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of the north of Upper Burma, and among the Karens,
the correct etiquette for young men in approaching their
sweethearts is to slap with the right hand upon the muscles
between the shoulder and the elbow of the left arm, the
hand and forearm of the latter being placed across the
body at right angles to the shoulder bone — which also
forms the challenge given at boxing matches. But it more
usually consists merely of a preliminary cough or two,
and such inquiry as " Heh, Ma Pyu ; are you at home ? "
On receiving the reply affirmative, he then asks, " May I
come up ? " and, permission having been given, ascends
the stairs to find the girl duly attired according to her



class and station so as fitly to receive the attentions of a
lover. Probably the first thing she will do will be to
pick out a good cheroot and light it, then hand it to him
to smoke. This is merely an ordinary polite attention.
Should the parents happen to be present when the lad
enters the main upper room, they remain for a short
time, and then one or other of the aged couple will say,
" I'm tired ; I think I'll go to bed" ; the other respond-
ing, " So am I ; I'll go too." Thereupon they withdraw
to their chamber, but not to sleep.

Left thus to themselves, the young couple indulge in
lovers' talk, and tell each other the old, sweet story as
eternal as time, as variable but enduring as human nature
itself, and coming to each human being but once, like the
springtime of the year. Nominally the lovers are left
quite to themselves, — " under four eyes," as the Germans
say ; but practically a considerable amount of chaperon-
age is exerted by the parents, seeing that the partition
separating them from the young couple consists only of
thin split bamboo matting or of half-inch planking at most
Besides that, there is usually a small aperture in the wall-
ing arranged " for the purpose of noticing," unobserved,
what goes on. From behind this coign of vantage the
mother chaperons her daughter, though the daughter is
quite well able to take care of herself. Here the old
people talk over whatever concerns them at the moment,
and very often criticise the wooer. If he be not, happily
for him, all eyes and ears for his sweetheart, he will
certainly be rather disconcerted at the free criticism be-
stowed upon him by the parents. His personal appear-
ance is freely discussed, and if his mouth be too large,
his nose too short and broad, or his eyes too angular, he
will have a very fair chance of becoming acquainted with
all such shortcomings. Or, if he comes nicely dressed,
in a bright new waistcloth and a gorgeous headdress of
silken kerchief bound round his raven-black hair, he may
hear himself referred to as a bit of a coxcomb, a Pattk-
ban— the gorgeous, but scentless and useless, yellowish-
red flower of the Butea froiidosa. His appearance and
manners, his parents, relatives, and friends, his present
and future position and prospects, and all matters con-



nected with him, may all be discussed, sotto voce, quite
loudly enough for him to hear every word that is said.
Perhaps his ears may tingle so much that he does not
stay very long : but if he is apt to be utterly disregardful
of time, his companions outside of the house will remind
him in due course by coughs and calls that they too have
young lady friends to pay attention to, and that his visit
is beginning to exhaust their patience.

A more public form of courting is the attention which
may quite correctly be paid to girls keeping stalls at a
night bazaar, held in the open air, where articles of food
of various descriptions are exposed for sale. There, by
the flickering flame of the oil lamp, the Lubyo may laugh
and chat and smoke with his particular friend without
compromising either himself or her. But the girls attend-
ing the night bazaar are not quite of the same social status
as those to be found keeping stalls in the better portion
of the big day bazaar.

At such lovers' interviews there is no kissing, no
"sniffing" or "smelling," as the term Nanthe literally
means ; for they are rather an undemonstrative race in
such matters. On the whole, there is likewise very little
impropriety, though the Burmese can hardly be called
very rigid moralists. When courting time is at an end,
and the hour of the return of the young men has arrived,
the Lubyo meet again in twos and threes and return to
their headquarters. Unless the attentions of all the lads
are confined to girls living in the same quarter, there is,
and must be, danger of friction between the Lubyo of
the quarter and the poachers. But in some places, and
especially in Rangoon, the gangs of lads are headed by
notoriously bad characters, who are a terror and a scourge
to the residents and a cause of anxiety to the police.

