John Nisbet.

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

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IF one were forced to deliver a terse, categorical opinion
on the subject, it might well be said that the Bur-
mese have no Science, while their Art is crude. But
the substitutes which take the place of the former, and
the latter itself, for its own sake, are well worthy of more
than mere passing remark, because the national ideas of art
are vigorous and original. Possessing neither construc-
tive talent nor any desire for knowledge of the laws of
nature, and receiving no education save of the most ele-
mentary kind (and that, too, chiefly confined to the incul-
cation of the leading principles of the Buddhist religious
philosophy), the Burmese have neither science nor any
word which is equivalent to the term as understood in
western civilization. The nearest approach to this in
their language is the word Pinyd, meaning " wisdom,"
but also applied in recent years to education and general
knowledge. The only other word of this kind, Atdt, the
nearest equivalent to our term art, means "ability to
do" or "acquaintance with" anything. In all, eighteen
Atdt are recognized, which include what are sciences and
arts with us. Whoever has the sliohtest smatterino^ of,
or even makes pretension to, special knowledge of any
art or science is distinguished by the term Sayd, or
" doctor " in the academic sense. Of the most vital of
the sciences for the well-being of a nation, medicine, the
Burmese have the crudest notions possible. The savage
and barbarous birth customs, which make Burmese
women age prematurely and soon destroy their repro-
ductive power, have already been described (page 184).



There are two classes of doctors for bodily ailments,
one of which prescribes drugs [Beindaw Sayd) while the
other [Dat Sayd) prescribes dieting only. The former
is by far the larger class, but the methods of both are the
sheerest quackery. Each has its book of rules [Kyaii),
and each system professes to be based upon the funda-
mental principle that the human body is composed of
the four " elements " {Dat), — earth, air, fire, and water.
They differ essentially, however, in the methods of treat-
ment, the one class prescribing a diet intended to supply
the element whose deficiency appears to be the cause of
the disease, while the other, the larger school, consists
of medicine men.

The main causes of sickness and disease are looked
for in the four-fold influence of previous actions [Kan),
of the mind [Seik), of the season of the year ( Udn), and
of the food eaten (A/idra), also in the manner in and
degree to which these may be affected by disturbance of
the four elements whose normal balance constitutes a
healthy condition. If the influence of past actions be
considered the chief cause of disturbance, special treat-
ment is temporarily refrained from In order to allow the
vis inedicatrix naturae to have a fair chance first of all.
In other cases a dietist or a druggist is called in, whose
prescriptions are followed. Massage or shampooing
{Hneikpe) is almost always applied, apart from any
special prescriptions.

The first step taken by either class of doctor is to
consult the patient's horoscope, in order to ascertain
what planets are exerting a baleful influence on the ele-
ments of the body and are disturbing their normal state
of equilibrium. The particular temperament and habits
of the individual are ignored. No attempt whatever is
made to diagnose the disease. Sometimes the tongue is
looked at, in imitation of the procedure known to be fol-
lowed by qualified medical practitioners ; but no examina-
tion of faeces or other secretions ever takes place, or would
convey the slightest gleam of information if undertaken.
The rate of circulation of the blood conveys little or no
information to such doctors. Nor do they understand
measurement of the temperature of the body by any



other melhod than roughly estimating- the presence or
amount of local inflammation with the palm of the hand.

For accidents, smearing with powdered barks and
ointments forms the limit of treatment. Neither dietists
nor druggists have any knowledge of anatomy, and the
drawing of blood is horrible in the eyes of the Burman.
Hence there is no surgery, and the use of surgical instru-
ments is abhorred. Abscesses and tumours are allowed
to burst ; no attempt is made to correct congenital or
acquired deformities ; and amputations have never been
performed save as a criminal punishment in the time of
Burmese rule.

All the ills that flesh is heir to are comprised in "the
ninety-six diseases " [Sanawttddi or Kosdchauk Yaiuga),
a term applied to sickness in general. When any one is
very much out of sorts he or she is spoken of as afflicted
with all the ninety-six diseases, not differentiating one
or more of them in particular.

