John Nisbet.

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

. (page 19 of 41)
Online LibraryJohn NisbetBurma under British rule--and before; (Volume 2) → online text (page 19 of 41)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

and sometimes at one sitting of about four hours : but
such details vary in accordance with many circumstances,
being, along with various other individual items, more
or less dependent on the degree of elaborateness of the
designs. After the operation has been concluded in-
flammation sets in, the thigh swells, and the muscles
become so rigid that lameness results. A Burmese lad,
whose thighs I have just examined, tells me that in his



case the operation was performed when he was fifteen
years of age, that it was done on three consecutive days,
and that he was a cripple for about twenty days after
that : but then the integral parts of the design all round
the thighs consist of tigers and fabulous flying animals
like winged lions, which are much simpler and less painful
than more elaborate designs, such as demons, dragons,
and the complete set of the signs of the zodiac. He has
one or two peacocks and fish above his hip joints, and
one or two demons and quails round his knees ; but the
various "fields" all round his thighs and elsewhere on
the tender skin are filled in with cats and flying animals.
The artist's charge for operating upon him was two
rupees, which does not seem an exorbitant price to
pay for an indestructible pair of skin-tight breeches of
beautiful figuring and indelible colouring.

In addition to this regulation adornment of the male
person, many other tattoo marks are often to be seen on
the chest, back, arms, and elsewhere. These are all
charms of one sort or another — love charms, invulnerable
charms, and the like — and they are usually tattooed in
vermilion. In the kingdom of Ava a black spot used to
be tattooed on the side of men who belonged to the King,
this "palace-mark" [Nanzd) being the Burmese equiva-
lent of our broad arrow.

Burmese girls are not tatooed, though among the
Chin hill tribes it was customary to tattoo with narrow
lines the whole of the faces of young girls so as to
render them less attractive to raiders, and to make them
recognizable among the reprisals made during successful
punitive incursions into the raiders' territory. Where-
ever the Chins have now settled away from the
frontier districts, as in Thayetmyo and Prome, this
practice is fast falling into disuse.

During their earliest years girls have hardly as good
a time as boys, for they are not allowed to take part
unrestrictedly in all the games, the paddling in the water,
and the other amusements into which their small brothers
enter with such keen relish. And then for them, too,
education does not mean shouting out easy lessons in
the monastery, or accompanying the priest on his daily



round for rice, and other light tasks sweetened by the
games and mild practical jokes indulged in within the
monastery grounds. In place of being introduced to the
good things contained in " the great basket of learning,"
girls gradually get initiated into the mysteries of spin-
ning, weaving, sewing, sweeping up the house, husking
and winnowing the rice, preparing the meals for the
household, and performing all the many duties and
drudgeries that fall to her lot in life.

After receiving her name when about a fortnight old,
the first great and real event in the life of a girl is the
ceremony of ear-boring {Nadwin Mingald), sometimes
performed as early as six or seven years of age, but
more commonly coinciding with the attainment of
puberty, when she is about twelve or thirteen years old.
This Mingaldpyu is the Burmese equivalent of the
ddbut. Until this ceremony has been celebrated it is
improper for the young girl to wear jewels of any kind,
or gold ornaments of high intrinsic value. Mingald is a
Pali word meaning " whatever is propitious, gives happi-
ness, or averts evil," which has come to be applied to any
religious ceremony. Hence the term Mingaldsaung
may be applied to any solemn ceremony, though it is
mainly applied to the marriage customs. The depreci-
ation which has taken place in this word during the
course of time can very well be illustrated in the fact
that the royal elephant was called Mingaldsidaw Sin
or " the elephant ridden by the blessed one."

