John Nisbet.

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

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Ava; because changes have long been gradually taking
place in this as in many other respects under the bureau-
cratic officialdom of British rule and through the de-
velopment of commerce and of the material prosperity
thereby fostered.

While still an independent nationality there were
seven classes of society distinguishable. These consisted
of the Royal family, the priesthood, officials, traders or
merchants, cultivators and handicraftsmen, slaves, and
outcasts. Priests and monks have always enjoyed special
consideration on religious grounds, while officials formed
the most powerful section of society under the Burmese
rulers. Short of royalty and the throne, any individual



belonging to one of the classes other than the slaves and
outcasts could rise to the highest position in the land.
But slaves and criminal outcasts were entirely debarred
from the rights of freemen. Among the social outcasts
were included the "four infamous classes" [Sandald-le-sd),
— gravediggers, beggars, prostitutes, and lepers ; while
pagoda slaves were regarded with hardly less repug-
nance, as they were mostly pardoned convicts or persons
condemned to this servitude on account of crimes. Even
when released from slavery on the British occupation,
they continued to be regarded as low and degraded.
The Lamaing or predial slaves, who tilled the royal
lands around Mandalay, were mostly the descendants ot
captives taken in the wars with Manipur and Assam.
Though outcasts, they were not so low as pagoda slaves
or any of the four infamous classes. Thus, considerable
administrative difficulty on a small scale was once created
with regard to the services of a township officer in
Lower Burma, who by ability and good service had
risen to the highest rank in the subordinate judicial
service, but who had the misfortune to be the son of
a pagoda slave.

When any one rose to high rank by royal favour there
was no false shame or tacit disowning of humble rela-
tives. The latter paid due deference to the exalted
destiny of him who had thus been promoted through the
merit of past deeds : but it was seldom that such pro-
motion led to arrogance and to contemptuous neglect of
poor relations.

The natural veneration for royal blood was extreme,
and amounted, in fact, to a superstition. To pretend to
royal blood obtained for any plausible rogue as credulous
support as claims to special sanctity or supernatural
powers. And yet the royal family, the house of Alaung
Payd (Alompra), thus superstitiously venerated with
servile devotion, was itself a mere mushroom growth
dating only from the middle of the eighteenth century.
Alaung Payas career resembles Napoleon's as being an
example of a man of comparatively humble origin rising
through sheer ability, force of character, intrepidity, and
absence of anything like conscientious scruples, to the



highest national power by the time he had attained the
age of thirty-nine years.

Alaung Paya or "the incarnation of a Buddh," the
name chosen by this adventurer when he usurped the
throne and founded the last Burmese dynasty in 1755,
was born in or about 1714 at Moksobo, now called
Shwebo. As Moksobo, " the hunter's cooking place,"
may also mean the " leader of a band of huntsmen," this
has given rise to the erroneous idea among Europeans
that Alaung Paya was originally a hunter. As, however,
a huntsman, a man deliberately and personally destroying
life as a means of livelihood, is almost as bad as one of
the four infamous classes, the fact of his following such
an occupation would have effectually debarred him from
attaining royal honours.

Originally his name was Maung Aung Zeya, or " vic-
torious conqueror," and he was, though distantly con-
nected with the Burmese royal family, — the kingdom of
Ava being then under the subjugation of the Mon king-
dom of Pegu, — merely a revenue subordinate i^Kydgaing)
of a village headman before being promoted and made
Myo Thugyi or headman of the town of Moksobo. On
the conquest of Ava by the Mon or Peguans, Aung
Zeya was confirmed in his headmanship, but at once
began to plan a revolt. Early in 1754 he collected
about a hundred followers and massacred the small
garrison of Peguans quartered on the town.

Reporting the matter as a furious outbreak of the
townspeople whom he, as headman, had been unable to
control, the Peguan governor of Ava sent only a small
body of troops to revenge this outrage and bring in the
headman. These being vanquished and pursued, Aung
Zeya pointed out to his fellow-townsmen that, the hand
having thus been put to the plough, the revolt must
continue ; and, trading on the boundless credulity and
superstition of the Burmese character, he caused ima-
ginary prophecies to be noised abroad that he was to free
his countrymen from the yoke of the Peguans. Men
flocking quickly to his standard, he marched on Ava,
where the Burmese rose and massacred the Peguan
soldiery. Placing his second son in charge of Ava,



he returned to Moksobo and busied himself with the
recruitment and disciplining of troops.

