John Nisbet.

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

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employed in the education of Karen children. But all
the missions are doing excellent educational work, which



must exert a very marked and important influence on the
coming generations in Burma.

It is impossible to forecast what results will arise in
the future from the energy displayed at so many points
by missionaries of various denominations. But the fact
is clear that missionary enterprise is already making
itself felt in the towns which form the centres of mission
work ; and year by year this influence is gradually, along
with other causes, producing vast changes in the whole
social system of the country. A good Buddhist is a
much better man or woman than a bad Christian ; and
those may perhaps be excused who are doubtful about
nothing but advantages being brought to the nation as
a whole if such as show thsmselves lax in the religious
observances of Buddhism become easy converts in pro-
fessing Christianity. The missionary movement is, how-
ever, a powerful influence by which the present social
system is bound sooner or later to be affected in one
direction or another. This new subversive force is the
direct antithesis of Buddhism ; for whereas the latter
teaches that everything which happens is the result of
Kan, " the influence of past acts," the former aims at
influencing future events themselves by forming the
character in a nobler mould during the present.


Chapter X


WITH their buoyant, careless, happy-go-lucky,
laughter-loving disposition, the Burmese spend
an inordinate amount of time in festivals and amuse-
ments. Curiously enough, all their feasts and their
amusements, except games and racing with boats or
ponies, are, or at any rate have originally been, directly
connected with the national religion. All their public
festivals, no matter of what description, bear the name
of Pwe or Thabm, both meaning "assemblies." They are
invariably accompanied by music, and they of course are
always considered great holidays, when the gayest of
clothing and the richest jewellery are worn. Those who
do not possess necklaces and bracelets of gold hire them
for the occasion, unless too poor to do even this.

The two great national festivals are those connected
with the New Year and with the conclusion of the period
of stricter observance of religious duties duringr the three
summer months which, for want of a more appropriate
term, is called the Burmese Lent. But there are many
other public festivals varying from an almost national
down to a more or less local character, such as the annual
" assemblies " at the great pagodas, which are mostly
held in spring. The chief of these are at the Shwe
Dagon in Rangoon, the Kyaiktayo pagoda near Sittang,
the Seven Pagodas near Toungoo, and the great Kyun-
daw festival near Shwegu (Bhamo), all of which are
celebrated during the month of Tabaung (February,
March), and the Arakan pagoda festival in Mandalay at
the end of Lent. But nearly every pagoda has its own
local festival, at which the village people rejoice and

VOL. II. 257 s


make merry. As a typical example of a great Burmese
national fete the Kyiuidaiu Pay a Pwe, or "festival of the
pagoda on the sacred island," is in many respects the
most interesting.

These assemblages are all characterized by the same
features. Vast crowds of people of all sorts collect from
far and wide, residing for the two or three days of the
festival in huts made of bamboos or grass, and sometimes
so numerous as to form a temporary town of fair dimen-
sions regularly laid out in rectangular streets and definite
quarters, according to the orders of the responsible
magistrate. The whole assemblage partakes as distinctly
of the nature of a fair as of a religious gathering. All
along the temporary streets goods are offered for sale in
booths, while music resounds throughout the day and
theatrical performances go on nearly all day and
night. Along with gold leaf, candles, streamers, flowers,
and such manner of articles for votive offerings at the
pagodas and sacred shrines, marionettes and toys of
strange and wonderful description are exposed for sale ;
while the people regale themselves with food at Chinese
booths. Even brightly coloured ice-creams are vended
from stalls, where also sweet mineral waters can be
obtained in almost any colour of the rainbow. On the
evening of the last day of the festival the vast crowds
dissolve with marvellous rapidity. By nightfall the
spaces between the lines of booths so lately thronged
are all but empty of people, and almost the only signs
of life are the pariah dogs feeding on the stale boiled
rice which has been thrown aside and scavenging accord-
ing to their wont. Next day the removal of the huts
takes place, and the scene becomes again deserted until
the festival of the following year.

