as indisputable as facts ?
The former power and influence of the Weza are already
on the wane. It is not uncommon to hear a person who
does anything particularly well, or who has had a recent
stroke of good luck, jocularly called a " Wez " without
incurring the fear or the displeasure of those within ear-
shot of so flippant and irreverent a remark. Formerly
this would not have been the case.

Of course there are also men skilled in the transmuta-
tion of silver and the baser metals into gold. There
are various methods in which this and other varieties of
the confidence trick are played upon ignorant men and
women, but few of these swindlers are ever brought
within the reach of the courts of justice.

Amid surroundings of spiritual beings, the majority of
whom are more or less evil-disposed, the personal
equation of any given individual receives its due share
of attention, and brings its meed of weal or woe. This
is the personal luck [Kan), which may either be good or
bad. The primary meaning of " Kait " in the ancient
Pali is simply a "deed" or "action"; and the meaning
now evolved denotes the secret influence of any action
on one's future destiny. When a man dies, his "luck " is
at an end from the mere fact of his having completed
the present state of existence. To have good luck



{Kankaungthe) is therefore to be subject to the influence
of a good action ; whereas to have bad luck (Kansdthe)
is to eat the fruit of a bad action. " Luck " has conse-
quently somewhat of a semi- religious character in the
eyes of the Burman. Whether he has the good luck to
reap a rich harvest or to pass near a venomous snake
without being bitten, or the bad luck to lose his cattle or
to make no profit on any of his mercantile transactions,
depends, ccsleris paribus, mainly on the influence of the
good or bad actions committed by him — with the excep-
tion, of course, of cases in which the trend of affairs is
influenced by charms, spirits, witches, or wizards. The
Kan is also the cause of presentiments which from time
to time impel the Burman to adopt some peculiar mode of
action. The best method of being placed advantage-
ously with regard to Kan is the due and careful
performance of all the " great and little deeds " or
duties incumbent upon the layman as well as on the
monk. A different term {Lat) is also much used by
fortune-tellers, traders, fishermen, and sportsmen in the
sense of luck, its meaning being literally " anything
obtained by gift " and corresponding more to the idea
conveyed in such a phrase as " by pure chance." The
term " eating a chance gift " is very commonly used
colloquially as a euphemism for bribery.

Unmistakable though the influence of Kan be, yet it
is not all powerful. It is but one of the strands woven
into the thread of fate. The marks of destiny on the
forehead {Nabiisa) are still more potent as indications
of one's fate or fortune. They regulate by inevitable
convergence of fate the intimate consortment of persons
in this life who have during a past state of existence been
more or less closely associated. When applied to a
married couple, the expression Nabicsa ba conveys the
idea that the destinies of the man and the woman are so
bound up together that they are literally "consorts."
An unhappy wife may sometimes say in confidence to a
friend that she did not marry her husband because she
loved him, but only because, her destiny being bound up
with his, she was compelled to live with him. Again,
the time and circumstances of one's birth {Zada) are

1 68


pregnant with fate ; for one may be born to be a
ruler, or born to be a thief. On matters of this sort
light can be thrown by the horoscope {Zadapon) cast
for astrological purposes. A record of the time and
circumstances of one's birth {Neswe) is therefore care-
fully kept.

Palmistry is not very much practised among the
Burmans, although there are Brahmins {Letkandpat
Punna) who predict, a person's future by examining the
lines and marks on the hand, and occasionally also on the
soles of the feet. A colony of such Punna, who originally
came from Manipur, lived a little to the west of Manda-
lay city.

Omens and auspices naturally receive their full and
proper share of attention, and few affairs of anything
but a trivial and commonplace nature are embarked upon
without ascertaining whether or not the day be lucky for
the enterprise. Unless a propitious day can be selected
for an undertaking, the latter is deferred. For the
determination of knotty points in critical cases the aid of
the " indicator of evil" (Bedin Say a) is employed, a man
skilled in astrology and in the interpretation of the horo-
scope. But there are various broad generalizations which
presage good or ill without elaborate calculations being
at all necessary. Thus it is unlucky for any one to cut
his or her finger nails or toe-nails in the house, as this is
supposed to cause the poverty of the owner ; hence it is
necessary to go outside and perform such toilet operations.
Each month is said to have two unlucky days, whereas
there is always one day ( Yetyazd) which is the most lucky
of all. In the tenth month of the year, corresponding to
December or January, it is considered unlucky to throw
away the ashes of fires ; hence it is called the month for
" storing up ashes " {Pyatho). Again, if a water lizard
[Put) comes up into a house, it is considered very unlucky,
its arrival being a sure sign of poverty and misery.
The crowing lizard {Taukte) is commonly supposed by
Anglo-Burmans to be a lucky animal to have in the
house ; but the Burmese look upon its bite as fatal and
only to be cured by putting earth-oil on the tongue or by
smearing it with a powder made from the fruit of the



