John Nisbet.

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

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the Nagd cannot hide their identity are when they are
in confinement, when they are changing their skin, when
they are asleep, when they are living by themselves, and
when they are in sexual intercourse. They are there-



fore more than spirits [Nat), being possessed of some-
what demi-godlike powers. They are represented as
being usually favourable to Buddha and his adherents,
though they become transformed into dangerous enemies
when once their wrath is aroused. The interesting^ mud-
volcanoes occurring in the petroleum districts of Minbu
in Upper Burma and on the island of Ramri off the coast
of Arakan are due to the scratching and rolling about of
JSFagd, while the Milky Way is one of the paths along
which they proceed across the starry firmament when
travelling to distant regions. On the coffins of deceased
priests a murex shell in the shape of an ornamental
representation of a dragon's head is placed by way of

Another important monster is a red-eyed, long-toothed
ghoul {Bilu), which devours human flesh and is pos-
sessed of various kinds of magical power, such as assum-
ing any form it likes. It haunts the burial grounds and
crematory places, and watches for its prey in the lonely
recesses of the jungle. Sometimes, when one is asleep,
a Bilu comes and sits on one's chest; and this is the true
cause of nightmare.

Of the Burmese lion {Chinthe) there are four varieties.
One {Tena) resembles a speckled cow in appearance,
and eats grass and herbage ; a second [Kala] resembles
a black cow, and is more or less carnivorous ; a third
[Pandu) is in colour like a faded leaf, and is purely
carnivorous; while the fourth, "the king of wild animals,"
{Ketkaraza) is also carnivorous. The mouth and the
tip of the tail of the latter are red, and from its head
three tawny lines extend down its back. Its mane and
the bristles covering its body are said to be worth a
lakh of rupees. The Chinthe is the emblem of fearless-
ness and intrepidity. For an army to retreat " like a
Chinth^^' showing a bold front to the enemy, is an
exploit ranking next to a victory. This leogryph is the
emblem on Burmese gold coins ; and representations of
it are to be found around most pagodas, more especially
at the entrances. Wherever you find a flight of steps
leading to any sacred edifice you will be almost certain
to find Chinthe seated as griffins keeping watch and

VOL. II. 177 N


ward on either side of the staircase, somewhat faintly
suggestive of the unimpressionable Sphinx. These
leogryphs are usually highly coloured about the face,
with lines picked out in red, yellow, green, and blue,
while quaintness of effect is heightened by their not
infrequently having large balls of coloured glass standing
out prominently as their eyeballs.

Another fabulous monster is the fish N gay in, four of
wiiich sustain the earth on their shoulders. Earth-
quakes result whenever one or other of these four
happens to change its position.

There are several kinds of mythical elephants. One
of the most famous of these is the three-headed elephant
(Erawun) upon which the chief of the evil spirits
{Man Nat) is accustomed to ride. Another is the
strongest and most excellent of elephants [Sadddn Sin),
whose strength is said to be equal to that of a thousand
millions of men. This animal figures very frequently in
pictures illustrative of the sacred writings (Zat) relating
to the life of Gaudama, the Buddh. A Buddh is a
match for ten of such elephants, hence his fighting power
is something very formidable. During a previous stage
of existence, Gaudama, then a Bodisat, appeared in
the form of a Sadddn elephant. One of the titles of
the King of Burma was "lord of the white elephant
Sadddnl' thereby implying that the slightly albino
elephant maintained by his Majesty was a true Sadddn.

Another fabulous animal {Keinnara) has the body of a
bird and the face of a human being. It inhabits the
innermost recesses of the Himalayan mountains. Both
male and female are said to be found, the latter
{Kei7inari) being as nearly as possible a " harpy."

Instead of the man in the moon the Burmans see a
hare, one of the sacred animals of Buddhism ; while the
peacock, their national emblem, is to be found in the
sun. One mode of asserting undying affection between
lovers is to swear to be faithful and fond so long as the
hare is to be seen in the moon.

