John Nisbet.

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

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the pyre, and the priests and monks, who have until now
been reciting portions of the sacred writings in tem-
porary rest-houses, return to their monasteries with many

The ignition of the pyre is effected by large rockets



{Kyddttn or " rope tubes," consisting of pieces of bamboo
filled with gunpowder) attached with rings to guide
ropes, fired from one or other, and often from all four
sides of the car. As the Burmese are not good
mechanicians these rockets sometimes get disengaged
and shot into the dense throng of people. The fall of
each badly aimed missile affords much amusement to the
crowd, but a great shout arises when at last one reaches
its goal and smoke is seen to issue from the pyre. The
cremation is then soon effected. The ashes left are
afterwards examined, and any bones found are interred
near some sacred shrine or have a small pagoda built
over them. Particularly throughout the northern dis-
tricts of Burma these last resting-places of the partial
remains of monks are marked by teak-wood memorial
posts {Ayo-6 Hmattaing) about six or seven feet high,
richly carved and surmounted with lotus-leaf ornamen-
tation. It is only over the ashes of priests or of princes,
and not over mere laymen, that pagodas may be erected.

The obsequies of ruling princes are celebrated with a
similar amount of gay and almost theatrical ceremony.
In July, 1897, I was present in Taunggyi at the funeral
rites of the late Sawbwa of the Shan State of Nyaung-
ywe, which was a very gorgeous spectacle. But an even
gayer scene was that which I had the good fortune to
see at Toungoo in April, 1888, when a bishop {Gaing Ok)
and four heads of monasteries [Pojtgyi) were cremated
simultaneously during one afternoon.

Apart from festivities of the above different kinds
havinof a more or less distinct connexion with religion,
the chief amusements of the Burmese consist mostly of
boat racing and pony races. But they are keen sup-
porters of other forms of amusement which serve as a
means of indulging their favourite vice of gambling,
which is in fact the great national vice.

Boat races [Hl^ Pwe) are generally held at the full
moon of Thadingyut, just after the festival of Tdwa-
deingtha. By that time the great floods on the main
rivers are over, but there is still a large volume of water.
Formerly every district was proud to strive after attain-
ing the headship of the river in this respect. Each



town and big village had its own racing canoe {Laung)
and its crew well trained to the use of the short paddles
with which they are propelled. The boat races were
formerly regular annual festivals, but now they are only
held here and there, wherever the local officials care to
countenance and encourage them.

The racing canoes are keelless skiffs of thirty to fifty
feet long and two to three feet in breadth, hollowed out
of a log of teak or of the lighter wood of the Yamane
tree {Gnielina arborea) and painted jet black with a coat-
ing of Thitsi varnish [Melanoj^rkcea usitata). Along
both sides of the dug-out a little water boarding rises to
a few inches in height, and is kept well caulked to pre-
vent shipment of water. The paddlers, numbering up
to a couple of dozen or more, sit in a long line paddling
on alternate sides, except in the larger canoes, where
the centre seats are broad enough to seat two men. All
the great canoes have their names, such as Stm, "hawk,"
Attngban, " the flower of victory," and so forth, by
which they and their crews are known far and near.
The position of honour is that of steersman, the " head-
man of the boat," who sits at the end on very nearly the
same level as the paddlers, and guides the canoe with a
large sweep, worked now on one side and again on the
other as the steering may require. For racing, the
paddlers tuck up their waistcloths tightly between their
thighs {Kadaimg cheikthe) and discard their headdresses.
Then they tie an old handkerchief tightly round their
chests so as to come just below the scapulae and the
breast muscles. Concerning the object of this I have
never been able to get a clear explanation from any
Burman ; but it is probably done with the idea of bracing
up the upper muscles of the trunk chiefly used when
paddling with a very short, quick stroke.