In theory, at least, and according to the ancient
rulings of the Laws of Manu, a girl or woman is merely
one item in a man's possessions, and primarily not the
principal item. In this one plainly sees traces of the
Brahminism against which Buddhism was a protest, and
upon which it was an improvement. According to
Manu, the lawgiver, the most serious offences were
those relating to the boundary marks of land, next came



those dealing with the life and limbs of the person of a
man, and thirdly, those affecting other property. First
in the latter class came offences connected with a wife,
who thus merely occupied the rank of the most highly
valued of all the articles of movable property. Accord-
ing to the Dammathdt the marriage tie can legally be
formed either by the parents giving the bride and bride-
groom to each other, or by obtaining the consent of the
respective parents by means of a go-between or match-
maker, called the "overcomer of difficulties" {Aungtke), or
else by mutual consent. Even in the latter case the tacit
consent of the parents is implied. The first mentioned
was most probably the usual mode of procedure adopted
with regard to youths and young maids ; the second was
perhaps customary when the contracting parties had
arrived nearer years of discretion ; and the third may
have been framed for the purpose of preventing scandal
when lovers, meeting with opposition, took matters into
their own hands. But elopement and maternity did not
preclude the parents, and more particularly the father,
from exercising their right as to the disposal of a
daughter in marriage, though failure to exercise this
authority legalized irregular marriages of this sort, if the
parents were cognizant of the abode of the runaway
couple. As a matter of fact, however, such primitive
legal restrictions have long since been demolished, and
the Burmese girl is practically just as free to exercise
her choice in the selection of a husband as is her sister
among the the western nations. When a love match
turns out unfortunate it is believed to have been
occasioned either through the destinies of the man and
woman being bound up together (Nabiisaba), or through
their having been co-offerers of religious gifts in a past
stage of existence ( Yesetba).

Whilst a young girl had no legal right to exercise in
the matter of taking a husband, the action of a widow or
a divorcee was uncontrollable. The wording of the law
is very clear on this point — " Let the woman who has
had a husband take the man of her choice ; but a woman
who has never had a husband may not take one without
the consent of her parents or guardians."



Throughout Burma early marriage is the rule, but
there is nothing corresponding to the child marriages so
common in India. Usually a Burmese lad marries before
he is twenty or twenty-one years of age, though formerly
the ceremony was more commonly delayed till about the
twenty-fourth or twenty-fifth year. When he had made
his choice of a sweetheart, he informed his parents, who
proceeded, accompanied by one or two of the elders of
the village or quarter of the town, to the house of the
girl's parents. Here, after receiving the contents of the
trayful of pickled tea or sweetmeats and fruits borne by
the mother on her head — ceremonial visits are never
made empty handed — and talking about anything except
what was the object of the visit, the proposal was suggested
that the young man should be made free of the house.
If acquiesced in, the betrothal, for such it amounted to,
though no direct mention was made of marriage, lasted
for three years, during which time the young couple had
full opportunities of further falling into, or altogether out
of, love with each other.

At the end of this period, if the match was still on, a
similar ceremonious visit was again paid by the parents
of the lad and the village elders, when the hand of the
girl was formally asked in marriage. In discussing the
question of dowry a substantial money present was
usually made to the parents of the girl, which seems to
point to the indefinite traditionary maintenance of the
primitive idea as to a woman being a mere chattel
according to the law. Any dowry the girl had, remained
her own ; and if the marriage was subsequently dissolved,
that remained her own together with all property acquired
by her through trading or inheritance.

When all the preliminaries had been discussed and
determined, the horoscopes of the young man and the
woman were consulted by the astrologers with a view to
fixing an auspicious day for the happy event ; and this
was by no means an easy matter. After all such diffi-
culties were overcome, a bridal chamber was prepared in
the house of the girl's parents, and a feast held there by
the parents of the bridegroom. Here the Mi?igaid-
saung or main ceremony consisted in joining together the



hands palm to palm [Letset or Lettat) at the moment
predicted as auspicious, in eating out of the same dish,
and in placing morsels of food in each other's mouths in
token of their vow to love and to cherish each other.
Here also the presents were made by the bridegroom's
parents, as previously stipulated in fixing the terms of
the marriage contract. These consisted in old days of
slaves, elephants, cattle, or articles such as jewels, orna-
ments, silk, etc., according to the social status of the
contracting parties. As the name for these {Letpwe)
corresponds with that for an amulet, either for prevent-
ing evil or bringing luck, these presents were apparently
superstitious offerings as well as ceremonial gifts.