The mortality of the province varies from about
twenty to twenty-five, while the birth-rate ranges from
about twenty- five to thirty, per thousand. By far the
most prevalent diseases are malarial fever, dysentery,
and diarrhoea, which are accountable for about three-
fourths of the annual death-roll. Small-pox was formerly
one of the great scourges of the country, but much has
been done by vaccination to check its ravages. Cholera
is endemic, the slums of Rangoon being probably never
entirely free from it, though it seldom occurs epidemically
on any extensive scale. Ophthalmia is frequent in Upper
Burma and the Shan States. Leprosy is not yet stamped
out by segregation, and venereal disease is much more
common than it would be if a Contagious Diseases' Act
were enforced.

When afflicted with any complaint, the Burmese
infinitely prefers his own native doctors rather than
undergro treatment at the hands of the medical men in
town hospitals established by Government. Even
among the better educated going to hospital is looked
on with dread. Some years ago one of the clerks in my
office in Rangoon was continually absenting himself
through fever. As he was more often absent than at



work, I had at last to request he would go to hospital and
remain there under treatment. In reply, a petition came
from the clerk asking for a few days' leave, and stating
that the excellent Rangoon hospital was " a veritable
hell upon the earth " where he " would soon die of the
ninety-six diseases." Even the thought of going there
had such an effect upon the sick man that he was soon
able to resume reo^ular attendance at office.

As might be expected from so superstitious and
credulous a race, quaint reasons are adduced for the
causes of specific afflictions. Various malarious influ-
ences are believed to be occasioned by malevolent spirits
in the shape of birds and snakes, while paralytic strokes
and nervous disorders are induced by unlucky currents in
the air. A stye in the eye is the result of being deceived
by some one, thus forming a curious parallel to our
vulgar phrase of being " done in the eye."

The pharmacopoeia of the Bemdaw Sayd or " medicine
man " is vastly comprehensive, strange, and wonderful as
to materia medica never thought of elsewhere. Most of
the drugs are merely raw vegetable products, such as
barks, roots, leaves, seeds,^ gums, and simple minerals ;
but they are usually compounded with sedatives or
stimulants, often poisons of a very dangerous nature.
The common term for medicine {Se) includes not only
all kinds of drugs, but also tobacco, unguents, and pig-
ments of every sort. Many years ago I saw a man digging
on the Myitkyo embankment of the Pegu and Sittang
canal, a snake- infested earthwork, with a lot of dead
snakes beside him ; and as it was unusual to see a Bur-
man deliberately taking the life of any animal, as seemed
here to be the case, I asked him what he was doing.
" Digging for cobras," he replied ; and he then told
me he dried the heads and sold them to doctors for
pounding up and mixing with other drugs. Even per-
spiration from a horse is used, though only for outward
application, this being the specific for curing a dark,

^ The nux vomica tree {Kabaung : Strychnos >mx vo/nica) is very
common all over Burma in the forests up to 2,000 feet elevation. If
the ruling price in Europe makes it worth while, enormous quantities are
very cheaply obtainable in Burma.



blotchy skin-disease called Tindeik. Like other orientals,
the Burmese appreciate medicine most when it is dis-
agreeable to the taste and drastic in its action. Medi-
cines are therefore often rubbed on the tongue so that
none of the flavour gets lost.

Magic-waters and charmed medicine are often given
for such purposes as procuring sleep, curing the bite of
a mad dog, and restoring to their proper senses those
who have been "overlooked" or are possessed by an
evil spirit. One of the medicines given as a preservative
against evil spirits consists of a powder made of scrap-
ings from a wooden stake driven into ground upon
which a house, or still better a monastery, is about to
be built.

While undergoing a course of medicine the patient is
not allowed to bask in the morning sun, an occupation
which the healthy male adult infinitely prefers to work.
When the patient is sick nigh unto death the doctor
" ceases taking care of him," which is the Burmese
equivalent for giving up hope of a recovery. The fee
for a doctor's visit is usually only about fourpence or
sixpence, and seldom exceeds a rupee {\s. dfd.\ If he
finds the case beyond his skill, the Burmese Sayd usually
contents himself with declaring that the patient is pos-
sessed by an evil spirit.

