John Nisbet.

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

. (page 28 of 41)
Online LibraryJohn NisbetBurma under British rule--and before; (Volume 2) → online text (page 28 of 41)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

of a thin piece of tin or iron, cut in the form of the leaf
of the sacred I^zciis religiosa and generally gilded, which
is suspended by a thin chain from the roof of the bell.
With each breath of air these " fig-leaflets " are borne
against the sides of the bells, which thus tinkle day and



night while the air is in Hght motion. Sometimes these
pagoda-bells make a sweet melody during the stillness
of the night, though often they seem rather to jangle
unmusically when too close at hand.

The largest bell in Burma is that at Mingun, on the
western bank of the Irrawaddy, a little above Mandalay.
Here the foundations of an enormous pagoda having a
square base of 150 yards in length were laid in 1771
by King Mintaydgyi, which, had it been completed,
would have formed the largest pile of brickwork in the
world. But it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1839,
when it had risen to a height of 165 feet, or a little under
one-third of the total 500 feet in height which the original
design contemplated. Close to these massive ruins is
the large Mingun bell, probably only outrivalled in
dimensions by the great bell of Moscow. Popular report
credits it with weighing 555,555 viss, or 905 tons, but
the Burmese royal chronicle assigns to it a weight of
55,500 viss or about 90 tons ; while more recent estimates,
based on measurements and rough calculations, show that
it must weigh about 80 tons. It is twelve feet in height,
and ten feet in external diameter at the lip, while it varies
in thickness from about six to twelve inches. For many
years it remained resting on the ground, having fallen
from its supports; but in 1896 it was raised again on
substantial iron uprights and crossbeam, and has since
been enshrined in a rich housing of carved teak.

In some respects the most interesting bell in Burma,
however, is the famous Mahagancia, a great bell weighing
about twenty-two tons, enshrined in the north-eastern
side of the platform of the Shwe Dagon pagoda in
Rangoon. Presented to the pagoda by King Sinpyuyin
in 1774, when he visited Rangoon in order to gain reli-
gious merit by repairing the brickwork of the pagoda, by
regilding it from pinnacle to base, and by replacing the
old Talaing Ti (or metal " umbrella " surmounting the
top) by a new one covered with gold and profusely studded
with jewels, which he had constructed in Ava for the
purpose, — on which occasion he also slaughtered the aged
Byahmaingdi, his prisoner, the last King of Pegu,
together with many of the Talaing chiefs, — this bell was



removed by the British prize-agents in April, 1825, for
shipment to Calcutta as a trophy. Whilst it was being
conveyed on a raft to the ship Sulimany, it heeled over
and sank not far from the river bank. In January, 1826,
it was raised by the British from the mud of the river-
bed by mooring it with two cables to a brig at low water,
alono^ with which it rose on the return of the inflowinsf
tide ; and the Burmese were then permitted to haul it on
shore, and remove it once more to its place on the pagoda
platform. This was done, vior'e Burmanico, with ex-
travagance of delight and public festival. The bell was
garlanded with flowers, and preceded by music and
dancing. During the last seventy years this has of
course developed into the legend that the bell was raised
easily by the Burmese, after all attempts on the part of
the British to recover it had resulted in failure.

Another larcre bell, of about nine tons weiofht, hunof in
the south-east corner of the same platform, was founded
and placed there early in 1843 by King Tharrawaddi to
replace one which had been presented about 1460 by
Dammazedi, King of Pegu, but which had been lost in
the Pazundaung creek about 1600, when the Portuguese
Governor of Syriam,the notorious Philip deBritoy Nicote,
also known as Maung Zingu, was carrying it off.

As in the other arts, so also with reg^ard to music
there seems to be an entire lack of inventiveness and
creative power. All the existing tunes having apparently
been handed down by ear from generation to generation,
musical notation being quite unknown to the Burmese.
In speaking of music they vaguely recognize only five
kinds of musical instruments {Turiyci or Tihmdk Tazd,
" instruments to be beaten or blown "), but in reality they
employ a larger number in making the dreadful noises
which can often only be recognized as intended for music
when assisted by the enchantment of being heard from a
considerable distance. The taste for Burmese music
close at hand does not grow on one. For two years I
lived in Shwegyin in immediate proximity to the place,
near the northern gate of the main bazaar, where all the
funeral processions halted on their way to the crematorium
and burial ground ; yet the shrill, piercing notes of the



horn and the loud booming of the frame-drums on these
ahnost daily festive occasions seemed unmusical to the
end. It is little short of agony to be encamped too
near to any Pwc or theatrical performance on account of
the loud, discordant accompaniment to the play.