For the protection of large boats an image of a
mermaid is placed at the prow as a figurehead, not for
mere ornamentation, but for the special purpose of



protection against the attack of any kind of monster.
There are two of these protective kinds of mermaids,
one having hair hanging down her back ( Yethu), and the
other (Cku) without such appendage. The latter
affords the better protection. Before casting off from
the moorings propitiatory offerings are made to the great
spirit [Skingyi Nat) in order that he may be favourably
inclined to the enterprise embarked upon. A bunch of
plantains or a wisp of leaves is also often tied to the
front part of a boat or a cart with the same intention.
Before a young lad sets out on any journey he " begs
pardon" of his parents, who wish him good luck by
saying " May you not come in contact with stumbling-
blocks or be caught by thorns," — a response which is
intelligible enough to those who have travelled over the
rough jungle tracks in most parts of Burma. For the
warding off of evil from his kingdom, there was a regular
ritual of certain superstitious ceremonies prescribed for
the use of the King of Burma.

Besides resulting from being overlooked by some
witch or ill-wisher curses may take effect through having
committed perjury, or having transgressed against
parents in some unworthy manner, or having shown
ingratitude to teachers or marked disrespect to elders.
But to corroborate his words the Burman is not at all
backward in calling down imprecations upon his own
head if what he states be untrue. One of the direst of
these is, " Let me be carried off by cholera if what I say
is not true," when one wishes to remove all doubt as to
veracity. Another form of obtaining a guarantee is to
ask, " Would you dare to dive into the water on this
statement ? " To clinch some argument impulsively
a not uncommon expression is, "If what I say be not
true, may my head be split by lightning into eight
pieces," or else, " May I burn away like a cheroot." The
most common formula for backing up one's statement is,
however, the simple imprecation, " May I be struck by
lightning if I am not telling the truth." If you hear a
statement you do not quite believe and you receive such
confirmation of its correctness, you may in the great
majority of cases believe the statement ; for the Burman,



though he has no particular prejudice in favour of truth,
is not yet such an accompHshed and hereditary Har
as many of the natives of India, among whom the
Chittagonian BengaH is perhaps the archhar. A similar
test of veracity is that implied in the query, " Will you
venture to undergo one of the four ordeals to prove the
truth of what you say ? " these four ordeals consisting in
the rate of the burning of a candle, the chewing and
swallowing of a given quantity of rice in a given time,
the diving under water, and the thrusting of a finger
into molten lead, as previously described (vol. i., page 177).

The worst imprecation of all is, "If I should act
falsely, may all the Buddhs, who are numberless as the
grains of sand in the Ganges, be unable to release
me from the miseries of successive stages of existence."
The devout Buddhist must be very sure of himself
before he ventures to back up any statement by the
utterance of that awful imprecation : for the Buddhist
hell [Ngaye) consists of eight infernal regions, concerning
all the torments and miseries of which Buddha declared
that it would take more than a hundred thousand years
to give a full description. On the walls of some of the
buildings in the vicinity of the celebrated Arakan
pagoda i^Mahamyatinuni) situated at the southern end of
Mandalay, there is a blood-curdling collection of paintings
illustrative of some of the torments of the damned, many
of which it would be impossible to write about.

The infernal regions consist of eight stages or stories,
each of which is encompassed by sixteen inner hells.
Escape from any of these hells is impossible, as they are
all situated deep down in the bowels of the earth.


Chapter VII


IN the Burmese language the term for a human being
{Lti) comprises not only all men, women, and
children, but also the spirits {Nal) inhabiting the six
lower celestial regions and the Brahma of the twenty
higher celestial abodes. In every-day parlance, how-
ever, the term is regarded as applicable only to the
layman, and divisible specifically into male \Yaukya^
and female [Meimma). Despite the facts that Burmese
Buddhism makes no provision for the elementary edu-
cation of girls, and that, whenever any woman recites
her pious formulae at any pagoda or other sacred shrine,
she invariably prays she may be born again as a male
during the next state of existence, — in order to have this
essential qualification for attaining a higher future status
in the ladder of life, — yet there is far more equality be-
tween the sexes than among other eastern races, except
perhaps the closely related Siamese and the Japanese.
Indeed, in many respects the women of Burma enjoy a
freedom and independence far ahead of what as yet pre-
vails among western nations.