When dietists and druggists fail, and often without
even giving them a chance, the witch-doctor {IVezd) is
called in. A consecrated cord (Tami), woven with
seven threads and tied in seven knots, being cast over
the neck of the patient, so as to prevent the escape of
the witch, the wise man recites incantations and asks
whence the witch has come, why she has possessed the
patient, and what she wants before she will leave his
body again. Whatever the patient may then say is
regarded as the witch's reply. If any particular object
be asked for, it is put on the ground in front of the house
and left there during the night. If nothing is said, this
contumacity on the witch's part necessitates the patient
being soundly cuffed or beaten with a stick. Sometimes
the beating is done with a short thick conjuring rod
{Vwdlan) about nine or ten inches long, covered with



cabalistic figures. Once alarmed, the witch, unable to
escape beyond the charmed cord, must at length yield
answers by the mouth of the patient. When the witch
remains very stubborn the patient is at times beaten to
death in the effort to arouse the former to make some
utterance. When he sees that his treatment is not likely
to prove effective, the witch doctor informs the relatives
that the patient is possessed by a malevolent evil spirit,
powerful enough to resist the potency of his charms.

Cases of manslaughter by dietists, druggists, and witch
doctors indiscriminately, are still not at all infrequent
even in the urban centres where the people are brought
closely in contact with everyday evidences of civilization.
At Meiktila, a small town forming the headquarters of
the Meiktila division of Upper Burma, notwithstanding
its complement of civil officers from Commissioner down-
wards, its garrison of European and native troops, its
hospital, its irrigation works, and its railway line, a
typical case of this sort occurred so recently as the spring
of 1897, when cholera had broken out to a slight extent.
An old Burman, whose life's race was all but run out
from natural causes, being stricken with the fell disease,
a Sayd or doctor was called in who prescribed that thirty
pots full of water should be poured over the poor old man
at a late hour of the night. This was done. By the
time the last pot was emptied only a corpse remained,
the spirit of life itself having been driven from its earthly
tenement. And such cases are very common indeed in
the rural districts and the forest tracts.

The credulity of the Burmese as to charlatanism of
this sort can perhaps best be shewn by the fact that,
including about six hundred astrologers, genealogists,
and horoscope casters, there are something like twenty
thousand Sayd, about half of whom are to be found in
Lower Burma. More than the one hundred and fiftieth
part of the total population of the province is thus sup-
ported by the healing profession.

The astrologers or Bcdin Sayd, those " skilled in the
Veda" or four Brahminical books, who can by a study
of the horoscope of any person foretell auspicious and
ominous days for enterprises of all sorts, for the regula-



tion of health, the warding off and the cure of diseases,
are just about as much entitled as the dietists and medi-
cine men to rank as scientists. Of this class the Punna,
or members of a small Brahmin colony from Manipur
which long ago settled near the royal capital, are
regarded with most awe, their services being also much
in demand for interpreting dreams and performing cere-
monial rites in connection with marriage and death.
Retaining the hereditary greed and grasping charac-
teristic of their caste, the phrase of " asking like a
Punna " is proverbial for extortionate persistence and

The manner in which astrologers utilise the horoscope
or astrological house [ZadapSn) has already been indi-
cated (page 187). But it is not too much to say that hardly
any enterprise is entered on without the assistance of the
astrologer in determining the lucky days, and specifying
those threatening misfortune. The auspicious day for
commencing ploughing operations each year, the best
moment for setting out on any journey, the most oppor-
tune time for building or repairing a house, and all
matters of this sort, are decided only after the horoscope
has been submitted to the astrologer. His procedure
is purely ignorant mechanical rote and rule of thumb,
without scientific basis of any rational description.

There is of course a recognized astrological scheme
[Pyet Kadehi) based on the eight planetary celestial orbs,
and this formed the groundwork for siderial calculations
that were made by the court astronomers when fore-
casting the almanac ( Thingyansa). This was made early
in each April by the royal Brahmins at Mandalay, some-
times assisted by the Ministers, and it purported to fore-
shadow the great events of the coming year.^

1 The following Thingyansa for the year 1884-85 may serve as an
example of the sort of forecast given : —

" The old year (1245) will end on Friday, the first day after the full
moon of Tagi'i, at four hours, fifty-three minutes, and twenty-four seconds
after noon. The new year (1246) will commence at eight hours, fifty
minutes, and twelve seconds on the morning of Sunday, the third day
of the waning moon of Tagu^ when the Thagyd Min, the King of the
Nat country, will descend riding on a tame bull, holding an axe in one
hand and a reaper's sickle in the other, and will change his residence