The obsequies of a royal personage or of the head
of a monastery are also made the occasion of great
public assemblies, in which the religious character of the
ceremony is more or less disguised by the distractions
provided. But even family affairs afford pretexts for
frequent assemblies of friends and neighbours ; and as
Piue of every sort are free to all who care to come, each
gathering is sure to be numerously attended. Thus



the naming of a child, the boring of a girl's ears, the
entry of a boy into his acolytehood at a monastery, and
the funeral rites following on the death of any man or
woman, all form occasions which even the poorest of the
poor try to celebrate as well as they can by some sort of

The New Year's festival, the Thingyan, known among
Europeans as the " Water Festival," is the only one
actually observed everywhere throughout Burma. The
commencement of the new year falls within the month
of Tagil (March, April), but the precise day and date
are fixed by the Ptmna or Brahmin astrologers in
Mandalay. It is always some time between the loth
and 14th April. Even before the advent of British
rule into Upper Burma the festival .had come to be
usually celebrated on the nth April, and this date is
now likely to become permanently fixed.

It is supposed, however, to synchronize with the
precise moment upon which the Tkagyd Mia or King
of Spiritland (Indra), descends from the abode of the
Nat and spends three days upon this earth. The story
runs that long ago the Tkagyd Mm and a Brahma
called Athi, one of the beings inhabiting the higher
celestial abodes, disputed about a mathematical calcula-
tion and each wagered his head as to being in the right.
The Tkagyd Min was found to be correct and forthwith
chopped off the Brahnds head. Then he was con-
fronted with a difficulty about disposing of it. Afraid
either to throw it down upon this earth or to cast it
into the sea, he gave it into the keeping of the seven
daughters of the Nat. Once a year the gruesome head
changes hands among these seven sisters, and at this
particular season the Tkagyd Min finds it convenient
to visit the scenes of men. The precise moment of his
arrival forms the commencement of the new year, but
the 1 2th of April must always be included in the three
days of his stay on earth. As the astrologers claim
to be able to foretell how he will come, whether bearing
a waterpot, a staff, a torch, or a spear, they can predict
a year of abundant rainfall or of great heat and drought,
of plenty or of scarcity, and of peaceful progress or else



of disturbance and unrest. At the precise moment
of the commencement of the new year three guns
were fired in the palace, so that the people might
know the Tliagyd Min had descended.

During the three days of this festival, and more
particularly on the first day of the new year, the young
men and women find much amusement in drenching
with water every one who comes in their way ; and the
more frivolous even invade the houses of officials with
waterpots and big squirts to give the occupants a good
sousing. All are fair game for the merry-makers. All
are liable to receive a wetting save any woman who
requests not to be touched. This is at once regarded
as conveying intimation of her being in an interesting
condition, excluding her from participation in the fun.

The more stately and staid manner in which superiors,
such as officials of high rank, are visited on this occasion
and an oblation of water poured out before them by
the visitor, with thrice-repeated obeisance and exclama-
tion of " Kaddw bdl' or " beg pardon," seems distinctly to
point to this festival being a remnant of the religious
ceremony {Mingald) of pouring out water as at the
Abeiktheik ceremony, the equivalent of the " anointing "
of a king when he ascended the throne of Burma. A
similar ceremony is performed in March at sacred shrines
by lads dressed in white, when pots of filtered water,
protected from dust by pieces of white muslin spread
over the mouths of the water-pots, are solemnly poured
over the images of Gaudama i^Paydyelaung). This
sacred ceremony nowhere receives more particular atten-
tion than at the Shwesandaw pagoda in Prome.
Offerings of filtered water are also placed on the
shrines and are made to the priests and monks in the

The Tdivadeingtha festival, the second in national
importance, held at the end of the Burmese Lent, is
not celebrated everywhere throughout Burma. It is
more the festival of the towns and the richer centres
than of poorer tracts.

Quite a variety of festivals occurs at the full moon
of ThadingytU or " end of Lent," when the monks are



freed from the austerities and laymen from the stricter
observance of reHgious duties prescribed during the
previous three months, or four in every third year.
The chief of these is the Tdwadeingtha festival com-
memorative of Gaudama's ascent up Myimmo (Mount
Meru) into the land of spirits to expound the Eternal
Law to his mother, Maya, who was then a queen among
the Nat. It lasts for three days, the third day being
that of the full moon of ThadingyiU.