corypha palm {Petlii). Horses of a dark brown colour
are considered to bring bad luck to their owner, while a
blind horse will cause the destruction of a village, and a
blind elephant the devastation of a cit}'-. A person who
squints is one not to be offended, as he or she probably
has the power of "overlooking" the person who is
disrespectful or disobliging. In one of the teak
plantations under my charge, where I had sometimes
found it hard to procure sufficient labour at a fair rate of
wages, no practical difficulty of this sort was encountered
after a swivel-eyed forest ranger had been transferred
to its charge ; for his physical defect produced a great
and awe-inspiring impression on the neighbouring
villagers. It is deemed a lucky thing to possess a
bullock having the left horn bent down, while the right
horn stands upright ; but the possession of one having
the left horn upright and the right horn bent down must
inevitably result in utter poverty. The circular flexures
{Bwe) in the hair of animals are held to give unmistak-
able signs as to good or bad luck. This is more
particularly the case with regard to ponies, in whose
coats thirty-eight of these lucky or unlucky flexures may
be distinguished and examined. The owner of an
animal having a " rough flexure " [Bwegyan) is apt to be
generally unlucky and falling into trouble ; hence the
expression '^ Bwegyanthe Lti" to denote a Jonah, bring-
ing bad luck upon every one with whom he is associated
in business or otherwise. In similar manner boats may
be unlucky owing to their having what is considered a
bad knot in one or other of the planks ; and so on with
regard to houses, etc. But bad luck may even come
through carelessness in conversation ; and if any one
happens to speak about elephants or ponies in the vicinity
of the Ruby Mines, this is supposed to cause the rubies
to disappear. It therefore seems unfortunate for the
shareholders in this speculation that all the travelling
arrangements of their own employees and of all English
officers in that district necessitate the use of elephants
and ponies : but these mines are now paying, despite that.
Under the Burmese rulers it was considered ominous
for any one to cross in front of the van of the army ;



such an unfortunate person was generally put to death,
often by having his breast cloven asunder.

On the other hand the flowers or the leaves of the
Thabyd tree (^Eugenia) were auspicious and were con-
sequently worn by Burmese soldiers on the march as
" flowers of victory " in the top-knots of their hair or in
the large holes pierced in the lobes of their ears. In
addition to selecting a propitious day for the undertaking,
a sprig of these tender leaves is still often worn by
ordinary persons when about to embark in difficult or
dangerous enterprises. Tender lovers also make pro-
testations of unswerving fidelity in the following time-
honoured couplet : —

Thabyeban ia kit Like a spray of Thabye,

Mathwedan ta thet My love will last for aye.

The Burmese make no distinction whatever in the
way of expressing our idea of *' omen " in contrast to
" auspice." Their only word [Nemeik) simply means a
sign or token, and it is also the only correct term that
can be applied to the mark or boundary of any individual
property in land or of national territory. In the sacred
writings the four great signs {Ne^neik-le-ba) which induced
Seiddatta (Siddhartha) to renounce the world previous
to his becoming Gaudama, the last of the Buddhas, were
respectively an old man, a sick and infirm person, a
corpse, and recluse. The sign is either "good" and
auspicious, or else "bad" and ominous; but when one
Burman remarks to another that words just spoken have
no significance, it is intended to imply that they are of
bad omen. In the reading of omens, as well as in the
interpretation of dreams, the Pttnna or Brahmins are sup-
posed to have special gifts. And as the opinion is held
that the first interpretation of a dream is the true one, it is
considered a piece of impertinence to be resented if any
person unsolicited and gratuitously gives an unfavourable
interpretation to a dream.

Many practical examples might be given to show how
the due observance of certain acts or the refraining from
other acts is held in daily life to be auspicious, but it
may perhaps be sufficient to note the following on



account of its peculiarity. Among- the insects destructive
to plants is one called Pya, which is more particularly
inclined to attack leguminous crops. Hence, in the dry
zone of Upper Burma, where pea crops are largely
cultivated and form the staple food of the country side,
pregnant women are not supposed to gather vegetables
of any kind, as it is believed by their doing so the Pya
is specially attracted to the plants touched.

