John Nisbet.

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

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had just occurred to him as a very happy thought that
the infant should bear this, that, or the other name. The
matter is then discussed more or less thoroughly by all
the assembled guests, with the result that the suggestion
is adopted. But there is about as little chance in the
matter as at baptisms in the churches of the west. The
choice of the name is virtually made by the parents, and
communicated to the elder, who brings it out as a bright
suggestion. Even in the selection of a name by the
parents, however, there is less of free choice than obtains

1 88


among western nations, for the Gyothin Nanthin hmi
virtually prescribes that the name shall so be selected
that one of the letters proper to the day of the week
shall form the initial letter of the young child's name.
The letters proper to each day represent the natural
grouping of the consonants in the Burmese alphabet, and
are as follows : —

For Wednesday : _y, r, I, w (liquids)
„ Thursday : /, /', b, b\ in (labi-
„ Friday : ///, h (sibilants)

For Sunday : a (chief vowel)
„ Monday : k, k\ g, g', ng (gut-
„ Tuesday : s, s\ z, z\ ny (pala-

For Saturday : /, /', d, d' n (dentals)

Thus boys might respectively be called Maung An,
Maung Gauk, Maung Saung, Maung Lauk, Maung
Bauk, Maung Meik, Maung Than, or Maung Talk, and
girls Ma At, Ma Gyi, Ma Shwe Mi, Ma Yit, Ma Bwa,
Ma Thet, and Ma Taw, according as they happened to
be born on one or other of the days of the week. If
etymologically examined, the names themselves have
often the most curious meanings. Thus, Maung Gauk
is " Mr. Crooked," Maung Lauk means " Mr. Maggot,"
and Maung Than is "Mr. Iron"; while Ma At corre-
sponds to " Miss Needle," Ma Gyi to " Miss Big," Ma
Bwa to " Miss Grandmother," and Ma Thet to " Miss
Life." But, of course, these are no more curious than
such contrasts as are found among ourselves in names
like Long and Short, Sword and Gunn, White and
Black, Good and Best, Head and Foote, or Blood and

The above rule is, however, not absolutely rigid. Not
at all infrequently Burmese children are not now named
in this conventional manner ; but the rule is inviolable so
far as regards the names accorded to all noviciates for
the priesthood, when they discard their worldly name
and attain the Bwe or honorary title which is to distin-
guish them throughout their life in the monastery.
Thus the novice born on Sunday may become Ayein-
dama, the child of Monday Gunama^ he who entered
this world of transitoriness, misery, and unsubstantiality
on a Thursday Pandi, or on a Saturday Naka, and so



on, the names being Pali, and mostly taken from person-
ages mentioned in the ancient sacred writings. The
choice of such religious name rests with the abbot into
whose monastery the probationer is admitted. If the
novice continue steadfast in his renunciation of the
world he receives the honorific U before his priestly
name when the number of his lents justifies this distinc-
tion. As a matter of courtesy every monk is thus
addressed by a layman. Should the latter not know the
former's name, however, then the correct phrase is to
ask, " By what Bwe or honorific name is your reverence
known ^ "

It is not customary for children to be called by the
name the father bears or has once borne. The Burmese
believe, and perhaps they might be supported in this
belief by the experience of western nations, that more
love is naturally bestowed by the parent on the child
than is borne by the child towards the parent ; hence the
apothegm : —

Zu Me san se, Let village names be handed down,

Ywa Me sun se. But not a father's to a son.

In accordance with this rhyming couplet, when villagers
migrate to distant tracts and found new hamlets there,
these often bear the name of the village whence the colony
was planted ; but parents do not attempt to create family
names. In order to fix the identity of any individual it
is therefore necessary to describe him or her in all legal
proceedings, and such like, as, for example, Maung Ka
(or Ma Cho) the son (or daughter) of Maung Lugale —
which would literally mean Mr. Bitter (or Miss Sweet),
the son (or daughter) of Mr. Small Man (or Boy).

The names thus given during infancy do not neces-
sarily cling to the individual throughout the whole of his
or her lifetime. They may be changed as often as seems
desirable before the age of puberty, and no regard need
be paid on such subsequent occasions to the Gyothin or
Nanthin, of the planets and the natal circumstances.