A lofty platform, surmounted with a gorgeous paper
and tinsel Pyathat like the spire of a monastery, is
erected with a long inclined plane on either side lead-
ing up to it from east and west. On the first day of
the festival an image of Gaudama, placed on a kind of
trolly, is made to ascend from a shrine at the eastern
end to about half way up the inclined plane leading to
the apex of the platform. The point thus reached is
supposed to be the Ugandaw hill, where he rested before
arriving at Myimmo. The next day it ascends to the
top of the platform representing Tdwadeingtha, the
second of the Nat countries in which his mother then
dwelt. Here the image of Gaudama rests for the second
night in the attitude of enunciating the law to numerous
smaller images placed round about him on a lower level.
On the third day the image of Gaudama is made to
descend the western inclined plane and to enter into
a building representing the Neikban monastery in which
he resided.

Throughout all the three days passages from the
sacred books are read to the assembled crowd. When
the descent of the image has been completed, offerings
to the priests and monks of all the neighbouring mona-
steries are borne through the town in procession,
accompanied of course by music, on three branching,
conical, tree-like stands before being deposited at the
feet of the religious. These branching stands represent
the miraculous PadHha tree, which orrows on the north
island and produces whatever any applicant may desire
to have. Often comprising articles of considerable value,
these gift-trees are hung with very miscellaneous articles
ranging from eggs and candles to washhand basins,



lookincT-glasses, and thick yellow flannel coverlets for
the coming" cold season.

Immediately after the Tdwadeingtha festival the
pagodas, and the whole town in fact, are illuminated
for three nights by the simple method, very effective
from a distance, of filling tiny, shallow earthenware
saucers with cocoanut oil in which a wick is placed and
lighted. All along the streets and in front of the
houses these little lamps are protected from any chance
breeze by films of pale rose, blue, yellow, and green
tissue paper pasted to thin pieces of bamboo bent so as
to form a lotus-leaf This is, in fact, the national
method of illumination, and it is very beautiful in its
soft blending of delicate colours. Fire-balloons of paper
are also set off to mount skywards till the supply of oil
becomes exhausted in the cup forming the cradle. At
the same time lights are tied on floats and allowed to
drift down the river or stream. This festival of the
fire- rafts was probably originally to propitiate the river
spirits. But it is now said to be commemorative of one
Shiit Upagd, a novice in a monastery, having, during
a previous state of existence, in jest carried off the
clothes of a bather, since which time the Shin has been
expiating his offence by remaining naked in the water
till the arrival of the next Buddha, when he is to be
released from his awkward position and will become a
Rahaitda or priest of saintly life, endowed with a purified
and exalted nature. It has been ordained that this
sixth Buddh, Arimataya, will attain omniscience while
reclining under a Gangaw tree [Mesna ferrea) ; so in
many monasteries Gangaw trees are planted and care-
fully tended to provide the necessary shelter should any
of the monks within the monastery happen to be the
Buddh in embryo.

Simultaneously with the *' fire festival," great offerings
of food {Snndaiugyi) are often made at the monasteries
to celebrate the conclusion of Lent and the relaxation
of the monastic austerities, while at the same time the
people amuse themselves with theatricals and merry-
making. The Wifigabd or " labyrinth," forms part of
the festival on the full moon of Thadingyut, when vast



crowds throng the mazes of the bamboo-trellis labyrinth.
It has its origin in the banishment of Wethandayd to
the Winga mountains when his father, King Theinsi,
found himself forced to exile the prince in order to
pacify his subjects enraged at Wethandaya's gift of
the white elephant to Brahmins as an act of merit.

Among national amusements the theatricals easily take
first place, followed at a long distance by pony races,
boat racing, buffalo fighting, boxing matches, and games
of various sorts.