As a matter of course, an occasion of this importance
necessitates a reference to the horoscope, to ascertain
when the most propitious moment arrives for puncturing
the lobes of the ears. The needles used for this purpose
are like very large sharp-pointed French nails, and are
invariably of silver among even the very poorest
classes, though always of gold, and often adorned with
jewels, in the houses of parents in better circumstances.
When the auspicious day and hour have been fixed, a
feast is prepared to which all relatives and friends are
invited in the usual manner, by means of sending round
small packets of tea, and music of one sort or another
is arranged for. Conversation and music while away



the time — the English proverb " time is money " would
not be intelligible in Burma — till the astrologer intimates
that the most auspicious moment has arrived, when the
two huge needles are forced through the soft lobes of
the ear by a professional ear-borer. During this oper-
ation the girl, whose nerves have by this time been
excited to a state of high tension, requires to be held
very forcibly by her female relatives in order to maintain
her in proper position, whilst her shrieks and screams
during the painful operation are more or less drowned by
the deafening music provided. Until the edges of the
wounds thus made heal up and cicatrise, the needles are
moved once or twice a day. When the wounds are
sufficiently healed, the needles are withdrawn, and the
holes are filled up with smooth round thin stalks of the
Nagye grass or of the inner stem of the elephant grass
{Saccharum spontaneuni), after which the process of
enlargement takes place. This is gradual and occupies
a long time, which may be easily understood when it is
known that the ordinary " ear cylinder " {Naddzmg) is
usually about an inch to an inch and a quarter long, and
from half to three-quarters of an inch in diameter. It is
somewhat larger at the ends than in the middle. Hollow
ear tubes of this sort made of coloured glass can be seen
in thousands in the bazaars ; but the orthodox kinds are
solid cylinders made of amber or some other less valu-
able material not of too heavy a nature. Of late years
the custom has become prevalent among the richer
classes of having gorgeous ear ornaments (Nagdt) of
diamonds and rubies set in gold, and joined with a screw
fixed from behind — just, in fact, like any enormous stud
or sleeve link in two pieces which might require screw-
ing together in place of being otherwise inserted into
position. But this is probably an innovation, and not
an old national ornament.

When once the needles have been withdrawn and the
original aperture has been filled up with small smooth
stalks of grass, one stalk more is added thereto day by
day until the opening in the lobe is large enough to
admit the full-sized ear cylinder.

Neither men nor women have any pockets in the light



cotton or silk clothing they wear ; hence the hole in the
lobe of the ear {Nadauk, Nadwhi) is very useful, when
not otherwise occupied, as a place for holding anything
like a half-smoked cheroot. In going along a country
cart-track or path a man or woman will often be seen
thus carrying the stump of a cheroot that is too good to
be thrown away yet. In fact, the ear-holes are much
more used for such a purpose than for opportunities ot
adornment; and, as might be expected, the holes are
therefore largest in the case of men belonging to the
working classes, like boatmen, fishermen, and such
others as labour with their short waistcloth tucked up
between their thighs. When the perforations are so
large as to be unsightly, they are called Napet ; but it is
very seldom that one sees the lobes actually torn.
From such a man I once purchased in Bhamo a large
ear cylinder, consisting of a written charm rolled up in
leaves and encased in the thin cuticle of a bamboo
spathe, measuring about two inches in length, and so
large in diameter as to be only with difficulty spanned
between the thumb and forefinger. It is very much
more of a curiosity than of an ornament, and it is
desirable to wash one's hands after admiring it. As it
is the biggest ear cylinder I have ever seen in use, I
was as much pleased at getting it as its possessor was
amused at my wishing to have it. And, after all, one
cannot expect very much in the way of even a second-
hand ear ornament for two annas (twopence), especially
with the latent possibilities of a potent charm thrown
into the bargain.

Until about thirteen years of age young girls wear
the hair of the head tied stiff like a bunch of quills,
which gives the name [Kyettaungsi) to this inelegant
fashion. Till then her education has been confined
mainly to household duties, and to repartee and gossiping
with other young girls when they go in the late afternoon
to the village well to bathe there, and also bring
back water for the household requirements. When
towards sundown one meets a troupe of young girls
and women coming back in Indian file from the well
or the village stream, each carrying a chatty or round



earthern jar of water poised on her head, and can,
unnoticed, hear their merry unconcerned laugh and
talk, one cannot help thinking that they must be as
happy as the day is long. Let them catch sight of the
stranger, however, and more often than not they assume
a grave and preoccupied air as if the cares of life had
already begun to sit heavily on them.