By the time the Peguans reached Ava, Aung Zeya
had collected a sufficient number of men to overthrow
the army sent to crush him, and this defeat so enraged
the King of Pegu that he put to the sword all the
Burmese captives then in his hands. Infuriated at this,
the Burmese rose and slaughtered the Peguan troops
wherever these had been quartered on their towns.
Collecting an army, the King of Pegu proceeded up the
Irrawaddy, but was defeated at Prome by Aung Zeya,
who speedily descended the river and took Bassein.
Possessed thus of the chief seaport of the delta, and
having his two sons in charge of Ava and Moksobo,
and being subsequently successful in routing the main
Peguan army near where Rangoon now stands, Alaung
Paya in 1755 declared himself King of Burma and Pegu.
Following the usual custom of the King of Burma in
assuming a new name by which he was henceforth to be
known as a monarch, he bestowed upon himself the
apotheosis indicated in the title " Alaung Paya." He
also at the same time created his elder son Prince of
Sagaing, while the younger was made Prince of Myedu.

Alaung Paya wreaked a fearful vengeance against
the Peguans and changed their name from Mon
into Talamg, literally meaning "downtrodden," a differ-
ence which is still rigidly distinguished even to the
present time, although the term has long since lost its
original meaning. Thus, if asked what race they belong
to, the great majority of the prosperous peasantry
throughout the delta of the Irrawaddy will at once reply,
" Downtrodden Burmese," in contradistinction to the
Burmese not of Peguan origin.

While there are no caste distinctions, there is also no
landed aristocracy ; but there is a nobility. To be
appointed an official was in itself practically of the
nature of conferring nobility, while merchants and large
traders who acquired property were registered by royal
edict as " rich men" {Thtite). This included all such as
farmed the royal monopolies, who were thus formally
placed under the protection of the Court.



In the olden times this class is traditionally supposed
to have contained 80,000 nobles (A7ndt), but the tenure
of nobility or official rank depended absolutely and
entirely on the royal will and pleasure. The King could
raise up any man or woman from the lowest degree to
the highest, and he could cast them down again. There
was no security in prosperity, as all offices were be-
stowed and retained solely by the royal favour. At the
Court the badge of nobility was a chain {Salwd) of gold
suspended across the chest from the left shoulder to tlie
right hip. It consisted of several strings or strands,
fastened at each end and at the centre by bosses. The
lowest degree of Salwd had three plain strings, while
that with three twisted strands ranked next above it.
Higher degrees of nobility were represented by six and
nine strings, whilst chains with twelve strings were worn
by Princes and the four Mingy i or Secretaries of State.
The highest order of all, the Salwd of twenty-four strings,
was worn by the King himself.

The umbrellas borne over the nobility were also indi-
cative of rank. A white umbrella could only be carried
over the King and his chief Queen. Red umbrellas
with straight handles could be borne over the heads of
all officials, but only those of high rank were entitled to
have them borne aloft with deeply curved handles.

The Bwe or rank of nobility accorded by the King was
a personal title and not necessarily an adjunct of office.
It was considered a grave breach of etiquette to call any
official, even of low rank, by his name. He was always
addressed by his official title, followed by the Bwe or
personal distinction.

With regard to punctiliousness as to titular distinctions
and forms of address the Burmese are, if this be possible,
even worse than the Germans. In speaking of or to
inferiors the prefix Nga is used, and for equals Maung
or " brother," while the prefix Ko or "elder brother" ex-
presses respect, and U or " uncle " implies the deference
to be shown to men considerably older than the speaker.
In Upper Burma the word Bagyi, meaning "a father's
elder brother," is frequently used in this sense in place
of prefixing U to the name of the person addressed. In