The ceremony observed on such occasions is simplicity
itself. A red-lacquered, pagoda-like ceremonial dish
{Ok), similar to that used in making gifts of food, etc., to



priests, is sent round to all friends and relatives with
small packets of pickled tea [Leipet), and with the intima-
tion that Maung Sawka or Mr. Impudence desires in
future to be known as Maung Byaung or Mr. Honest, or
that Ma Nyo, Miss Brown, wishes henceforth to be called
Ma Pyu or Miss White. There are thus no affidavits to
be sworn, and no legal expenses to be borne. It might
even, in fact, sometimes become a source of profit, for
the presentation of small packages of pickled tea [Letpet-
tok), which accompany invitations to entertainments and
ceremonials of all descriptions, has gradually become the
equivalent of a polite request for a slight monetary
contribution towards the expenses of any feast to which
the invitation refers. The change of name, however,
does not rank as any suitable occasion for feasting or
entertainment. It is merely one of those minor details
of life which are of too trivial and commonplace a
nature to be marked out for any special celebration.
One result of this very common change is that the name
borne on any Zada or horoscope usually differs from that
by which the boy or girl is known after about twelve or
thirteen years of age.

The Burmese q\A on chanofingf her state and enterinof
into the bonds of matrimony, still retains her maiden
name, and remains as before Ma Pyaw, Miss or Mistress
Pleasant, the wife — literally "the woman" (^Meimma) —
of Maung Shwe Thet, Mr. Golden Life.

When the young babe has acquired his first name — or
first and last as the case may be — he is fully launched
upon life's troublous sea. He (or she) is made a great
deal of, and remains far longer as a suckling than is
perhaps the case with regard to the young of any other
nationality. It is not at all an infrequent sight in a
village to see a child being passed from one matron to
another to be nursed simply as a matter of ordinarily
polite attention. No doubt the comparative lateness of
weaning, which may be fixed at about two to two and a
half years on the average, helps to account for the
Burmese belief that the mother's milk only becomes
completely absorbed in the system at forty years of age
— a curious idea, for which no reason seems apparent.



As a matter of fact one child practically appears to be
suckled so long as lactation continues, or until displaced
by another, or till it shows loathing for the mother's milk:
Long before the child ceases to be a suckling he or she
has been introduced to the soothing influence of a
cheroot. It is also by no means an uncommon sight to see
a mother place her large lighted cheroot — consisting more
of leaves, dried wood, and molasses than of tobacco —
into the mouth of the child of about a year or fifteen
months of age, immediately on it being removed from
the breast ; and the suckling appears to derive equal
enjoyment from the cheroot as from its previous occu-
pation. At any rate it performs its new function with
the indifference common to all very small children when
engaged in any occupation that happily keeps them

The Burmese cradle [Pak^t) deserves a word of men-
tion. It consists of a small oblong crate or open box
swung sideways by long ropes from one of the roof-
beams or attached to the joists of the flooring of the
upper room. It has been asserted that this long, pendu-
lum-like motion is apt to affect the eyesight of the child ;
but, as a matter of fact, cross-eyedness does not appear
to be more common in Burma than elsewhere. On the
contrary, the supposed influence of the evil eye would
otherwise be less deeply impressed upon the superstitious.
Ophthalmia is, however, as in most hot countries, some-
what prevalent. The birth customs, coupled with the
extreme ignorance of the midwives, no doubt have a
good deal to do with the contraction of contagious con-
junctivis by children at the time of birth.

Until about seven years of age or more the little boys
and girls pass the time in one continuous round of play,
sometimes dressed very much like grown-up people and
sometimes in a state of either partial or complete nudity,
save on festivals and ceremonial occasions, when they are
decked out with such gay raiments as their parents can
afford. Then they form the exact counterparts in minia-
ture of grown-up men and women, and, conscious of
their finery, deport themselves with quaint gravity very
amusing in its staidness and self-consciousness. During



the long period of the rainy season, lasting from May till
October, a more or less amphibious life is led, and it is
simply a marvel to the European how the little naked
urchins continually wading about in the water manage to
escape malarious fever and dysentery, or to be ever free
from coughs and colds.