The theatrical performances were originally entirely,
and still are to a very great extent, illustrative of the
Zat or " birth-stories" of Gaudama. In this respect they
bear strong resemblance to the early English Mysteries
and the continental Passion Plays dealing with events in
the life of Christ.

The performances are either acted by men and women
[Zatpzue, Pyazat), or else are given by the manipulations
of marionettes {Yokthepzue). In both cases the per-
formance is given in the open air. But in the former
the stage consists merely of a cleared circle in the
centre of which stands a " flower tree " {PanbUi) con-
sisting of a plantain stem or green branch stuck in the
ground and surrounded with mats ; while in the latter
it consists of a bamboo platform raised four or five feet
from the ground and backed with matting, behind which
the strings moving the various limbs of the little puppets
are manipulated to accompany the recitative. In many
villages and towns such Pwe are often given by local
companies, but there are regular troupes which stroll
from place to place giving performances on payment
of fixed scales. The boats in which they travel by river
are usually gaily bedecked with streamers to indicate
them, while the big drums are easily distinguishable
marks when proceeding overland by cart. Sometimes
the prices these strolling players command run to a
considerable sum for a company of repute, especially
if it should have come from Mandalay. Even in Burma
the art of starring in the provinces is fully understood.
In former times the most famous actors came from
Kyaukyit, a large village in the Sagaing district



near the confluence of the Chindwin river with the
Irrawaddy. Whenever a Pwe'xs given any one who
pleases may come and look on. But those whom the
giver of the entertainment wishes to specially invite
receive a summons in the shape of a little packet of
pickled tea. On such occasions it is customary to
respond to the invitation by sending back some slight
monetary contribution towards the expense of the enter-
tainment ; and guileless Burmans of authority and
influence have sometimes found this to be an occasional
source of profit.

The performances are usually held at night, and some
of them last for several nights in succession. Soon
after sundown a large crowd of townspeople or villagers
flocks to the scene of the performance — which is often
in front of the house of the donor where his chief guests
are received and feted — bearing with them mats for
sitting upon. The whole family goes — father, mother,
and children, even sucklings being carried there ; and
when the performance ceases for the time being in the
early hours of the next day many of them sleep on their
sitting-mats in place of at once going home.

The performance is accompanied by the unceasing
music, the band being seated near the stage. The
ear-piercing clarinet, the clash of the cymbals, and the
constant booming of the gong-drums sound rather dis-
cordant to any unfortunate European who happens to
be encamped near where a Pzue is being given ; and
there is little chance of sleep for him till the early

As soon as the folks collect for the performance, a
night bazaar springs up on both sides of the path
leading to the stage ; and here women and girls sell
such wares as sweetmeats and other edibles, cigars, and
so on.

The interest of such performances is not of a very
enduring nature for the European. After some few
times of looking on he will seldom be induced to go
near one unless merely out of compliment to the donor
who may have sent him a special invitation. Perhaps
one of the things that strikes the western stranger most



is the calm way in which the actors will stop and
replenish the footlights with earth-oil or will walk up
to the Panbin in the centre and re-light a cheroot
which may have gone out.

The prettiest performance of all, however, is the
Yeingpwe or ** posture dance " performed by girls and
young children, accompanied by choruses and adapta-
tions from one or other of the Zat. The most celebrated
of these companies are of course in Mandalay, but at
many villages the children are trained for local per-
formances. As everywhere in the East, the dances
are purely posturing, and are not particularly graceful
from a European point of view. This is clearly indi-
cated in the name, as Yeing means "to lean," "to be
inclined." There is no quick movement of the limbs,
but rather a series of slow contortions of the trunk,
limbs, hands, and feet, not particularly suggestive of
grace or beauty to the western mind.

As brawls and riotous behaviour are only too apt to
occur at night plays, permission to hold a Pwe has to
be obtained from the magistrate, and performances are
usually limited to nights upon which there is a suffi-
ciency of moonlight to assist police supervision in case
of accidents.

Even the holy days occurring with each change of the
moon are regarded as holidays so far as the donning of
fine attire is concerned. Those dedicating the day to
worship retire to the rest-houses near the monasteries,
and hear the law read by the priest.