The principal wind instrument is a clarinet [Kayd,
line) widening like an oboe towards the lower end, and
with a short, spreading, bell-shaped brass termination like
the base of a bugle ; and there is also a pipe or flute
{Palwe). A variety of drums exists, as noise is one of
the most striking characteristics of the national music ;
but the chief of these is the Saing, consisting of a circular
framework with thin, ornamental wooden balustrades in
which a peal of small drums of different sizes and tones
is fixed in regular gradation. These are played on by
hand by a man sitting in the centre. To accommodate this
Suing in processions, the musicians are usually seated in
one or more carts. For making- these drums the wood
of the Bonmeza tree [Albizzia stipulata) is invariably
used. A smaller instrument of similar shape is the Kyi-
zvaing or " circle of gongs," which are struck with a stick.
The chief stringed instruments are the Satmg, a harp or
lute of nine to thirteen silken strings, made of Padauk
wood {Pterocarpus Indicus) with a sounding-board of
doeskin, and the Migyaimg or " crocodile," so called from
its shape, a guitar of three strings strung lengthwise
above a cavity hollowed out of teakwood. There is
also a kind of violin [Tayaw), with three strings, forming
one of the minor instruments. Of those played by percus-
sion the brass cymbals (Lingwin) easily take first place,
but the Pattala or harmonicon constructed with some
twenty or more pieces of bamboo, about an inch and a
half wide but graduated as to length, hung along two
strings in a sounding box made of teakwood deeply
hollowed out, is more sweetly toned. To add to the
volume of sound bamboo clappers or castanets ( Walet-
gok, Hnyap) are also beaten together, sometimes with the
hands, sometimes with the feet ; but these can hardly be
considered musical instruments, though nearly always
to be found in a band.

The high-pitched, shrill, piercing clarion notes of the



Kaya proclaim the dominant theme and variations of the
tune ; and, accompanied by the loud harsh clash of the
brass cymbals, they make themselves heard above every-
thing else in Burmese music. The man who keeps con-
tinually moving about beating the drums hung within the
framework of the Saing has on the whole the hardest work,
for he who plays the Kayd usually has support in the
shape of a man (called the Nauktaing) sitting behind
him, back to back, against whom he can lean when he
begins to feel tired.

The use of musical instruments is confined almost
entirely to men. Girls sometimes, though very rarely,
play the bamboo harmonicon, but not any of the other

The Burmese musical scale consists of an octave
having nearly the same notes as the European diatonic
scale ; but the interval between E and F is not a semi-
tone as in our octave. The Burmese F is sharper than F
natural, and yet is not the true F sharp ; while B is also
sharper than the European B natural. Little attention
is paid to pitch, and the instruments are for the most
part such as require hardly any tuning. Very few of
the stock tunes have been written down by Europeans,
though the great national air, the Kayd Than or " Sound
of the Clarion," has been set both for piano and for a
military band. Freed from the element of noise pro-
duced by an unmeaning use of drums and cymbals, it is
a quaint and distinctly musical air, in parts sparkling,
bright and gay, and in others plaintive and sad.

In Burmese tunes the first notes in bars are usually
emphasized, the following ones being played more and
more softly, then often almost dying away altogether.