At about eight or nine years of age this happy time of
unrestricted nudity and amusement comes to an end, when
the boy goes to the monastery in order to struggle with
the difficulties of the Burmese equivalents to pothooks and
hangers. But even here, while acquiring the elements
of reading, writing, and elementary arithmetic, it is by
no means all work and no play, and " the little son of a
monastery" {Kyaung Thagale) or "disciple" {Tabyi)
has an uncommonly joyous and merry time of it. He
can revel in all sorts of games, and indulge his roguish
little propensities for mild, harmless practical joking upon
his fellow pupils, but never upon those wearing the yellow

What is there taught and the method of instruction
are equally simple. On entering the monastery the boy
is given a Parabaik, or coarse papier-mach6, slate-like,
black writing pad, though black wooden boards ( Tkinoon)
are now also largely used as slates, about a couple of
feet long and seven or eight inches broad, upon which
he draws with steatite or soapstone {Kingusan) the
characters representing the thirty-one consonants and
the ten vowels of which the Burmese alphabet consists.
These consonants are in a way very much more interest-
ing than the bald A B C of the Latin and Teutonic
languages, for nearly every one of them has a descriptive
definition. Thus the first letter, ** big K," is differentiated
from the second, " curved K," the " round S " from the
"rolled up S," the "pot-bellied T" from the "elephant
fetter T," the "deep P" from the "capped P," and both
of these from the " hump-backed B," and so on. The
acquisition of the alphabet is therefore not so unques-
tionably a mere effort of memory as in regard to many
other languages.

Group by group the various letters are drawn and
committed to memory, the whole class of boys repeating

VOL. II. 193 o


them for half an hour very early every morning, and then
again from about an hour to an hour and a half during
the course of every afternoon. After the alphabet has
been thoroughly mastered, an advance is made to the
most simple combinations of a vowel and a consonant,
and then by well considered gradations to words of
complex structure. This whole system, an excellent
method of attaining its purpose, is briefly comprised in
the "great basket of learning" (Thmbongyi). When
the Thinboiigyi has been assimilated, a gradual course
of instruction is given in the religious precepts and in
the simpler instructions relating to the tenets of Buddhism.
These are first of all recited by the Pongyi and repeated
many times in chorus by the small boys, who then write
them down, phrase by phrase, on the Parabaik, and con-
tinue repeating them in as loud a tone as they feel in-
clined to. When each lesson is ended, the Parabaik
are all simply sponged over and scrubbed in order to
remove the soapstone characters, and then hung out to
dry until required for the next lesson. They are blackened
by being occasionally rubbed with ground charcoal and
rice water. Of " the three R's," arithmetic is that
which is dealt with in the most elementary and perfunc-
tory manner, as the multiplication table {Kogyatmg, or
" nine combinations ") only ascends to nine times nine.
In exalted language the latter is referred to as the
Matmgma Sadeik, or "concubine's figures," because it
is supposed to have been introduced into the palace of
one of the kings by an inferior queen.

Noise is the unavoidable accompaniment of instruction
imparted in this manner. But the din and clatter of
tongues become intensified should any European visitor
venture into a monastery whilst lessons are going on.
The clamour becomes deafening, the urchins all raising
their voices, either to display their zeal in the acquisition
of learning or else from pure love of mischief. It some-
times happens that, when travelling in the jungle, the
European officer has to reside in a monastery or in
some rest-house immediately adjoining a monastery.
Woe betide him in the early morning ! Even if he sleep
through the sound of the Kaladet or call to morning,



noon, and afternoon lessons, — a gong made of a piece of
wood hollowed out and with a narrow longitudinal slit
along the top,^ — yet the Babel of shrill young voices very
soon arouses him from his slumbers. About four or half-
past four o'clock the little disciples begin their lessons by
the dim light of little oil-cruses ; and on such occasions
the tasks always seem to be begun earlier, to be con-
ducted in a higher, more ear-piercing tone of voice, and
to last much longer than under ordinary circumstances.

After having spent about a year and a half to two
years in the monastery, the small boy returns again to
his parents, until, at about twelve years of age, he tem-
porarily assumes the yellow robe of an acolyte (Shin,
Koyin), according to the ceremony already described
(page 148). Previous to this his ears are bored, the
procedure being similar to that adopted in the case of
girls, with whom it constitutes a great ceremonial, a
description of which will be found on page 201.