speaking to an equal the word Min is used for " you,"
while the form Maiiui^/nin is somewhat imperious and
disrespectful, and Kodaw or " royal self" indicates great
respect. The word perhaps most frequently used in this
way throughout the whole country, however, is Kinbya
or " friend," corrupted from Thakin Payd, " lord and
master." The use oi Nin, "thou," is as disrespectful as
the German " Dtc," and is seldom used save in anger.
Shin, " master," is the term of compilation used by
women only, to men or women somewhat above them in
rank. If, however, works of special religious merit or
public benevolence have been undertaken, the persons in
question are invariably addressed or referred to as Payd-
tagd, Kyaungtagdy Zaydttagd, or Ahluiagd, according
as they may have respectively built a pagoda, a
monastery, or a public rest-house, or have made large
gifts to priests. When once lads have returned to the
laity after being acolytes [Maimg Shin) at the monas-
tery, they are often addressed as Maung Shiii by their

Young girls or women socially inferior to the speaker
are addressed as Me or " daughter," though the use of
this word to adults is distinctly impolite. The prefix
indicative of equality is Ma or " sister," while Me or
" mother " expresses respect and deference to seniority.
A mother or an elder sister is often addressed as Mdmd
or " madam." Again, one may speak of one's own
Mayd or " wife " ; but, if referring to the wife of another,
it is more polite to use the word Meirwia or " woman " ;
while the wife of any official is addressed and spoken of
by adding Gadaw, meaning " lady " or " consort," to the
official designation of her husband. The wife of a town
magistrate is thus the Myook Gadaw, just as in Germany
she would be the " Frau Biirorermeisterin." When
writing to his wife, a husband usually calls her Hnitma
or "younger sister." In the eyes of the criminal law
all prisoners at the bar and all convicts in jail are Me
and Nga, as representing a low grade of society.

Priests and monks are- invariably addressed as Payd
or Kodaw, " lord " or " master," and are referred to by
placing U before their monastic name ; while nuns are



addressed as Sayd, "learned," or Bwathilay "producers
of religious merit." When monks converse among them-
selves, the senior calls the junior Awathaw, while the
latter addresses the former as Bande.

Equally strict regard is also paid to the use of the first
personal pronoun and its equivalent in addressing others.
Nga, the equivalent of our " I," writ very large, is only
used in the sense of great superiority, as arrogated to
oneself during bickering and quarrels. The general term
used even in addressing persons lower in the social scale
is Kyunok, " your servant " or, literally, " the slave ruled
over." Otherwise, in addressing superiors, humble and
depreciatory terms are employed, such as Kyilndaw,
" your honour's slave," or Payd-kytuidaw, " your lord-
ship's slave," while any high official would be addressed
in equally servile language, as Koddw-ashin or " your
royal self, my master," which is, along with the term
Payd addressed to officials and priests, the nearest
equivalent for " sir."

When about to mention anything before parents,
elders, or priests, which is likely to offend against good
taste unless previously apologised for — thus, for example,
in speaking of the feet and other parts of the body con-
sidered inferior and objectionable — the speaker prefaces
his remarks by " begging pardon with head and hair."
It is considered a mark of disrespect to crack the
knuckles of the fingers in the presence of a superior,
although this amusement or nervous habit of " breaking
the fingers " {Letcko) is common among the Burmese.

When not in the presence of a superior, the Burmese
sit on the floor — for the use of chairs is just beginning
in the chief towns, and there only among such as ape
western habits — in a cross-legged position with the heel
of each foot drawn in towards the thicrh of the other lecf,
so that the knees are " bent so as to be level with the
hip " ( Tinba-pyin-gwe), the posture in which most images
of Gaudama are cast or sculptured. The respectful
attitude, however, is to kneel down and draw the legs
closely together, the head being, three times in succes-
sion, bent down till it almost touches the ground, so that
the forehead rests on the thumbs of the hands clasped



together, palm to palm, in token of veneration. The
crown of the head thus facing the object of veneration,
hardly any part of the legs can be seen, while the feet,
considered in more than a literal sense the most inferior
part of the body, are entirely hidden from the person
to whom homage is thus paid. This national form of
obeisance before all religious shrines, princes, rulers, and
those in authority is properly termed " abasing the tuft
of hair on the crown of one's head " ( Ustmshei), though
it is more commonly known as Skekoor simply " homage,"
which also implies the act of kneeling down and sitting
on one's feet. But, as the latter, it formed the stumbling-
block to the maintenance of diplomatic relations with the
Court of Ava during the last ten years of Burmese rule,
as has elsewhere been described (vol. i, page 30). In
order that the top-knot and the crown of the head should
be duly exposed in making obeisance the wearing of a
filet [Pawion) of muslin, bound round the head above
the temples in place of the ordinary turban-like kerchief
{Gatmgbaimg) of coloured silk, was compulsory on all
who entered the palace at Mandalay.