In jungle villages and remote hamlets the Burmese
girl simply grows up, gets courted, and enters through
the gates of matrimony into womanhood. But in all the
larger villages, and in the towns, there is a distinct and
definite sort of finishing course given to the education
she has hitherto been allowed to grope her way into.
This completion of her education takes place in the
bazaar or market hall of her native place. Here, to-
wards the age of seventeen or eighteen, she goes and
for at least about a year keeps a stall — Ze yaung the,
she " sells bazaar " — in whatever portion of the market
hall her parents can afford to set her up. Those who
are best endowed are naturally to be found in the silk
bazaar; but, in whichever department she operates, the ex-
perience acquired very soon sharpens her naturally keen
mercantile instincts and business capacity, and makes
her mentally a much readier reckoner than her brothers
who have been taught in the monastery to write down and
repeat the multiplication table up to nine times nine. A
Burmese girl of nineteen or twenty is consequently much
smarter at business than a lad of the same age ; and she
undoubtedly maintains all through life the advantage thus
won. Hence she naturally rules the roost, and gives the
advice which is usually accepted in business transactions,
though often clever enough (and wise enough) not to
make this too apparent.

It is in the bazaar that the European will have by
far the best opportunity of forming his opinion of the
Burmese girl ; and a high opinion it is bound to be.
She has a grace and freedom of manner entirely devoid
of anything like forwardness or " bad form," which cannot
fail to charm, though her face be not fair or, judged by
western standards, possessed of even the slightest claims
to beauty. Though not witty, yet she has a keen sense



of humour ; she can take a joke and give a quid pro quo
without being in any way offended or offensive. For
example, in once taking my wife, then still a young bride,
through the silk bazaar in Toungoo some years ago, we
stopped and talked with a girl at one of the stalls ; and in
the course of conversation I happened unwittingly to make
some remark which caused a slight laugh at the latter's
expense. She said nothing, but smiled, took two or three
long whiffs at her big green cheroot, and then, pointing
with her chin to my wife — a habit the Burmese have in
place of indicating with the finger, which is considered
extremely unrefined — quietly asked, '* Who is that you
have with you ? It's your daughter, I suppose .'* " I
might have promptly replied, " Oh, no ! my grand-
daughter " ; but she had scored the point before I had
thought of this retort.

Burmese girls may perhaps be no vainer than the fair
daughters of western and more civilized nations.
Whether this be so or not, however, they certainly take
fewer pains to conceal their vanity and their love of
making themselves as attractive as possible. As one
walks through the silk bazaar, where the prettiest and
the best dressed girls will almost always be seen, these
damsels will be found in the intervals of custom sitting
in front of a small tilted up mirror and engaged in
beautifying themselves by rubbing in Tkandtka, a cos-
metic formed of the finely ground bark and root of
the Thandt tree {Murray a exotica). This is rubbed
down into a fine impalpable powder with water on a
close-grained sandstone platter with a groove running
all round like that on a solitaire board. This cosmetic
can be obtained in another part of the bazaar ready
made in the form of small pellets requiring only to be
dissolved in water to be ready for use ; but a belle prefers
to prepare the cosmetic for herself. When sufficient
Thandtka has been rubbed up, it is smeared over the
whole of the face from ear to ear and from the roots of
the hair on the forehead down to the throat, then allowed
to dry and remain thus for about an hour. During this
time the damsel is en ddshabille, and her face is not a
pleasing object to the eye, as the daubing makes her look



exactly as if her olive skin had been coarsely and badly
washed over with thin yellowish straw or cream-coloured
distemper, for lightness of colour is considered a special
kind of beauty among the olive-brown Burmese. In
Upper Burma, where the people are generally somewhat
darker skinned than in Lower Burma, a whiter cosmetic
called Lwinhmun is made from rice, but its use is not
very extensive.

Whilst the Thandtka is being allowed to dry in, the
fair maid will proceed to do her hair. As smoking is
inconvenient during this operation she may perhaps first
of all pull over her Kunit or lacquered betel box, with its
delicate designs in yellow, brown, red, green, and black,
and carefully prepare a quid. First of all she clips off
a piece of areca nut with cutting shears ; then selects a
leaf of the betel vine, puts a touch of white lime or of
red, or of both on it, adds a sprig of tobacco, folds up all
within the leaf and inserts the quid in its complete state
(Ktmban, Kuntayd) into her mouth. When this prelim-
inary has been arranged, she proceeds to business.