Some of their short lyrics, almost always sung to sad
and plaintive tunes, are very impressive if heard in the
soft stillness of the mild tropical evening, when the mind
is best attuned for receiving impressions of this sort.
The echoes of one such, heard in the gloaming more
than twenty years ago amid the jungles fringing the banks
of the Sittang river, will ever linger in my mind asso-
ciated with the scene around me at the time. I had been
out all day in the dense elephant-grass jungle directing

VOL. 11. 305 X


operations for capturing two female baggage elephants
which had been lured away by the males of a wild herd,
and I was sitting by the bank of a small stream meditat-
ing on the contrariness of things in general and the
perverseness of female elephants in particular. The
evening sky was weird, shot with most of the colours in
the rainbow, and filled with the faint, pale lemon-hued
lights which seem to induce sad feelings so readily and
undesiredly. Following each other in quick succession
flights of various kinds of birds, homing westwards to
their nesting places in the forests of the Pegu Yoma,
had passed far overhead, and the daylight was fast
beginning to fail. All around was the dark brown, mud-
laden water flowing towards the main river ; because it
was the month of August, when the highest floods were
out and the vast inundations covered many scores of
square miles of low-lying lands throughout the Sittang
valley. Just as it was about time to wend my way back
to the hamlet where I was encamped in a monastery, — for
the higher land is then usually swarming with cobras and
other snakes driven up by the waters, and a certain
amount of daylight is essential for wary walking, — the
sound of a plaintive song, well sung, came faintly through
the jungle, growing gradually stronger and louder as it
came nearer. Suddenly the prow of a canoe shot out
from behind a thick clump of tall elephant-grass, and
a merry singer burst forth with a new verse commencing
" Mating Shwe Maung ..." Naught save the first
few notes and the first nasal variation had been trolled
forth, when the lad seated paddling at the stern of his
canoe caught sight of me on the bank, and the love- song
was stilled. Averting his head shame-facedly as he
paddled by, he soon made the small canoe shoot past
quickly, and was lost to view behind other jungle. That
is long, long ago now ; but whenever I have since heard
it said, and that not infrequently, that the Burmese have
neither poetry nor music in their composition, then the
memory of the plaintive notes of that song and the untold
tale of Maung Shwe Maung rise up within me in silent
protest against the critic, who has never felt and under-
stood the deep pathos of the simple folksongs that some-



times break the stillness and silence of the lonely recesses
in these often very depressing tropical jungles.

In painting, the artistic feeling is much less apparent
than in carvingf and silver work, althouo^h the mural
decorations in the Kupyaukgyi, Kuzeik, and other older
shrines in Pagan disclose evidencesof an art now lost to the
Burmese. The subjects chosen are usually either legen-
dary or intended to represent celebrated pagodas and
shrines. The colouring is crude in the extreme, and the
technique grotesque, while there is a total disregard of
even the most elementary axioms of perspective. At
some of the religious edifices the various torments in-
flicted in the many different kinds of hells are most
graphically represented. One of the most complete and
gruesome of these collections is at the Arakan pagoda
at the southern end of Mandalay. Torments are there
depicted with much detail, such as the most ultra- Cal-
vinistic of Scottish divines could hardly have found him-
self able to conceive and describe, so blood-curdling and
realistic are they. Whenever Englishmen form the
subject of Burmese pictures, they are generally repre-
sented in absurd situations and with a number of beer
bottles around them, mostly empty.

Another form of minor decorative art consists in em-
broidered curtains [Kalagd) or applique work of red cloth
with figures sewn on that have been cut out of black and
coloured cloths, spangles being often added to heighten
the effect. This is the only approach the Burmese have
to anything in the way of tapestry. Some of the legend-
ary designs thus treated are effective pieces of colour,
though rather crude and meretricious from the artistic
point of view.

At Bassein, Sagaing, and Shwebo a somewhat coarse
sort of art pottery is manufactured to a slight extent in
the form of terra cotta adorned with rough models of
elephants, monsters of various sorts, figures of men, and
floral tracery, all highly glazed. The ordinary brown
glaze is produced by coating the articles, while still un-
fired, with a wash of galena (Ckaw, Bwet) and rice water,
while sulphate of copper is added if a green tinge is
desired. Under King Mindon efforts were made to



introduce glass-blowing into Mandalay ; but tiiis never
attained much success, altliough the title " Chief of the
Glass Boilers" {Paiigyet Wtnidaiik) was borne by one of the
most influential amoni; the younger officials at court during
both Mindon and Thibaw's reigns. It was this Wundaitk
who was sent in 1885 as Ambassador Plenipotentiary to
reside permanently in Paris (see vol. i., page 73).