The monasteries [Kyattng) are usually to be found in
what are, or once have been, the suburbs of towns and
on the edge of villages, so as to be as near as possible
to the forest. They are almost always surrounded by
enclosure (Paraivrm). Here, under the shade of fruit
trees, or among the posts below the flooring of the
monastery itself, the little schoolboys loll idly or fill in
their abundant leisure time with play, while pariah dogs
swarm around the building. Usually there are one or
more pagodas near the monastery. Tall flagposts, too,
surmounted by an effigy of the sacred Brahminical duck
[Hent/m), bear long, circular, serpentine streamers {Tagon)



or prayer flags, which sway to and fro with every breath
of air.

The flooring of a monastery is never on or near the
ground level, there being always a space of at least six
to nine feet between them. In all the larger monasteries
this platform is gained by a flight of brickwork steps, on
either side of which a fantastic leogryph {Chinthd) or
a grotesque demon-like monster [Bilu) is placed as if
keeping watch and ward.

C)f course monasteries vary considerably as to details ;
but, as a rule, each consists of two or of three wooden
pavilions, mostly connected, and all standing on the same
level on a platform raised well above the ground. At
the top of the steps there is a broad open verandah, often
running all round the edge of the platform on which the
group of buildings stands. The main pavilion consists
of a hall in which the boys are taught, and where visitors
are received. The end at which the priest and the
monks sit is raised slightly above the rest of the flooring
where the visitors squat in attitudes of obeisance. At
the back portion of this dais stand one or more images
of Gaudama, richly carved and gilded boxes for holding
manuscripts, and offerings of all sorts.

The dormitories and the refectory are usually included
in a separate building ; while at the other end of the
platform, mostly on the eastern side, stands a smaller
hall containing- a large image of Gaudama. Wherever

o o o

the great enthroned images of Gaudama may be placed,
either in the central hall or in a separate chamber, it is
there that the spire {Pyathat) rises, when there is one.
The graduated roofs of the spire vary in number from
three to nine, though even the largest only appear to
have seven until the false roofs making the sacred nine
are discovered.

Sometimes the central hall looks as if it consisted of
two or three storeys. But the interior invariably extends
right up to the roof, as it would be a religious offence if
any one, even the head of the monastery, were to walk
above any chamber in which monks are.

When any much revered priest dies, the performance
of his obsequies forms a festival in which the whole



country-side joins. The corpse is first of all embalmed,
swathed in linen bands, put into a coffin hollowed out of
a single piece of wood, enshrined in a gilded shell, and
then placed in state in a temporary building [Neikbaii
Kyaung) within the monastery grounds. Here it re-
mains, surmounted by a murex shell in the shape of an
ornamental dragon's head, till sufficient funds have been
collected to celebrate the cremation on an adequate scale.
This great event, called the Pongyi Byan or " return of
the great glory," usually takes place in February or
March after the rice crops have been reaped and »old,
when money is circulating freely.

When the day fixed for the cremation has arrived, the
country people from all directions flock in crowds to the
scene of the ceremony, dressed in their gayest garments,
and intent on pleasure making. The funeral pyre and
the lofty, tapering, seven-roofed bier, gorgeously adorned
with pictures, gold-leaf, tinsel, and coloured paper, are
usually erected either on the knoll of a hill or else on
some clear space in the open fields. The lower part of
the structure is filled with combustibles and chips of
fragrant woods, while the receptacle for the coffin occu-
pies one of the upper tiers of the seven-roofed spire.
The golden case enshrining the coffin and corpse is
brought from the Neikban Kyanng to the place of
cremation on a four-wheeled car richly decorated.
Ropes are attached to each end of the car, and when it
reaches the pyre a great tug-of-war ensues before the
sacred casket is placed in position. The pulling from
side to side takes place without any prescribed method.
Men take sides as they please ; and as one side needs
strengthening, people rush forward to lend it their assist-
ance. The origin and the signification of this procedure
are now obscure.

When sufficient amusement has been derived in this
manner, the coffin is raised into its proper position on