In minor matters the wife wisely gives way. When
going from village to village, for example, she follows
at a pace or two behind her lord and master. At open-
air theatrical entertainments she sits behind him, and
even during the family meal she sees that the men have
been attended to before she disposes herself to begin
eating. But to call a woman " the weaker vessel "
would be indeed a misnomer. She rules the household,
often with a rod of iron. The wit and the general in-
telligence of Burmese women are decidedly above the



average of those of men. Their capacity for petty trade,
and even for concerns of greater magnitude, is so well
recognized that the Burman would perhaps just about
as soon think of committing himself to any undertaking
without duly consulting the soothsayer as to the pro-
pitiousness of any given day as of embarking upon the
enterprise without the knowledge and consent of his
better half. So much is this the case, that in 1891 the
Local Government of Burma had to institute inquiries as
to the extent to which the wives of Burmese officials used
or abused their position for purposes of trade.

Even officially the wife will act for her husband during
his absence in case of emergency. Thus, in 1885, when
troublous times set in throughout Lower Burma, as well
as in the conquered but not yet annexed kingdom of
Ava, the wife of a subordinate magistrate ordered out the
police and gave all necessary instructions for the routing
of dacoits who had suddenly appeared in a neighbouring
locality whilst her husband was pursuing them in a
different direction. And many such examples of the
capacity of women for action might easily be given.

Notwithstanding her talent for business and her ad-
ministrative ability, however, it must still be recollected
that a woman is one of the four things which cannot be
trusted, the other three being a thief, the bough of a
tree, and a ruler. Under the Laws of Manu, power is
given to the husband to correct the wife by chastise-
ment, — a procedure seldom adopted. Indeed, it is very
often the other way, the hen-pecked husband being, as
Burmese and Germans alike term the status, " under the
slipper" of the exacting wife. To be "food for the san-
dal " {Pandisa) is a not infrequent term of reproach used
by women towards men.

Some years ago (1889) a case of wife beating came
on for trial before a Burmese subdivisional magistrate
in the Toungoo district, who recorded in his judgment
that the accused was guilty of too great presumption on
his legal prerogative in beating his wife with a thick
stick, and that though it was laid down in the laws of
Manu that chastisement might be given, yet it should
be confined to correction with a thin cane, for example.



It must have surprised this worthy expounder of the law
to find that the Judicial Commissioner had come across
the case and had written a memorandum on it, in which
it was pointed out, for future guidance, that {autre teinps,
autres mceurs) under British rule not even correction with
a small stick or cane was permissible.

Among Burmese women barrenness is a reproach, and
the term "barren woman" [Amyzimna) is one of disre-
spect and derision. To have but one child seems only
little better, for the " one-egg- woman " {Utalonnia) is
also held in scant esteem. To be prolific is to be
honoured. Those remaining unmarried after attaining
marriageable age are also disrespectfully called Haing,
which literally means a full-grown male elephant with
only one small tusk.

Burmese women believe, and assert, that they can
foretell the sex of the child which may be in their womb.
If manipulation shows that the foetus is harder and
heavier on the right side than on the left, the infant
will be a boy ; but if these indications are found stronger
on the left side, it will be a girl. Even if such predic-
tions do not always come true, no matter : the above is
still held to be the general rule.

If a woman at all advanced in pregnancy dies, the
foetus is cut out from the womb and buried secretly, so
as to be out of the reach of magic men, who would
exhume it and work it up into charmed medicine.
Otherwise the belief is that in a future state of existence
the destinies of the husband and the wife would again
bring them together with the same consequence to the
woman and to the child she has conceived. When a
child is produced stillborn, a piece of iron is placed on
the body before it is wrapped in the swathing bands
forming its shroud, and the formula is repeated, " Till
this iron becomes soft as cotton, enter not again into thy
mother's womb." If both mother and infant die during
childbirth, they are each buried separately. Should the
child remain alive, however, a wise woman, " the wife (or
the daughter) of a Nat'' [Natgaddw or Natthami) is
called in, with a view to winning back to the babe its
soul, psyche, or "butterfly" {Leikpyd), which is sup-