While the festival was being kept up in the evening
the young couple retired to the bridal chamber amid
showers of saffron-dyed rice, and remained there in seclu-
sion for seven days, during which time they were cut off
from all intercourse with the outer world, their food
being sent in to them. For some years the youthful couple
stayed with the parents before setting up house for
themselves. When the young wife was an only daughter,
or the last daughter to be espoused, the married pair
continued to reside indefinitely with the parents during
their life-time. Thus, in place of losing a daughter,
the old folks gained a son-in-law, — an additional rela-
tive sometimes little appreciated by wealthy parents in

The old customs have in course of time become some-
what altered, and the period of betrothal has been very
much shortened. Lads and lasses fastidious and exacting
in the choice of a wife or husband are respectively termed
Maydsanywe and Linsanywe (from San "a test," and
ywe " to select "). But in the vast majority of cases,
when the preliminary courting has been recognized by
the lad getting the run of the house, the marriage subse-
quently takes place. The formalities are still observed,
but the astrological calculations have been much
simplified or neglected, and the long period of betrothal
curtailed. During the celebration of the marriage the
Mingald /Cyedaun^" or " dema-nd for largesse" is made
by the Lubyogaimg on behalf of the bachelors of the



locality. If not freely and liberally given they pelt the
house with brick-bats and stones. The custom of the
young man residing with his parents-in-law for two or
three years is now less frequently observed ; but when
still acted on, between the wife and the mother-in-law he
gets fairly well broken in to the conjugal yoke, which is
not, after all, a galling chain in Burma. In rural dis-
tricts the advent of a young able-bodied man in the
family circle is a distinct gain to the agriculturist, while
in the towns the son-in-law is seldom in a position to set
up house for himself until after the age at which the
national usage sanctions or demands the taking of a wife
unto himself.

As has already been described (vol. i., page i8i),
marriage being a purely civil contract there is vast liberty
of divorce, which would almost degenerate into license
were not the exercise of rights in this respect restrained
by rather intricate laws regarding the division of property.
Sometimes husband and wife separate temporarily from
motives of expediency owing to the malign influence of
the planets on their union, and this is often made a
pretext for final separation. The social danger thus
existing through the laxity of the marriage laws is to a
great extent obviated by the affectionate nature and the
buoyant disposition of both sexes. But popular opinion
also exerts powerful sway ; for a woman " without a half"
( Takiilat) or a man who is a lay " recluse " [Tawtwet), —
the terms applied to such as have been once or oftener
divorced, — is looked upon with but little respect.

There are three recognized ways of earning a liveli-
hood — by relying on the favour of another, by relying on
fortune or destiny, and by relying on one's own industry.
Each of these inclinations makes itself more strongly
apparent in different classes of society, though on the
whole the national idea of getting through life with the
minimum of discomfort is a compound of all three
methods. And anything that will minimize having to de-
pend on one's own industry seems, to the male Burmese
especially, worth spending a great deal of time over.
No race of men throughout the whole world would take
more kindly to absolute idleness and lotus-eating than



the Burmese, whose womenfolk are the great workers
and taskmasters.

Hitherto the richness of the soil, the favourable nature
of the climate for agriculture, and the absence of compe-
tition have made life easy for the Burman. Now, how-
ever, circumstances have begun to change, and men will
have to work harder than in the past or else go under.

While the death of any member of the family is of
course a cause of sorrow, given vent to in loud lamen-
tation, the following obsequies, culminating in the funeral
or " unpleasant " ceremony [Maikd) are, like all their
other religious rites, somewhat of the nature of a festi-
val. This is more particularly the case with regard to the
funerals of priests, which will be elsewhere described.