Polygamy is permitted by law, and in the olden time
the laws of Manii recognized a head wife {Mayagyi), a
lesser wife [Mayange), and six kinds of concubines
(Apyau7tg). But it was only the king who followed the
doubtful example of Solomon's wisdom in respect of
having many wives and maintaining a large harem.
Polygamy is indeed now rare, as may be gathered from
the fact that the census of 1891 showed returns of
1,306,722 husbands to 1,307,292 wives. The custom
does, however, exist ; and it is authorized by law.
Sometimes the monogamy is even broken at the request
of the first wife, as the following example may show.
The little town of Shwegu, about thirty miles below
Bhamo, is the headquarters of a good many elephant
owners, who are now becoming Government contractors
for the extraction of teak timber for delivery to the
Forest Department. The most influential of these is a
comparatively young man, the younger son of a late
Burmese magistrate of Rangoon, who rose to the highest
rank he could attain under British administration. Before



settling at Shwegu this son was married to a lady for-
merly belonging to the Court, who held land in her own
right bringing in about ^54 a year. When her husband
obtained the timber contract from Government, she
found herself unable, owing to weak health, to accompany
him to a place so damp, uncivilized, and malarious as
Shwegu is in comparison with Mandalay. But she
advised her husband to take a junior wife to make him
comfortable there, and even assisted him in the selection
of an exceedingly pretty young helpmate, judged even
by western standards of beauty. The chief wife goes
and visits the lesser during the cold season of the year,
and returns to her own home in Mandalay during the
rainy months.

Sometimes it even happens that both wives reside
under the same roof, though this is exceedingly rare ; and
in fact, notwithstanding legal right, monogamy has now-
become customary, while polygamy is no longer con-
sidered quite so respectable as it once was. The main-
tenance of concubines, in addition to the great and the
minor wives, has now almost absolutely and altogether
ceased, except perhaps among the Shan chiefs. In the
olden days two classes of concubines were recognized,
the Apyaung Maya, who were not bought with money,
and the Athein Mayd, who were "taken possession of"
after payment. A female debtor slave could also be
used as a concubine if the amount of her debt was over
twenty-five rupees (^i 13^. ^d.) ; but if she bore a male
child, this cancelled the debt ; and, in any case, con-
cubinage itself at once cancelled debt for a less sum.

The Village Community system, having already been
fully described in chapter vi. of vol. i (pages 162-165)
need not again be referred to in detail. Subject to
the payment of the royal demand in the shape of
a house-tax levied on each town and village to the
extent of about ten rupees {ijS. ^d.) per house, these
communities were left very much to themselves to be
administered by the headman {Thngyi) and the elders
(Ltcgyi) of the people. After the annexation of the
kingdom of Ava this simple and effective system of
administration, well suited to the country and the people,

VOL, II 241 R


was retained under the Upper Burma Village Regulation
(1887) ; and subsequently the Lower Burma Village Act
was passed in order to re-introduce, so far as possible,
into the southern portion of the province the old Village
Community system which had fallen into disuse and
been to a great extent supplanted by other methods
owing to the lines of administration followed after the
annexation of Pegu and Martaban in 1852.

Under this Act the authority of the village headman
was extended, and his responsibility increased ; while in
the towns the chief of the elders of the people were, as
honorary magistrates, given a larger share in the con-
duct of affairs and the maintenance of law and order.
The weight of their influence in this respect, no doubt,
contributed to improve the state of towns at a time when
a decided tendency to lawlessness was manifest, before
the province had recovered from the state of ferment
into which it was temporarily thrown after the third
Burmese war. Thus, the honorary magistrates of
Rangoon in 1888 made the following resolutions relating
to keeping the peace, etc., in the suburbs of the city : —

1 . Persons going out after ten o'clock at night must carry a lantern
with them.