For the interpretation of ordinary omens and dreams
there is a special book [Deiittin), whilst for the unravel-
ling of unusually intricate or apparently contradictory
cases the soothsayer [Deittun Sayd) can be consulted.
According to the book of omens the three evil periods
of famine, pestilence, and slaughter may respectively be
foretold by fowls leaving their roosts even before dawn
in an irregular manner and searching for food at this
unusual hour, by dogs howling at night at an unseason-
able time, and by crows flying about excitedly and
screeching and cawing in a terrified manner.

Often when entering some little jungle village or
hamlet one sees on the outskirts a little temporary
pagoda built of sand, and carefully topped by an umbrella
(77) of woven bamboos with paper flowers or pieces of
tinsel and gilt paper. Something about its general
appearance tells one that such a " sand-pagoda "{ 7"^^
Sedi) is more than the work of children at play. Though
naturally given to making mud pies and revelling in dirt
generally, Burmese children would not be allowed to
amuse themselves in any way disrespectful to the Bud-
dhistic religion. If one asked what this temporary pagoda
meant, the answer would be evasive. The actual fact,
however, would be that it was built because such sand
pagodas are believed to be of assistance in warding off
pestilence, through the religious merit {Kntho) acquired
in erecting them. On closer inquiry one would probably
find that smallpox had broken out in one or other of
the neighbouring hamlets, and that the simple Burman
was pinning his faith on the efficacy of good works, with
absolute indifference to the most elementary principles
of sanitation. It is believed that during great and serious
epidemics the waters in the delta of the Irrawaddy



assume a dirty greenish tinge in place of the usual mud-
brown hue arising from the enormous load of silt con-
tinuously being carried seawards.

Like all eastern races, the Burmese have an intense
dread of cholera [Kala Vazao-a), though the same term is
applied to any other epidemic for which no definite cause
can be assigned in their list of the ninety-six diseases.
In the larger towns cholera is always present to a greater
or less extent during the hot months from March to
June, and more especially in May toward the end of the
hot weather and the beginning of the rains, when the
mango fruit ripens. In Rangoon, for example, cholera
is probably never really absent at any time of the year ;
but the intensely hot spring-time is naturally the season
when it is most apt to break out in epidemic form among
the poorer population. Against the ravages of this
deadly disease both the dietists (Z?«/ Sayd) and the
druggists i^Beindaw Sayd), who form the two classes of
medicine-men, stand powerless. They simply declare
that the visitation is caused by evil spirits against whom
their muntras, simples, and drugs are inoperative. Hence
special measures are taken to expel the evil spirits from
the town limits or the village precincts by an operation
called "driving into the jungle" (Tawtuk). This con-
sists in all the inhabitants of a village or of a section of a
town simultaneously belabouring the roofs, floors, and
sides of houses with bamboo poles, beating old kerosine
tins or empty pots with sticks, and generally endeavour-
ing with very fair success to raise an unearthly din. They
certainly make a very unpleasant noise, even although
they may not succeed in laying the evil spirit. The
usual time for such demonstrations taking place is to-
wards sunset ; but it may often also be heard in the morn-
ing and in the early portion of the afternoon. Under any
circumstances the deafening din is an unwelcome sound if
at all close at hand ; while, even if softened by distance,
it always conveys unpleasing information. This cere-
mony is also performed on a minor scale for driving
away evil spirits from persons who have been bitten by
snakes, or wounded by wild animals, or otherwise, or
who have sustained injuries by falling from trees.



When attacked by cholera, the Burman resigns himself
to fate, whereas the native of India vows to dedicate
some offering to his gods if they aid him in recovering.
Shortly after my first arrival in Burma one of my Indian
servants was attacked with cholera. Throughout the
whole time I was dosing him with brandy and chloro-
dyne he kept vowing that if his life were spared he
would offer up a kid as a sacrifice to one of his gods. A
day or two after he had recovered he duly came and
asked for an advance of pay, in order to buy a kid for
the purpose of fulfilling the vow he had made whilst
stricken with the black disease. He got the money ; he
bought the kid ; and he faithfully performed his vow.
But as he afterwards prepared a savoury stew with the
sacrifice, and ate it with the assistance of a few friends,
the transaction was after all no dead loss or pure waste of
money. With the Burman it is different, because he is
a fatalist in such matters.