The Shinpyu, or ceremony of becoming an acolyte, is,
next to birth and death, by far the most important event
in any Burman's life. In comparison with this, such an
event as marriage is a mere incident of much less signifi-
cance. Until he has worn, even but for the short space of
seven days, the yellow robe of the Shin, has, in assuming
the garb of humility, entered upon a life of mendicant
poverty, and has, in renouncing the pomps and vanities of
this world, turned his back upon its snares and delusions,
the male Burmese ranks as but little, if anything, better
than a mere brute beast. Indeed, in some respects he
is worse off than the lower animals ; for he can incur
religious demerit {AktUhald) without having arrived at a
condition in which it is possible for him to gain merit
(Kutho) wherewith to augment the credit side of this
life's account — the supreme end and aim of the cold,
callous, selfish religious philosophy of Buddhism. Should
a boy die before the Shinpyu ceremony has been per-
formed, it is held by many of the stricter Buddhists that
such state of existence cannot be reckoned as human in

^ A very similar sort of gong was formerly used in the Harz Mountains
as a call to the charcoal burners on their meal of Kohler-suppe being



the transmigrations which must be made by his soul.
Hence, in becoming a Shin, the lad receives at one and
the same time his religious baptism and his confirmation
in the true religion of the venerable Buddha.

There is no corresponding all-important ceremony in
the life of a woman. She, poor thing, with a debit
balance on the closing of life's account, may become a
cat or a viper, unless her sins are sufficient to condemn
her to punishments of a more fiery and horrible nature ;
but she must sooner or later be born again as a man
before attaining, by any possibility, the status of a Nat
or superior being inhabiting one of the six lower celes-
tial regions. Hence the fervency with which, kneeling
reverentially before some pagoda or shrine, with her feet
tucked below her out of sight, and holding a flower in
her clasped hands, women of all ages invariably, along
with the usual pious formulae, express the special wish
that they may be born as male children during the next
state of existence. For them this means promotion to a
higher rung in the ladder of existence.

After arrival at the monastery and receipt of the eight
requisites for the new life of poverty and self-denial, the
Shin or Koyin continues his studies in the Buddhistic
sacred writings, and makes whatever advance in letters
the duration of his association with the learned Rahan
there may permit of.

The education thus obtainable from about seven or
eight to fourteen or fifteen years of age is certainly
narrow and circumscribed. But it has this advantage,
that the proportion of literates to illiterates is as 487
to 513, according to the census of 1891, which bears
very favourable comparison with the other nationalities
forming our Indian Empire. That only five women out
of every thousand, or one-half per cent., can be classed as
literate is a matter for regret, though the ratio is likely
to improve soon.

There can be no doubt that the influence of the priest-
hood is on the decrease, and that this must consequently
iead to a falling off in the number of boys sent to the
monasteries for elementary instruction. But this does
not necessarily imply retrogression, as the number of lay



schools and the attendance at them are rapidly increas-
ing. Recognizing the inevitable march of events in this
direction, some of the heads of monasteries in Upper
Burma, shortly after the annexation, sent out proba-
tioners to the outer world as laymen in order to qualify
in the normal schools of Government, and then, after
obtaining a teacher's certificate, return to resume the
yellow robe and become re-admitted into the Thinga as a
Rahan. Even as long as over twenty years ago a Pongyi
of Kyaikto, in the Shwegyin district of Tenasserim, had
himself taught surveying by the Assistant Commissioner
then stationed there, in order that he might train up
some of the cleverer among his pupils to acquire a suffi-
cient grasp of surveying to fit them for obtaining employ-
ment under Government as headmen of revenue circles/

At any time from the age of about ten to fifteen years
the boy may, according to his desire, subject himself to
the process of tattooing. There is no fixed time or age for
this event. It may take place before the lad becomes a
Shin or after he has left the monastery and returned to
the world as a layman. As it causes severe pain, it is
sometimes not carried out at all : but, in this case, the
boy has to endure very much the same sort of unenviable
reputation as a "softy" that an English schoolboy would
incur if he shunned cricket, football, and other games.
The name given to the operation is itself suggestive of
pain ; for it is called Togwin togyin, from td " to shoot
as pain," Kwin {gwin) " a field (or unit of the design),"
and td " to thrust or pierce." On the whole, however,
tattooing is not now nearly so almost universal as it was
previous to the British occupation of Burma ; and this
is merely one of the many minor signs showing how the
national customs and character are gradually changing
under our rule.