As usual in all Burmese gatherings, a boat race forms
a grand spectacle of colour. All the people collect from
far and near, decked in their gayest attire and intent on
enjoying themselves to the utmost. The Burmese being
inveterate gamblers, boat racing affords them grand
opportunities for indulgence in this vice. In this respect
it beats cock fighting and even pony racing, the other



two great forms of sport in which money changes hands

The races are rowed in heats, the canoes changing
places after each heat. Only two boats contend at one
time. It is not considered a true victory unless one boat
wins two consecutive heats, one being obtained on each
side of the stream. Otherwise the advantage may be
mainly owing to luck in having a stronger current on the
side where the first and the third heats were gained ; for
the races always take place down stream for a distance
of about one half to three-quarters of a mile. With a
current running at about four or four and a half miles an
hour, up-stream paddling would be difficult and very
slow. During a gala day of boat racing held at
Toungoo in 1889, one of the items was an eight- paddle
competition over a short course between the clerks in
the various Government offices. When they had reached
the winning-post and tried to paddle back, neither of the
crews could make any headway against the current, so
both had ignominiously to row down stream to where
they could conveniently effect a landing whence they
might return to receive the congratulations, and the chaff,
of their friends.

As the canoes are paddled up to the starting place,
offerings of fruit and flowers, for the propitiation of the
spirits of the river, are to be seen on the prows of the
contending boats. Whenever a start has been effected,
the previous ceaseless chatter and noise are stilled, and
the whole of the dense crowd becomes intent on the
struggle going on. As the boats at length approach at
the rate of about ten or twelve miles an hour, louder
and louder are heard the shouts of the steersmen and
the crews, " Yaukya batJia ! Lit la, Kya la ? Hlaw laik
he, Kat laik he ; Yaukya hatha ; Yd, Hi " — " Like a
man " (lit. " man's custom ") ! Man or tiger ? Row,
paddle, like men ; Raise the paddle, dip the paddle."
Gradually the people are roused to intense excitement.

The winning-post consists of a small canoe moored in the
middle of the stream and allowed to swinsf with the cur-
rent so as to point straight up and down stream. At the
prow a hollow bamboo is placed horizontally on supports,



and is fixed so as to project an equal distance on each
side from the central point. In the tube rests a piece
of thin rattan projecting a few inches on either side ; and
the drawing out of this rattan constitutes victory in the
heat. Formerly a " flower of victory " was attached to
each end of the rattan, whence the name of Pandan or
"flower rod" for the winning-post.

As the boats near this goal the man at the bow ships
his paddle and seats himself in the prow, leaning forward
in close contests so as to try and gain the advantage of
a few inches in seizingf the rattan. Sometimes the
finishes are very close and exciting. In the autumn of
1877 a late Commissioner of Pegu (then Assistant
Commissioner, Kyaikto) and I had the felicity of sitting
in the canoe forming the winning-post at the Sittang
regatta. The very first heat rowed had a most exciting
finish. The prow man of each canoe seized hold of the
projecting end of the rattan, and a short, sharp struggle
for its possession took place, during which we two occu-
pants of the seats of honour had to cling to both sides
of the canoe to prevent ourselves being overturned into
the river. The rest of the races we saw from a safer
position on the bank.

As soon as the actual result of two or more heats is
known the jubilation of those who have won money on
the event is almost unbounded. A free rein is for the
moment given to the excitable national temperament.
Men and women, calm and comparatively unemotional
under ordinary circumstances, behave as if possessed, and
make themselves figures of fun. On gaining possession
of the " flower rod " of victory, the men forming the
winning crew vociferate and gesticulate with great vigour.
They stand up, shouting, flourishing their paddles, and
performing antics which often end in upsetting the canoe.

Pony racing {Myinpyaiiig Pwe) is another favourite
amusement and means of gambling. Here, again, the
races are all matches between two ponies, and are run
in heats, in which the ponies change sides. The Bur-
mese pony, varying from about eleven and a half to
twelve and a half and rarely thirteen hands or more in
height, seems naturally to take very keenly to racing.