Another superstitious custom resembling Tawtuk in
so far that it is taken part in by a large number of
people simultaneously and preconcertedly is the " pulling
of the rope" or "rope festival" {Lonswe, Lonpwe).
It is indulged in at any time between May and
October, whenever it seems desirable to procure a fall of
rain for agricultural purposes. It is nothing else than a
huge tug-of-war, by means of which unique demon-
stration in their honour it is hoped the spirits having
control over rain [Pyiisun Nat), will be induced to grant
the special favour sought. At such festivals the country
people often assemble in large numbers and decked in
their best attire, when there is a vast amount of talking
and shouting, accompanied by beating of drums and
blowing of fifes, and the din of other musical instru-

Minor superstitions exist about rainfall, such as are
implied in the blossoming of the crocodile creeper
{Derris scandens), whose wealth of white flowers is said
to presage heavy rainfall, and in the saying that the
Padauk tree {Plei'ocarpus Indicus) must flower thrice
before the rains set in about the beginning of May.
Even the majority of Anglo- Burmans believe in this



illogical circumstance, although they should know that
the flowering is merely the natural effect of physiological
causes, and has nothing to do with foretelling the future.

For warding off evil of different kinds other super-
stitious customs exist besides those previously men-
tioned. Thus the idea is current that the possession of
stakes or pegs which have been driven into any piece of
ground that is about to be built on, is capable of warding
off danger ; and when the ground in question happens to
have been consecrated, through having at one time been
the site of some work of religious merit, there is often
quite a scramble for such lucky bits of wood. If sus-
pended from the roof of a house, such a prize brings
immunity from bugs, while it is also of use in averting
danger from fire. Such stakes likewise belong to the
Burmese pharmacopoeia ; for the druggist class of
medicine-men {Bezndaw Sayd) scrape them into a pow-
der, which forms one of the ingredients in the preparation
of remedies against the power of evil spirits.

There is no caste at all among the Burmese, and they
are an exceedingly hospitable race. It very frequently
happens that English officers, in the performance of
their ordinary district duties in the various departments
of Government, go to places where there are no Govern-
ment bungalows, no rest-houses (Zaydl), and no pro-
tection against sun, rain, dew, etc. As a rule, only forest
and survey officers have tents for their camp work ; but
not infrequently these officers prefer to lodge, as the
men in other civil departments are forced to do, in
village houses or monasteries rather than in tents, more
particularly in the hot weather, when being under canvas
is sometimes extremely trying. Through want of know-
ledge rather than through inadvertence, the young officer
may often perform simple acts, such as trimming his
finger nails inside the house, which must, if he were only
aware of the fact, cause uneasiness to his Burmese host
by threatening to bring down ill-luck upon the house.
The host will be too polite to ask him to desist from so
ominous a proceeding. But let the guest attempt to
wake a sleeping person, and an inmate of the house will
at once raise a hand or make some other gesture to



check so dangerous an act ; for the " butterfly " spirit
{Leikpyd), the " psyche " that inhabits the body as a
soul, takes advantaj^e of its owner being asleep to depart
temporarily and wander far afield in search of its affinity.
The separation of two spirits having affinity is always
the cause of grief and lamentation, as in the case of an
infant child and its dead mother, in whom the Leikpyd
are supposed to be united. When the spirit happens to
be frightened in any way {^Leikpyd ld7i the), a derange-
ment in the nervous system takes place and illness
results. If a sleeper be suddenly awakened whilst the
Leikpyd is momentarily far absent from the body, there
is great danger that it may not be able to effect its re-
entrance : hence any sleeping person suddenly awakened
runs the risk of becoming deranged and weak in in-
tellect. Composure or tranquillity of mind is supposed
to be due to strength on the part of the Leikpyd, whilst
discomposure is due to want of energy on its part. If a
Burman looks sheepish and put out when stating a
manifest falsehood, this discomposure is solely due to
the Leikpyd feeling fluttered for the moment.

The Burmese have quite a well-stocked mythological
menagerie of fabulous animals of all sorts and kinds, the
representations of which form prominent features in
wood carving, silver work, and the ornamentation in or
around pagodas, monasteries, and other sacred buildings.

One of the chief of these is a kind of sea-dragon [Nagd),
belonging to a race of animals inhabiting the first of the
lower celestial regions located under the rocks {Trikuta)
by which the sacred mountain i^Myinmo) is supported,
and the waters surrounding the world of men. Though
in form like a deadly spectacled and hooded snake, yet,
so far as many of their actions are concerned, they
appear to be more or less human. They can assume
the form of human beings, though one condition of their
doing so is that they must, under certain circumstances
reveal their identity. The five conditions under which

Online LibraryJohn NisbetBurma under British rule--and before; (Volume 2) → online text (page 16 of 41)