When a boy has become desirous of undergoing the
operation, and his parents think, or have ascertained

^ The PongyVs name I have forgotten, though I used to know him.
I may perhaps be allowed, however, to mention Lieutenant (now Colonel)
Thomas Morris Jenkins, M.S.C, as the Assistant Commissioner who
thus usefully employed his leisure time in a lonely small town, where he
was the only European.



from the horoscope, that the time is auspicious for the
event, the tattooer {Togwin Sayd), also more poHtely
termed the "artist in ink" (Hmingyaung Sayd) is called
in to operate. When complete, the whole " field " of
tattooing operations extends from the waist, on a level
with the navel, down to below the knees. Within these
limits all the skin is covered with figures of strange and
wonderful shapes. As the skin covering the lower ab-
domen and the interior of the thighs is not by any means
the toughest portion of the human hide, an idea can
easily be formed of the pain which must be caused to
the boy when the continuous pricking action of the style
or needle succeeds in thoroughly irritating the skin and
more acute irritation begins to be felt by the introduction
of the tattooing ink into the blood. So great is the pain
produced that, even although the boy may previously
have been drugged with opium, he sometimes yells and
screams as if he were being mercilessly thrashed. I
recollect once, when riding through the town of Paungde,
hearing such fearful yells, that I felt compelled to dis-
mount from my pony and proceed to the place of dis-
turbance, in order, as I thought, to perhaps succeed in
preventing murder. But the scene that met my gaze
was a circle of quiet and peaceful onlookers watching
with breathless interest the Hmingyaung Sayd's opera-
tions upon the hips of a boy of about nine or ten years
of age, who, with head bent low on the split-bamboo
floor and stern reared high, lay bellowing while his body
was becoming embellished with the national adornments
of manly beauty. And there is no doubt that when a
Burman girds up his loins for convenience at any kind of
bodily exercise or during laborious occupation — which
he does by raising his Kalanan, or narrower waist cloth
than the ordinary Paso, up to his loins, bringing the
front end through between his thighs, pulling it as tight
as convenient, and then tucking in the end behind into
the top of the portion fastened round the loins (Kadaung-
chaikthe) — the effect of the deep blue tattooing against
the dark olive-brown skin is distinctly ornamental. Thus
tattooed, his skin suggests but little of nakedness. And
more especially is this the case with the Shans, who



tattoo themselves completely from above the waist down
to below the ankles. All the great masters of the art of
tattooing are Shans, who surpass the Burmese both in
lightness of touch and in the beauty and clearness of the
designs drawn.

The " artist in ink " begins operations by first of all
drawing in the various Kwin, or independent portions of
the design, with a camel's hair pencil before proceeding to
render it indelible by the use of the tattooing instrument
{Sut), a style made of brass. It consists first of a thin,
solid, lower portion coming to a fine pencil point, divided
into four or eight tiny prickers, which form the business
end of the instrument, four of the slits being prolonged
about three inches up so as to hold the ink as in a draw-
pen, then of a hollow joint, from which the manipulation
takes place, and also of a heavier solid portion above
this, often weighted in order to enable the skin to be
lightly punctured. Bit by bit the design previously
drawn is executed, the style being guided between the
forefinger and thumb of the left hand, whilst the instru-
ment is rapidly raised up and down with a light dex-
trous play of the thumb and forefinger of the right hand.
The ink used is lampblack obtained from the smoke of
sessamum oil and diluted with water. On being intro-
duced below the skin it turns the same blue colour as
gunpowder when similarly used among soldiers, sailors,
and schoolboys.

With an eight-pronged tattooing instrument, work pro-
ceeds so rapidly that a person's whole body might be
covered with elaborate designs in a single day. Owing
to the pain produced, however, the usual operation from
the waist to the knees is only done in patches ; some-
times it is completed in three or four consecutive days,