posed to have gone off in company with that of the dead
mother. Unless this be charmed back, the babe must
either die or else grow up in idiocy. The wise woman,
having placed a morsel of cotton gossamer on a tiny
piece of looking-glass laid near the corpse, holds a spot-
less bit of cloth below the mirror, and then with weird
words entreats the dead mother not to take away with
her the soul of her child, but to restore it to the earthly
clay. When at length, wafted by any chance breath
of wind, the gossamer falls into the outstretched cloth
below, it is carried gently and laid on the infant's breast,
accompanied by soft, soothing words and tender phrases.
The Burmese birth customs are savage and barbarous
in the extreme. Nowhere in the world can maternity
have greater penalties to pay than in Burma. Even the
very name for a midwife, "she who pulls the womb"
( Wunswe), or more politely, " she who presses with the
hand " i^LetthS), is gruesomely suggestive of heroic and
drastic methods of treatment. On the birth of the child
the mother is at once smeared all over with powdered
turmeric {JVanwin), in order to correct the humours of
the body and to counteract those of malign influence.
This correction of the humours by means of turmeric
lasts for seven days, during the whole of which period
the miserable young mother undergoes a process of
roasting. All ventilation of the chamber is stopped,
and the air is maintained at a stifling temperature by
means of wood fires in which bricks are also made
incandescent. The kinds of wood specially favoured
for this particular purpose are that of a creeper called Bein,
and also that of Palan {Ba^ihinia raceniosa) and Ma?igyi
{Strobilantkes fiaccidifolius). But in addition to exposure
to the high temperature caused by this fire, the poor
patient is heaped over with thick clothes and warm
coverings of every possible sort, while from time to
time she is made to inhale the smoke of a burning
branch of black aniseed {Sainomiet : Nigella sativa),
and to take draughts of a medicinal infusion [Seinse)
often even mixed with ardent spirits. On the third
day, a change of blood is supposed to take place, and
perfect quiet is enjoined within the house ; but the



roasting process, the "pit of fire" {Mzdwin), lasts for
seven days. After this firebath follows the festival
i^Kinbontai) during which the infant and the hands of
the guests are washed in a decoction of the pods of the
soap acacia [Kinbon : Modecca trilobata). On the
seventh day after the birth of the child the midwife
boils the fruit of this creeper and mixes it with seven
kinds of Tayaw (a species of Grewia), with which infusion
the body, and more particularly the head, of the infant
is washed, and the hands of the assembled relatives or
guests are rinsed. When this ceremony has been per-
formed the midwife takes up the child in a white cloth
and presents it to the mother, whilst all join in wishing
good luck to the babe.

On the same seventh day, the period of the roasting
of the young mother is at an end, and she is then given
a steam bath by being made to sit for an hour over a
pot of boiling water into which leaves of tamarind,
thanap {Coi'dia rnyxd) and grass have been thrown, and
which is enclosed by mats covered with blankets.
Immediately upon this follows a cold bath, and the
birth ceremonies are concluded. The mother again
takes to her bed, and the newly washed infant is put
to the breast. In order to stimulate the powers of
lactation, a decoction of "bitter curry" {Henkd) is
made of the leaves of Kyanban [Saccharum qffici?iarzmi),
Danthaloii [Morznga pterygospermd), pepper, salt, and
powdered fish. After these seven days' ceremonies
the mother is allowed to go about the ordinary house-
hold avocations, so soon as she has regained sufficient

When one considers the barbarity of this horrible
treatment, it really seems marvellous that the Burmese
are physically such a fine race as they undoubtedly
are. Each birth ceremony must take years off the life,
or at least off the reproductive age of women : and that
this is so, is borne out by the fact that the census of
1 89 1 shows the iaiter to vary among women between
fifteen to thirty-nine years of age.

No benefit that the British have bestowed upon
Burma can possibly be greater than that brought to



bear on the race by the Lady Dufferin Hospitals, where
the science of western civihzation is undermining the
pernicious influence of the crassly ignorant and extremely
superstitious "womb-pulling" midwives. The ameliora-
tion of the birth customs will, indeed, be one of the
greatest blessings which Britain has conferred on Burma.
It is impossible, without knowing these birth customs, to
estimate the true value of the facts that in 1898 twelve
Burmese women or girls qualified in midwifery and
sick-nursing, while other eighteen were undergoing a
course of study at the hospital. Nor, without this
knowledge, can one comprehend the significance of the
five good bodily qualities in a woman — hair like the
feathers of the peacock's tail, lips of bright red hue,
teeth of even growth and dazzling whiteness, skin of
regular unblemished colour, and that, though a woman
should bear twenty children, she may never look old nor
have a single gray hair, though living to loo years of age.