Seldom under any circiimstrinces tender-mouthed, when
once it has been raced it soon acquires iron jaws and a
strong tendency to bolt on the least provocation. Most
of the ponies are now more or less of the Shan breed,
and but few are to be found of anything like pure
blood of the renowned old Pegu strain. Usually a lean,
sinewy, mischievous-looking, high-withered, ewe-necked
little animal, the true Pegu pony was fleeter of foot,
more iron-jawed, and hardier than the bigger, sleeker,
and handsomer Shan pony from the hills, with its thick,
well-arched neck and its gentle eye. The Burmese
hog their ponies' manes, but never clip their tails. With
them a pony loses greatly in value if its tail is cut, while
mares command a much less price than horses or
geldings. No entire ponies are brought down by the

The course run is usually about half a mile, and in a
straight line. It is marked out by a central line formed
with reeds, straw, or twigs, any crossing of which con-
stitutes a foul. Umpires are selected to see that every-
thing is fair, and to decide questions as to fouls which
either owner may choose to bring to notice. The riders
are usually small boys, catch weights being the true
Burmese method. These feather-weights ride on the
ordinary Burmese saddle — a straw pad cased in red felt
cloth — with short stirrups, in which only the big toes
rest. The girth is of narrow cotton belting. Seated on
this small embroidered pad resting on the pony's back,
the jockey's knees are turned quite outwards, while his
heels touch the sides of his steed. Crouching down,
very much like a monkey, he leans forward — somewhat
in caricature of Tod Sloan's method — grasping the thick,
round, tasselled reins of twisted cotton fastened to the
simple snaffle, and flourishes a thin cane quickly from side
to side horizontally above the pony's head, shouting at the
same time. From start to finish the ponies race like mad
at top speed. There is no spurring or flogging, and no
riding for a finish. All the jockey does is to flourish his
thin wand and yell. His seat is pure balance ; and if he
were to move or the pony were to swerve, he would be
thrown heavily on the ground.



Near Rangoon pony races take place early every
Sunday morning, on the Prome road, between the fourth
and fifth milestones. That the hard mettled roadway
is apt to knock the ponies' hoofs to pieces is of little
consequence to the Burman. The road is straight,
which is the main thing. Partly arising from sporting
instincts, these informal matches are to a great extent
utilized mainly as a means of gambling. In addition to
umpires and referees, arrangements are also made for
having a stakeholder [Daing), who keeps the prize money
till the heats have been run and the match eventually
decided. Sometimes the Daing levants, but that is not
common. In any case it is a position of profit, as he
usually receives a percentage for his trouble. This much
resembles brokerage, and of course it is in the interests of
influential Daing to encourage pony matches as much
as possible. But the gambling spirit is strong enough
to require very little encouragement for its manifesta-

Cock fighting [Kyettaik Pwe) is general in all jungle
villages, and a good gamecock is worth money. Some-
times fine gamecocks are speckled over with white
spots. These, called "dewdrops" {Hnmlki), are pro-
duced by blood stains which have not been wiped off
after a fight.

Even small miniature skiffs, with feather sails, are
made to speed across tiny ponds carrying the wagers of
their owners. Perhaps the most common form of gam-
bling, however, is the Chinese raffle, known as the thirty-
six animal game {Ti). The name of one of thirty-six
animals is written on a piece of paper, rolled up, and
placed in a bag. Money being staked, whoever has
correctly divined the winning animal (Paukgcumg) re-
ceives thirty-five times his stake. The odds are, of
course, always in favour of the banker, and the China-
man can easily increase his advantage surreptitiously.
Chinese dice [An Kasd) and cards [Pe Kasd) are also
used as means of gambling, which has certainly hitherto
formed the greatest national vice.

Cart racing [Hlepyaing Pive) is chiefly confined to the
lower plains of the Sittang and the Salween, where the

VOL. II. 273 T


breed of clean-limbed, sleek-coated cattle sometimes fur-
nishes animals remarkably swift of foot. The racing carts
are very light, and are richly decorated with carving.
The cattle sometimes become very excited, breaking
away from the track and smashing the carts to pieces.
Further south in Tenasserim, from Moulmein to Mergui,
buffalo fights {Kywetaik Piue) are not uncommon. The
most celebrated are those which take place on the plains
near the town of Tavoy. The beasts are trained for the
fray in all the villages around. When the day of con-
test arrives, the rival animals matched against each other
are ridden by active young men, who urge on the brutes
to attack each other. Each guides his mount with a
rope, fastened to a cord piercing its nostrils, and on either
side of the animal's head men stand by with flags, so as
to keep it facing its opponent. Sometimes the animals
fio-ht viciously, but more often they either keep their
heads locked together or else one gets frightened and
bolts out of the arena. When a real fight does take
place, it is a repulsive spectacle ; but the victorious
buffalo is wreathed with garlands, and led about with
music and rejoicing.