Including the religious epoch dating from Gaudama's
attainment of Neikban (643 B.C.), there have been five
eras in Burmese chronology ; but that now universally
obtaining was established by Pupasaw in 639 a.d., when
he usurped the throne of old Pagan, near Tagaung, on
the Irrawaddy, about one hundred miles to the north of
Mandalay. Hence the present year of grace, 1901 a.d.,
appears, substracting 638, as the year 1263 in all
Burmese petitions and vernacular documents coming
before courts and officials. In all offices, almanacs are
therefore required for collating with the English standard
such dates as the twelfth day of the waning moon of the
month of Tabodwd m the year 1259.

The annual period, commencing, say, with the first day
of the waxing moon of Tagil (in March or April) is divided
into twelve lunar months consisting alternately of twenty-
nine and of thirty days. To maintain something like
approximate fixity in the time at which Tagil begins, a
thirteenth month is every third year intercalated between
the fourth month ( Waso or " beginning of Lent ") and the
fifth month (PVagatmg) in the form of a "second JVasd,"
thus prolonging the Lenten period ( PFa). From the first
to the fifteenth of each month the days are reckoned
with the waxing moon [Ldsan), whilst from the sixteenth
to the end they are designated as such and such a day
of the waning moon [Lddyigyaw). The full moon
{Ldbyi) is, except as regards the commencement of each

from the Pisces {Mein Yathi) to Aries {Mesha). In this year evil will
befall all persons born on a Sunday. There will be cyclones and heavy
winds. Rainfall will be light at the commencement of the monsoon,
good about the middle, and plentiful towards the end. The fields will
prove fertile ; and though the grain may look poor, yet it will be sweet
to the taste. People will enjoy prosperity, happiness, and comfort ; so
they will be able to make large offerings and gifts. The Pi'bin palm
{i.e. Corypha umbraculiferd) will reign as king, and stars will rest on palm
trees. All kinds of white substances will be exceedingly dear. Rain
will fall on the sixth day of the waxing moon of Tagi'i, and will continue
throughout the water festival, falling heavily on the fourteenth day of
Tagi't. The south-west monsoon will commence from the eighth day
of the waxing moon of Kason, and the ceremonial ploughing in the
royal fields {L'etun Min^ald) must take place before ten o'clock on the
forenoon of Sunday, the eleventh day ofthe waxing moon of TawthalinP
And so on.



new year, the season at whicli all religious festivals take
place, whereas the time of total obscurity {Ldgwd) is of
comparatively little more significance than the ordinary
"duty days" {Uboksaiing Ne) occurring with each of the
four changes of the moon. Three seasons of the year,
of about four months each, are informally recognized.
The cold season {Sating Udii) commences on the first
day after the full moon of Tasaungmon (in October or
November), the hot weather {Nive Udu) on that after
the full moon of Tabating (in February or March), and the
rains (Mo Udu) on that of JVasd (in July or August).

In addition to this, the minor flight of time is also
marked by weeks consisting, as with us, of seven days
each. The days bear the names of seven out of the
eight planets {vide page 1 86), but leave out of account
the dark and mysterious Ra/ni, visible only when
occasioning an eclipse by crossing in front of the sun
or the moon.^ Each day was under Burmese rule
divided into sixty hours {Nayi), and sub-divided into eight
watches, each of about three of our hours, which varied
in length at different seasons of the year according as the
days and nights were relatively longer or shorter. The
Nayi or " time measurer " was a copper cup having a
tiny perforation at the base, which, being inserted in
water, sank to a particular mark within a given time.
The Nayi had various subdivisions from " ten winks of
an eye " {Kand) upwards, but these terms were seldom used
except in astrological works. As each lYayi was thus
measured off a gong was beaten, and at every third hour
the great drum-shaped gong was sounded from the
Pahozin or timekeeper's tower within the inner precincts
of the royal palace at the eastern gate. One beat of the
drum denoted nine o'clock in the morning or evening,
two beats twelve o'clock, three beats three o'clock, and
four beats six o'clock. From the Paho the beats were
repeated on large bells by all the guards throughout
the palace. To ensure attention to this matter in the