Even in many such minor matters as the embroidery
of felt saddles, or leather harness, etc., there is a strong
hereditary artistic feeling among Burmese handicrafts-
men ; and it is matter for regret that this is inevitably
being thrust aside and gradually obliterated in conse-
quence of contact with European trade and civilization.
Decay in all the various branches of national art is, how-
ever, merely one of the inevitable items in the total price
that Burma is paying for the loss of its separate national
existence, and for its rapid material progress under the
present more civilized administration, which has for its
chief aims the protection of life and property, the
advancement of education and sanitation, and the expan-
sion of trade and commerce.

In referring to the treatment of diseases nothing has
been said above about veterinary work, though this is of
great importance in an agricultural country where serious
epidemics often cause a heavy bill of mortality among
cattle (see vol. i., pages 309, 310). Government have
done much to try and remedy this by suitable instruc-
tion ; but, as might be expected, the Burmese methods
which obtain are very primitive and barbarous, entirely
empirical, and altogether devoid of scientific knowledge
or of humane feelino- for the sufferings of the brute
creation. Thus, injections of curious mixtures are
frequently made into the eyes of ponies and cattle, when
they are out of condition through over-work or over-
exposure to the sun. One such recipe consists of a
mixture of betel-leaf, cloves, tobacco, and salt. These are
all pounded together, mixed with water, and applied
while fresh. This " eye-opener " often (it is said)
stimulates energy for the time being ; but it must be
horribly painful to the poor dumb animal, already suffer-
ing from illness. It must certainly act powerfully as a


Chapter XII


THE Burmese language, with its half-dozen local
groups or dialects, belongs, together with the
various Chin and Kachin tribal languages, to the
Thibeto-Burman family of what may perhaps be termed
the polytonic languages of Indo-China. The other fami-
lies occurring, or spoken at all, in Burma include the
Chinese, the Mon or M6n-Annam, the Shan or Tai, and
the Karen languages.

The Mon or Peguan language, more commonly known
as Talaing since the downfall of the Peguan kingdom in
1757, is still spoken and taught in monasteries in the
villages between Moulmein and Amherst, though nothing
is done for its special encouragement. It has a literature
of its own, and numbers of inscriptions are recorded in it.
The only known offshoots from the ancient Mon are the
Palaung hill tribes chiefly to be found in the Ruby Mines
district, and the Khamu tribes near the Mekong river.
Taic Shan includes all the languages spoken by the Shan
and Chinese-Shan tribes, the Laos and the Siamese.
The Karen language includes the three groups, Sgaw,
Pwo (inclusive of Taungthu), and Bwe or Bghai.

The classification of the Aryan, Semitic, and Dravidian
families of languages as monotonic, in contrast to these
polytonic families, is of course somewhat arbitrary and
artificial ; but tonal variations are in the latter case so
essentially characteristic of the spoken language as
perhaps to justify the distinction thus made. The Shan
language, for example, contains five tones when spoken ;
and in some of the syllables there are three series of
these, giving fifteen possible different pronunciations of



a sino^lc syllable. lu)rtunatcly, however, these tonal
possibilities are not fully utilized in conversation. In
Burmese there are three tones, so that any given syllable
may have three entirely different meanings only dis-
tinguishable by the intonation when spoken, or by accents
or diacritical marks when written.

The Burmese alphabet, however, is borrowed from the
Aryan Sanscrit, through the Pali of Upper India. This
was the language spoken by Gaudama during the sixth
century B.C. ; and it was in Pali that Asoka's inscriptions,
dating from about 241 B.C., were recorded.

Although the languages themselves differ greatly, all
the alphabets in use throughout Further India have been
derived from the old Devanagari or Pali characters.
The oldest inscriptions as yet found in Burma are Sanscrit
records in the Gupta character of Samvat 108, or 416
A.D. ; while the national language seems to have come from
Ceylon and Southern India along with the Buddhism
which became the national religion. Nearly all the older
stone inscriptions found in various parts of Burma are
recorded in square Pali characters ; but as all the manu-
scripts were made by graving with a style on leaves of
the Talipot palm [Borassics flabelliformis), the letters
gradually acquired their present rounded forms.