Taking up her big semicircular comb {^Bi), made of the
wood of the tree from which the Thandtka is ground, she
lets down the long coils of her hair and combs it out
freely. Whilst doing this she lays down quite openly
the switch (Sastt) used to supplement her own locks when
these are not sufficient to form an imposing top-knot
{Sadtcn). For this purpose girls may either treasure up
their own hair as it comes out, or they may annex and
utilize the long hair shorn from their brother's head when
he enters the monastery as an acolyte, or they may wear
false hair obtained from some one else. Both males and
females have long coarse jet-black hair, which is in each
case tied up in a top-knot, but the coils of which are
differently arranged. Its length may be judged of by
the fact that the measurement of it is made in cubits, and
spans, and finger breadths. Whilst thus engaged the
damsel from time to time interrupts her occupation to
eject the red-stained saliva drawn into her mouth by the
mastication of the betel quid. This is by no means what
one would class among celestial manners, though it is
mentioned as being eminently characteristic ; for as you



slowly approach the stall of the belle en deshabille the
chances are rather in favour of than against her going
through this objectionable ceremony in order to show-
how unconcerned she is and how oblivious of your
approach. Her long black hair, glossy and lustrous with
cocoa-nut oil, having been duly combed, coiled, and
secured with a long skewerlike hairpin, she now thinks
about the next portion of her toilet, the enamelling or
polishing of her face after a sufficient time has passed to
allow the cosmetic to dry thoroughly.

Before beginning this she will probably open some
larger betel box or a drawer, from which she will select
a cheroot to enjoy now that the quid of betel has been
quite disposed of. Here she has a choice of either of
two kinds of cheroot or " rolled tobacco " {Seleik). If
in the ordinary form and made entirely of tobacco leaf, it
is distinctively called a " roll of strong (pure) tobacco "
{Sepyinleik) ; while if it is one of the large variety, face-
tiously called " Burmese cigarettes " by Anglo- Burmans,
it is a "roll of light tobacco" [Sepawleik). The latter
are about seven to eight inches long, and vary from, say,
half an inch in diameter at the small end to about an inch
and a quarter at the large end. This class of Burmese
cheroot is made up of chopped tobacco-leaves, pieces of
the stem of the tobacco plant, and pieces of chopped wood,
that of the Okhne {Strebhts asper) being most frequently
used. These ingredients, after being sprinkled with a
solution of jaggery or with tamarind syrup, are rolled up
in a wrapper which varies in nature in different parts of
the country. Most commonly this outer casing consists
of the green leaves of bambwe {Carey a arborea) and
thanat {Cordia myxa\ or else of the soft white sheaths
of the Pyaungbtt or maize {Zea 7nays).

Havinof liahted her cheroot and settled herself com-
fortably, the girl proceeds to arrange her mirror in front
of her and begins to enamel or burnish her face with the
middle finger of the right hand. This polishing (PttlgyiJi)
is a very much more delicate and lengthy operation than
the mere smearing or laying on of the cosmetic in the
first instance. For at least an hour — one is almost
tempted to say for hours — she sits working in the



Thandtka enamel evenly, delicately, and smoothly till the
skin assumes a pale, soft, pliant and by no means unpleas-
ing appearance. Whilst this long operation is being
slowly developed the girl pauses from time to time and
examines herself critically in her mirror to see if the
enamel is being worked in uniformly and satisfactorily
into the skin ; and no beauty throughout Europe or
America can well enjoy more gratification from beholding
her face, figure, and dress in the largest and costliest of
pier-glasses than the Burmese belle probably derives from
her little looking glass of about twelve or fifteen inches
by eight or ten inches, and often much less. At any
rate such is the conclusion that the ordinary male creature
must arrive at, judging from the frequency of the critical
examinations of the fair face and the length of time
devoted to admiring herself.

When this enamelling process has been satisfactorily
concluded, the eyebrows are carefully pencilled and made
to stand out sharply from the beautified skin, and then
the toilet is completed by arranging coquettishly some
seasonable flower — a rose, for choice — in the dark lus-
trous hair. No headdress is worn, merely a natural or
artificial flower being inserted into the raven-black mass
of hair. When walking abroad, however, a kerchief
(Pawd) like a man's silk turban is held in the hand or
thrown lightly across one shoulder, to give a sort of
finish to the costume. A bunch of keys is often tied to
one corner of this kerchief, and a very mild form of vanity
is perhaps excusable in parading more keys in this way
than the fair damsel has drawers or boxes to lock up.