The boxing or wrestling matches {Let Pwe) are very
poor affairs. The challenger, naked except as to his
tucked-up waist-cloth, strides about the ring with left fist
clenched and left arm folded across his chest, while he
slaps the muscle of the upper portion of the arm with his
open right hand, shouting out in defiance, He : Yankya
bcUka, " Come on, like a man." Sometimes, when his
challenge is accepted, he \vill bolt out of the ring in abject
fear, — a proceeding quite in keeping with the national
character, — if the acceptor is the bigger man ; for
equality in height is considered one of the essentials in
a match.

When two men are actually found who stand up to each
other, there is a good deal of this arm-slapping and
vociferation while the combatants walk round the ring
watching for an opportunity to take each other unawares.
Suddenly there may be a rush forward, then a few kicks,
strokes w^th the knee, and swinging of the hands, fol-
lowed by a grip and a wrestle. As soon as there is a



fair fall, shoulders touching the ground, the match is
over. Failing this, however, victory rests with the one
who happens to draw first blood from the other. If
either of the competitors complains of being hurt, the
match is also stopped ; but sometimes the referees {Na-
bdn Daing) have to interfere and separate the wrestlers
when they begin to get warmed up to their work and
show signs of becoming viciously pugnacious.

The chief among Burmese games is a kind of football,
played with a Chinlon or "round basket," a very light
ball, formed by plaiting thin strips of rattan loosely to-
gether. The players, with waistcloths tucked up to give
their legs free play, stand about a couple of yards apart
and forming a circle. The ball having been tossed up
into the air, on its descent it is kicked up with the instep,
knees, or sole of the foot. Kicking with the toes is a
mean form of the game. The masterstroke consists in
turning round as the ball descends and making it re-
mount with a stroke delivered backwards with the sole
of the foot. Sometimes it is played with, tipped lightly
up, and caught in the hollow of the elbow or on the
shoulder, before being quietly dropped for another kick
up into the air. It may be struck by any part of the
body except the hand. When it comes in any one's
direction, he endeavours to keep possession of it till
some upward kick sends it within reach of one of the
other players. There is never scrambling for the ball.
Each gets it only as it comes in his direction, and the
skill consists in any individual keeping it in play for
some length of time. This is the great national game
among lads and young men ; and I have seen even grey-
haired old magistrates, the chief officials in large sub-
divisions of districts, enjoying themselves among the
young men at this pastime in the evening.

Equally universal throughout all the districts of Burma is
the game, something like ninepins, called Gonnyintd, played
with the seeds of the Gonnyin creeper [Entada ptcrsaetka).
This woody climber festoons lofty forest trees and pro-
duces huge pods often more than a yard in length, and
containing large, flat, glossy, tamarind-brown seeds about
an inch and a half to two inches in diameter. Up to



ten or twelve of these are placed on edge in a straight
line at right angles to the line of play, while the player
spins another seed from the thumb and forefinger of
each hand at a distance of about six or seven yards, or
more. It requires a considerable amount of knack and
of practice to be able to knock down all the seeds. This
is the favourite game of children in nearly every village ;
but it is also much played, for stakes, by grown-up men,
both young and old.

Less used for gambling purposes, and essentially a
game of skill like our own form of it, is Burmese chess,
called Sitduyin, " mimic warfare," or Siipayin, " the
Commander-in-Chief." The pieces on each side consist
of eight Ne or "pawns," two Yatia or "chariots," two
Sin or " elephants," two Myin or " horses," one Sitbd
or "officer," and one Mingyi or "minister of state."
The " chariot " corresponds to our castle, the " horse "
to a knight, and the "minister of state" to the king.
The " elephant " can move only one square at a time,
either diagonally or else straight on when advancing, but
diagonally only when retreating ; while the " officer" only
moves diagonally one square at a time, whether advanc-
ing or retreating. In Upper Burma the " minister of
state" was called the "king," and the "officer" the
" commander," while the game itself differed in certain
respects from the form general in Lower Burma. The
pawns move and take as in our game, but in the opening
move they can only advance one square. On a pawn
reaching the opponent's base line only the " officer " can
be recovered, and no other piece. If all pieces have
been captured except the " minister of state," which can-
not be taken but only placed in check, and the opponent
has his "minister," "officer," and a "chariot" left,
checkmate must be effected in sixteen moves, otherwise
it is a drawn game. If "minister," "officer," and one
" elephant " are to accomplish the task, forty-four
moves are allowed, while sixty-four are permissible for
checkmating with " minister," " officer," and one
" horse." When opening the game, as played in Upper
Burma, the disposition of the pieces on the board is as
follows : —