As soon as convenient after death the corpse is placed
in the open front portion of the inner raised part of the
house abutting on the verandah, and is there washed and
laid out before being swathed from the chest downwards
in cotton cloth of spotless white and then robed in gay
garments. The thumbs and the biof toes are next tied
together with a ligature consisting either of a cord made
with the hair of a son or a daughter or else of twisted
white cotton. Often, too, a small silver coin is placed in
the mouth for payment of the ** ferry toll " {Kudoakd)
into the land of spirits. The straightening out of the
body and preparing it for the coffin are performed by men
called Sandald, and in the vicinity of Mandalay the
Punna or Munipur Brahmins living to the west of the
city had a practical monopoly of this class of work.
Burial grounds and crematory places are almost invari-
ably situated to the west of any village or town, that
being always the ominous and accursed direction, while
the east is ever bright and auspicious. But the north is
the most glorious of all the four cardinal points from
the fact of Gaudama, while on his deathbed, having
directed his disciples to bear him forth and place him
under the shadow of a Sdl tree with his head directed
towards the north.

On hearing news of any death the relatives and friends
flock to the home and assist in the preparations for the
funeral ceremony, while dirge music is played almost



without intermission by a band outside on the roadway,
and busy hands are preparing the coffin {Tald), enshrined
in a lofty pyramidal bier or spire of many tiers con-
structed of wood, bamboo, and paper, all gaily coloured
and ornamented with gold and silver paper and other
tinsel. The coffin itself is almost always made of light
letpan wood [Bo?7tbax Malabaricum), and is coarse and
flimsy in construction. Special offerings of food ( Thabeik-
thut) are also made at the monasteries on behalf of the
deceased, and may even be repeated on the anniversary
of the death.

By the time the corpse has been nailed down into the
coffin the priest and some of the monks of the neigh-
bouring monastery attend and " render assistance "
{Thingyo haw) by reciting extracts from the sacred
writings relative to the transitoriness of existence, its
misery, and the immateriality of all things, the sad wail
of the Buddhist religious philosophy and its creed of
life, — Aneissa, Dokka, Anatta, " impermanence, misery,
unreality." For obvious reasons in so hot a climate, the
funeral rites are proceeded with as rapidly as possible.
The bodies of poor people are disposed of on the follow-
ing day at latest ; but the richer the deceased, the greater
is the delay in completing the obsequies and the more
imposingly spectacular is the display connected with the
preparations and the funeral ceremonies. Lest the
solemnities partake too much of a festive character
professional mourners or " weepers " {Gnogyinthe) are
sometimes employed, though this practice is now confined
to Upper Burma. Women were formerly employed
for this purpose, but men have now a monopoly of this
strange mode of livelihood.

When the time comes for the funeral procession to set
out westwards towards the burial ground, the corUge is
usually headed by one or two priests, behind whom
follow the band of music, the coffin, enshrined in its spire-
like decoration of wood, paper, and tinsel, and borne
either by friends or else by hired mutes, and the line of
mourners and friends of the deceased. On arriving at
the place {Thingyaing) where the final funeral rites are
performed the dirge music at length ceases, and the



priests enter one of the open rest-houses, {Zaydt), always
provided for such purposes, while the coffin is placed,
together with offerings to the priests, on the northern
side in front of the building.

After reciting extracts from the sacred writings the
priests retire with their followers and the offerings made
to them on behalf of the deceased. The coffin is then
borne to the spot where the grave has been dug by
graved iggers {Sandald ; but also called Thuba Yaza,
from the Pali Thuba " pleasant," and Yaza " a king "),
one of the four infamous outcast classes. After being
swung backwards and forwards for a few times as if
bidding farewell to the corpse, it is lowered into the
ground. Earth being sprinkled over the shell by the
nearest relatives, the grave is filled up by the grave-
diggers. When this has been completed, the oldest
male relative present opens a kerchief, and, holding it out,
calls aloud, " Come, come away with us," so that the
psyche or " butterfly " {Leikpyd) of the deceased may not
remain behind as an evil spirit haunting the burial ground.
Closing the kerchief suddenly, it is taken back to the
home of the deceased and placed between two of the
houseposts on the left side of the house for seven days.
On the seventh day after the burial a sort of purification
feast {Yellesun) is given to the priests and guests who
attended the funeral, and the kerchief in which the
"butterfly" of the dead man has meanwhile found
rest can be removed, as the danger of the psyche be-
coming an evil spirit is then at an end. The clothes of
the deceased are usually sewn together to form curtains
(Kalagd) to screen off different portions of the house
when desired.