Having thus completed one of the serious duties of life
— for an elaborate toilet of this sort can only be made once
every two or three days, leaving all special occasions out
of consideration — she is able to light another cheroot
and converse with the neighbouring stallkeepers, or with
strollers passing through the bazaar, whilst she sits or
lies down awaiting the receipt of custom. If a passer-by
halt for a moment and speak to her, he will be sure of
a civil and courteous reception. If he tells her she is a
pretty girl, she will probably make a contemptuous ges-
ture, like turning up her nose. Nay, if he pay her the



greatest of compliments and say, " You are very beau-
tiful, and you walk like an elephant," she will most likely
only reply " Heh ! " in a contemptuous fashion, although
the compliment may be quite in accordance with her own
estimate of herself. Strange that the action of an ele-
phant should be the type of graceful motion ! But it is
difficult to walk in, or even to keep on the feet, loose san-
dals fastened only with thongs from the top to the sides,
passing in between the big toe and that adjoining it :
and if one walks behind elephants, as I have done in
Burma for many hundreds of weary miles, one cannot
fail to perceive a regularity and imposing solidity about
the motion of their hind legs, though it does not exactly
amount to our ideal of graceful movement.

If one have sufficient assurance to inform the Burmese
belle that she is possessed of all the five good bodily
qualities {Pyinsa Kalidna ; softness of flesh, goodness of
bones, smoothness of skin, beautiful hair, and youthful-
ness), and that her eyes are bright as diamonds, her lips
red as rubies, and her teeth white as pearls, she would
probably sneer out the same contemptuous monosyllable,
although perhaps possessed of vanity enough to be con-
scious of fully meriting the compliments. But compli-
ments of this effusive nature, paid cormn publico, are apt to
be seriously misinterpreted, and to set tongues wagging.
The bazaar is the home of gossip, and there are ever
busybodies, aptly termed "bell-clappers" {Kalauksan),
who revel in scandal. No young Burman who is fond
of a girl keeping a stall in the bazaar would go and
pay her marked attention of this sort in broad daylight.
All love affairs are conducted in strict accordance with
ancient usage and custom. The wooer pays court to his
inamorata in the evening, at "the time when youths
go courting" (Lubyokletke ackein), which, being inter-
preted, means from about eight to ten o'clock at night.
It terminates with the " return of the young lads " (Nalin-
byan) corresponding to about ten p.m. It is only then
that it is considered correct for the swain to address the
damsel in the " language of courtship " [Lubyo sagd).

In every small village, and in each quarter of the
larger villages or the towns, the "young single men"

VOL. II. 209 p


(Lubyo) band themselves under the leadership of a
" head bachelor " {Lzibyogaung), who exerts an authority
over them very much resembling that possessed by the
captains of the bands of apprentices in the days of old
London, centuries ago. Indeed, there are many other
things noticeable in the towns of Burma that also
remind one somewhat of the condition of old English
towns in days long since gone by, — as, for example, the
way in which the houses of those following different
occupations are all grouped together in separate streets
or quarters of the town. Thus you will find a " black-
smiths' row," a "dyers' row," or a "carpenters' row,"
and so forth, all branching off from the Lanmaddw or
main road and leading to the minor thoroughfares where
those following one and the same trade or occupation
are to be found congregated together.

In the evening, after the short tropical twilight has
quite faded away, and "the time when, meeting, two
brothers can barely recognize each other " has deepened
into the darkness in which " one can scarcely see the in-
terstices between his fingers," if the hand be held up
before the eyes, the "time of courting" comes round.
Before then the lads under each Lubyogaung have
arrived at the meeting-place previously fixed on, and the
mode of spending the evening is discussed.

As they go the round of the village or quarter of the
town, the lads drop off either singly or in twos or threes,
and the lover makes some sort of sign before venturing up
into the house where his beloved resides. In some parts

Online LibraryJohn NisbetBurma under British rule--and before; (Volume 2) → online text (page 19 of 41)