Name of Piece.


Position on

squares for






I, 8

57. 64




lO, 19

46, 55




12, 18

47, 53


Minister of State













A sort of backgammon {PasU) or " cowry game "
{Kyiv^kasd) is played with six cowry shells in place of
dice. The shells are cast lightly into the air and
allowed to fall into a small bowl ; then the moves take
place according to the manner in which the shells rest,
mouth or back upwards. Less dependent on skill than
chess, it lends itself better to gambling, and is con-
sequently a game much liked by men. Dominoes are



also played, but more by Chinamen than Burmese. Both
this and the Mctti Kasd, a sort of rouge et noir\\\\\\ dice,
are almost always played for stakes and not as a mere

The little boys have plenty of amusements. English
marbles have found their way into most jungle villages,
and a game has evolved itself quite different from any
known here. Kite-flying is common, and even grown-
up men sometimes amuse themselves this way ; for the
Burman never outgrows his innate desire for idle amuse-
ment. When the rice crops have been reaped, the small
boys have great fun in the fields in shooting at doves and
other small birds with crossbows and clay pellets or with
feather darts puffed through long bamboo tubes. But
these latter are too silent occupations, and therefore less
beloved than the noisy Gonnyinto, when at each shot one
can cry " Kali, Kaldw^' or " Di, Di," and use other
quaint expressions. Small Burmese boys are perhaps the
happiest creatures in all the world ; and, fortunately for
them, they retain their love of the lighter aspects of
life and their power of enjoying these even until death.

It has often been said that dacoity, or gang robbery
by five men or more, forms one of the national amuse-
ments of young men in Burma ; but these opinions are
based on pure misconception. Dacoity has always been
prevalent under Burmese rule, — or rather, under native
misrule, and in the absence of the strong hand of a secure
government, — ^just as it still is in parts of China and Siam.
Considering the Burmese character, it is easily intelligible
how young men could be cajoled or frightened into join-
ing the band of a dacoit leader ; and, once committed to
an outlaw's life by participation in crime, it would have
required more moral and physical courage than the
average Burman possesses to have returned to one's
village and run the risks of arrest and of punishment,
probably of a savage and ferocious nature. Even in the
hot blood of youth, the Burmese are extremely averse to
running personal risks ; they are well endowed with the
instinct of self-preservation. It is rare even to find a
sportsman among them. For choice, the Burman pre-
fers shooting doves among the stubble on the fields to



almost any other sort of jungle game, furred or feathered.
Men of this stamp are hardly those who would take
naturally, as a youthful form of national amusement, to
dacoity with its harsh stern discipline, its hard life in the
jungles, and the main chance of ultimate capture with a
short shrift and a bloody end. The prevalence of dacoity
in the past was mainly due to defective administration.
That fault is now remedied, though occasional outbreaks
of gang robbery must be expected as the inheritance of
centuries of weak government, and as the outcome of the
physical conditions of a country thickly forested and
thinly populated. Organized dacoity by long-standing
bands of outlaws is now, however, already a thing of
the past ; and it can never occur again under British
administration, as it habitually did during the later years
of Burmese misrule which amounted in some districts
almost to anarchy. Similar conditions also existed, and
still exist, in the French possessions of Tonquin. Hence
the suppression of this barbarous state of affairs may
well form a work of friendly rivalry between our French
neighbours in Indo-China and ourselves, for the promo-
tion of civilization and the general prosperity of the
nations respectively under their and our protection.


Chapter XI