^ Rahu is also an Athiira, a sort of Titan or fallen spirit, the greatest
of all the Nat in Spirit land. He is said to be 576,000 miles in height,
and to eat the moon once in every six months.



olden days, the timekeeper could be carried off and sold
in the public market if he were negligent in the dis-
charge of his duties, being then forced to pay a fine in
the shape of ransom. Now, under British rule, where-
ever there are jails, police stations, treasury guards, and
so forth, the hours are marked off by beat of gong.
Hence, in towns, the word Nayi has now come to mean
both the hour, measured by the European method, and
the clock or watch by which it is measured. In the
rural tracts and jungles, however, there is still no such
advanced or precise standard. If asked what Nayi it
may be at any particular time of the day or night, a
peasant would probably give some such reply as " before
the brightening of dawn," " about the second time of cock
crowing," " about breakfast time," "when the sun is begin-
ning to descend," " the time for the evening meal," or
"sleeping time." And in the same way there are rough
and ready measurements of distance, such as " within
hail," " as far as the lowing of a bullock can be heard," " a
quid of betel " (ten minutes), " as far as a cheroot lasts "
(half an hour), " as far as one can go before eating food,"
or even " needing to sleep two nights on the way there."

The standard of measurement of distance was the Ta
of seven cubits, one thousand of which formed the Taing
or Burmese mile (equal to about two English miles), ten
of which make a Tkaung. The Yuzana, or unit of dis-
tance, always mentioned in sacred books and mythological
narratives, consisted of 6,400 Ta\ but it is never used
colloquially in this manner. For smaller measurements
the span [Two) of nine inches, and the cubit {Taung)
of about eighteen inches are the most common terms in

It can hardly be said that literature is a living art in
Burma. Close upon three thousand males were thus
classified during the census of 1891, but these were almost
entirely copyists in monasteries, employed merely in
transcribing the sacred writings on palm leaves with an
iron style i^Kanyutdaii). Most monasteries possess a
small library (Bidagat Taik), but, with the increasing
use of the printing press, the copyist's art has already
begun to fall into desuetude and will soon be a thing of

VOL. II. 289 u


the past. Sitting round tlie camp fire, or during journeys
by land or water, tliere is generally some wag of the
party who can improvise snatches of song ; but the
national body is not at the present moment endowed
with the living spirit of literary creation. The interest-
ing literature of the past, mostly of a purely religious
character, will be dealt with in another chapter.

It is a sad but an undeniable fact that contact with
western civilization has soon led to the corruption and
decay of Burmese art. It has rapidly become debased,
and the bastardizing and deteriorating process is still in
progress. And, what is more, nothing can prevent this.
Nowhere is this decline more noticeable than in the
wood carving and the silver work for which Burma was
justly famed. None who knew the platform of the great
Shwe Dagon pagoda in Rangoon about twenty-five
years ago can have revisited it within recent years with-
out a pang of regret at the innumerable signs of the
decadence of wood carving. More than twenty years
ago the crude, but bold and artistic, teakwood carvings
of pure Burmese design with which the shrines and
prayer poles were adorned had begun to give place to
more elaborate work degraded by contact with Italian
and English influences ; and this loss of artistic sense
soon depfenerated to such an extent that within a few
years buildings with galvanized iron pillars, corrugated
roofs, and abominations from a Glasgow foundry, in the
shape of cast iron imitations of Burmese carving, were
allowed to be put up as ornamental eaves-boarding and
finials. It was nothing short of desecration, almost
amounting to sacrilege, to permit such hideous mon-
strosities to be placed side by side with the purer " works
of merit " already collected under the shadow of the great
golden pagoda.

Till the downfall of the kingdom of Ava in 1885,
Mandalay was the great centre of Burmese art. But
even there it did not escape the effects of contamination
with Italian handicraftsmen. Founded in 1857 and
occupied as a new capital in i860 by a monarch of
advanced tastes and commercial instincts, the royal
buildings were for the first time roofed with corrugated



iron. Many of the stone edifices were ornamented in
stucco with hybrid designs showing ItaHan influence.
BaUistrades were made of green glass in place of being