The navel string is buried ; and the correct idiom for
inquiring where any person's birthplace may happen to
have been is to ask, " Where was your navel string
buried ? " The caul of an infant is supposed to bring
good luck in the way of obtaining for its possessor the
favour of those set in authority over him.

About seven or eight days after the ceremony of
washing the child, its name is chosen. This ceremony
is called Gyothin Nanthinhmi, which literally means
" to name according to the planet {Gyo) and to the day
of the week on which one is born {^Nan)^ Great
importance is attached to each of those details, and in
Burmese time the day of the week upon which any
witness happened to have been born was usually
recorded in revenue proceedings. The eight planetary
or erratic celestial orbs are Taningaiiwd or Ne, the sun,
(Sunday) ; Taninld or La, the moon (Monday) ; Ingd or
Mars (Tuesday) ; Buddalm or Mercury (Wednesday) ;
KyathabadS or Jupiter (Thursday) ; Thankkyd or Venus
(Friday) ; SaiU or Saturn (Saturday) ; and Rahii, the
dark and malignant planet, which is only visible when
passing over the discs of the sun or the moon, thus
causing eclipses. As there are only seven days in the



week, Rahii is attached as a second planet to Wednes-
day, and it is supposed to rule only from midday to
midnight. These eight planets form the eight compart-
ments of the astrological house {Zadakwui) necessary
for casting the horoscope i^Zadapon) consulted in the
selection of the fortunate day and hour for all the
important occasions in life. The latter is thus formed
by the horoscope-caster : —

N.W. 1 N. I N.E.


(Eclipse planet)

Wednesday :

Midday to Midnight.
















Wednesday :

Midnight to Midday.









The four planets at the cardinal points, Venus, Mer-
cury, Jupiter and the Moon, exert a benign influence
over one's destiny, whilst the others, and more especially
the dark Rahti, are malign.

The manner in which the horoscope is consulted in
later life is extremely simple. The astrologer " versed
in the (Brahminical) Veda" {Bedm Sayd) having ascer-
tained the age of his client and the name of the day
upon which he was born, divides the former by eight.
Should the number be a multiple of eight, so that no
remainder is left, the planet presiding over the day of
birth gives the requisite sign {Nemeik), auspicious or
ominous as the case may be. Should, however, the
age not be a multiple of eight, but leave a remainder,
then the astrologer counts round the face of the horo-
scope, beginning at the day of birth, in the direction



of movement of the hands of a watch, and the planet
under which the last numeral brings him is that which
will exert its influence on the enterprise.

As great importance is attached to the horoscope, the
" record of the time and circumstances of one's birth "
(Nezwe) is carefully taken for astrological purposes, even
although the horoscope itself may perhaps not be drawn
up for three, or four, or more years after the child is

The circumstances attendant on birth are, of course,
of importance. Thus, the four most foolish kinds of
persons consist of those born at midnight, those born on
the last day of the lunar month, those born whilst the
sky is overcast with heavy rain clouds, and those born
in a dense forest. Darkness in the atmosphere at the
time of one's birth is therefore, according to Burmese
notions, very closely connected with dullness of intellect.

The ceremony of selecting a name for the child [Gyo-
thin Nanthin hmi) when it is about a fortnight old is
made the occasion of a festival as glorious and imposing
as the means of the parents will allow. Relatives,
friends, neighbours, and the elders of the village or
quarter of the town are all invited to assemble near the
house. Here they sit down, describing a gaily dressed
circle, whose centre is formed by the mother and her child.
The father is seated near by, occupying, of course, a
somewhat less prominent position, and no doubt feeling
rather uncomfortable. After a short time spent by
all in general conversation, and as if in meditation
concerning the most suitable name for the child, one of
the elders of the party finally makes a suggestion as if it