Cremation or " fire rites " {Mi Thifigyo) are, however,
much more common than burial or "earth-covering
rites " {Myewut Thingyd) among all the well to do
classes. In the former case the body is conveyed as
before to the burial ground and laid upon four logs of
wood placed two upon two so as to form a sort of hollow
square which is filled with pieces of fragrant inflammable
wood. After the pyre has been lighted and the coffin
and body are consumed, the fire is allowed to burn itself



out. When the ashes have cooled sufficiently, the
three nearest relatives of the deceased search for such
bones as they can find, wash them carefully in cocoanut
juice or scented water, and place them, wrapped up in
white cotton, in a new earthenware pot. This is taken
back to the home of the deceased till, seven days later,
the purification feast is celebrated, when the pot con-
taining these last earthly remains is carried to the vicinity
of some pagoda or other sacred shrine and there interred.
Wooden posts or brick monuments can be erected over
such last resting places, though they may not be made
in the shape of a pagoda over the bones of any but
priests and those of royal blood. Sometimes the bones
are pulverized, mixed with lac and sawdust, and formed
into images of Gaudama,which are either placed in a sacred
edifice or else retained in the house. But such images
are never worshipped in any way, there being no trace
of ancestral worship among the Burmese, nor of idolatry
in any form as part of the Buddhist religion.

In the case of the obsequies of children there is of
course, as with us, much less ceremonial and display.
Infants are usually buried in their cradles, and small
children in plain coffins unornamented with any decora-
tive spire and tinsel work ; and in either case the burial
takes place as soon as possible after death.


Chapter VIII


IT has frequently been said that the Burmese are the
Irish of the East. But this vague epigrammatic
description rather lacks definition, besides being alto-
gether wrong in many important respects. There are, it
is true, various outstanding traits of character in common,
such as pride of race, love of laughter, joking, and amuse-
ment, light-heartedness, want of providence or of any
Martha-like concern for the petty things of life and the
cares of the morrow, occasional outbursts of brutality,
absence of self-control, and entire want of anything like
*' sweet reasonableness " either individually or as a race.
On the other hand, however, points of difference might
be scored to an even greater extent than the tale of
characteristics common to the two races.

Proud of their nationality, the Burmese consider the
Chinese, Siamese, and Shans as of the same stock (Amy6)
as themselves ; though the Chinaman regards himself as
much superior to the Burman. The hill tribes, consist-
ing of the Karen, Kachin, and Chin dwelling within the
forests on the hills between the main valleys, the Burmese
class indifferently as wild men (Luyaing) ; while all other
nationalities are considered rather contemptuously as
"foreigners" {Kald), a word, however, only applied to
persons of non- Mongolian race, but otherwise used very
much in the same way as the ancient Greeks originally
applied the term ^dp^apo?. This word is never used as
a designation for any of the Shan, Siamese, or Chinese
races inhabiting any portion of Further India and China.
Ka/d is supposed to be a corruption of the Pali word
Gaw/a, originally meaning a Buddhist immigrant from



India. The Siamese apply this same term to the

The Burmese are on the whole decidedly truthful,
though it would hardly be correct to describe them as
truth-loving. They have no particular prejudice in favour
of truth, or dislike to falsehood per se. A man or a woman
would just about as soon tell a lie as the truth ; and out
of a feeling of inborn politeness he or she would naturally
prefer to make, with complete indifference, whatever
statement might be considered the more acceptable to

Online LibraryJohn NisbetBurma under British rule--and before; (Volume 2) → online text (page 20 of 41)