2. In the suburbs, where palm leaves and split bamboos are used for
roofing, fire hooks, fire extinguishers, and pots of water shall be kept at
each house.

3. In such suburbs the cooking place of each house shall be made
by digging a hole in the ground, and carefully walling it in.

4. Patrol shall each night be kept by four or five persons in company
with the police.

5. Endeavours shall be made to arrest bad characters lurking about
the suburbs.

6. Every resident must render assistance in case of fire breaking out
in any quarter of a suburb.

There can be no doubt that in consequence of British
administration bringing increased prosperity, security of
possession, and freedom from oppression by those
administering the laws and collecting the revenues, the
old simple social system is gradually undergoing con-
siderable changes ; and these are of course greatest and
most noticeable in the immediate vicinity of the seaport
towns, and especially of the provincial metropolis.



There is a growing want of respect and deference such
as was formerly paid by young men to their seniors ;
and the old veneration for the religious precepts and
those devoting themselves to a religious life is gradually
disappearing without anything equally good taking its
place. The pious " filial duty " [Midawui) owed by
children to their parents is no longer so rigidly observed
as formerly.

How sadly the young Burman has already changed
may be gauged from the following extract from the
Lieut-Governor's resolution on the report on crime in
Burma during 1898-99 : —

With the new generation of Burmans, the carriage of clasp-knives,
loaded sticks, or other dangerous weapons has become a common
practice in some districts, and these are used without hesitation at Fwe
(theatrical or other assemblies) and drinking bouts. The offenders are
often young men in good circumstances, over whom their parents are
said to be unable to exercise any authority.

In the class of house inhabited there is little to mark
the social condition of the owner, except m the case of
officials. The residences of the latter were generally
surrounded by a high fence woven of split bamboos, and
had a crossbar painted red across the top of the gateway.
The houses themselves were also usually characterized
by being built of teak- wood posts and planks in place of
less valuable jungle woods or bamboos. Houses built of
brick were and are still uncommon, save in the chief
towns ; and there for the most part they are owned by

Owing to the heavy and constant rainfall throughout
most parts of the country during the south-west monsoon
period, the ordinary Burmese houses are oblong, and are
invariably built on posts planted in bays of eight or nine
feet apart. They mostly consist of two distinct portions
built so as to run with their long side parallel to the
roadway or path forming the street. The open front con-
sists of a verandah, or "place for hanging the cattle bells"
{Kalatckswe) , raised about two to three feet above the
ground, and occupying the whole of the three or four
bays between the first two lines of posts, with, perhaps,
the cooking place at one end in the shape of a large



shallow box filled with earth for use during the rainy
season. From this verandah a ladder leads up to the
dwelling-rooms raised about seven or eight feet above
the ground. Here the accommodation consists of two
or more sleeping apartments i^Eikthe Akan), one of
which is usually designated the " guest chamber " {Ethd
Kan), behind which a platform often extends containing
the cooking-place and the storehouse for odds and ends of
all sorts. Not infrequently one end of the upper floor is
left open with the cooking-place free at the corner ; and
in this case the family collect here at meal times around
the tray containing the boiled rice and condiments.
Otherwise the verandah generally fulfils all the require-
ments of dining-room, parlour, store shed, and reception
room. Here too, in many instances, the good woman
of the house exposes wares for sale if she trades but
does not keep a stall at the local bazaar. During the
dry season the cooking is mostly done out of doors or
below the house, as the Burmese detest the smell of frying
in oil. The open space below, between the posts, also
serves as the storage place of all articles and implements
requiring protection from the sun or rain. It is there,
too, that the handloom of the house finds its place
unless it occupy one end of the verandah. More than
this, the vacant space under the higher portion of the
house forms the place into which all the dirt and refuse
from above is swept through the chinks in the flooring,
to be cleared by the pariah dogs, the scavengers that
swarm in all towns and villages. In every Burmese
house, from the palace to the poorest hovel, there are
either chinks between the bamboos and boards, or else
holes actually pierced as spitting-holes for use during