As a matter of fact the Burmese possess two lan-
guages, the ancient classical Pali, and the more modern
vernacular Burmese. Their genius is different ; for Pali
is a polysyllabic language, while Burmese is monosyllabic.
All Burmese words are monosyllabic, except those derived
from the Pali ; yet even these are usually pronounced as
if each syllable formed a separate word. The purely
monosyllabic nature of Burmese is, however, very fre-
quently masked by the common habit of combining
words of synonymous, similar, supplementary or modify-
ing character to convey one complete idea, or else by the
necessity for combining two radicals, either nouns or
verbs, to convey the idea expressed by one word in our
language. Thus KyauJdanthc, " to be afraid," is com-
posed of the monosyllabic words Kyauk, "to fear," and
La7i, "to be startled," while Yanpyitthe, "to quarrel,"
is made up of Yan, "strife," and Pyit, to throw. In



Burmese it very frequently happens that two mono-
syllabic words are required to express an idea which
may be represented and conveyed by one word of

All classical, religious, legal, astrological, pseudo-
scientific and technical terms are, as a rule, Pali ; and
great numbers of Pali words of two or more syllables are
easily detected among the pure Burmese monosyllabic
radicals of the current vernacular language, e.g. Kanct,
"a moment," Yaza, "royal."

Occasionally hybrid polysyllabic words are to be found
consisting of Pali combined with a Burmese radical, as
in the word Yandaraset, where Yandara means a
"machine," and Set "joined together." The whole
Public Works Department in Burma is naively com-
prehended in this mongrel word for "wheels within

Connected with these two classical and vernacular lan-
guages there were also two alphabets, having respectively
square and circular letters, though these have long since
become combined in the Burmese alphabet taught at the
monasteries. The whole alphabet was, of course, origin-
ally derived from Pali ; but so many changes, both as to the
shape and the phonetic value of many letters, took place
in accommodating the characters of an ancient Aryan
polysyllabic, monotonic language to the essential require-
ments of a modern polytonic, monosyllabic language, that
the resulting alphabet really embodied two classes of
letters, one being ancient and the other modern.

Of the thirty-one consonants in the Burmese alphabet,
six are never found elsewhere than in words of Pali
origin ; and at least four more are much more common
in classical than in vernacular words. The main con-
sonants are arranged in five groups, that of K forming
the gutturals, of 6" the palatals, of Pali T the cerebrals,
of Burmese 7* the dentals, and of P the labials. Each
of these five groups consists of five letters, the first being
the simple consonant, the second its aspirated form, the
third the rough or hardened form of the first, the fourth the
aspirated form of the third, and the fifth the nasal belong-
ing to the series. Thus, giving the a vowel inherent in



each letter when no other vowel is indicated or when
this inherent vowel is not annulled by a that or " killing-
mark," the guttural series is ka, k'a, ga, ga, nga ; while
the labials are pa, fa, ba, Ua, ma. Besides these five
series of five letters each, there are six nondescript,
unclassed consonants of a soft, liquid, aspirate or other
nature [ya, ra, la, wa, tha, and hd). There is neither an
/ nor 2iV m the alphabet. In foreign or Pali words in
which these occur they arc represented by / and w :
thus Mr, Victor Eraser would appear as Weiktaiu
Par^sa Thakin when translated into Burmese.

Including the inherent vowel, there are ten vowels in
Burmese, which may be transliterated as a, a, i, i, u, u,
e, d, azv, dzu, pronounced much as in German or Italian.
Combinations of these have the value of the sounds
et, at, au.

The language is written from left to right in what
appears an unbroken line. But there is no difficulty or
confusion thus caused to those who understand the
language. Each syllable or word is definitely intelligible
by its inherent or specific vowel, or by the tonal diacritical
marks attached to it ; while the end of clauses or sen-
tences is marked by verbal affixes, and at times even by
a full stop in the form of a single or double upright bar
(l or ll). Erasures are not made in manuscripts, but
cancellation is eff"ected by placing a heavy dot in the
centre of each rounded part of the letter or letters to be
passed over. The manuscripts are all on palm leaves
cut to the size of about two and a half inches broad and
a foot and a half or so in length. They are preserved
by being rubbed from time to time with earth-oil ; and
this also, by dirtying the graven letters, makes these
stand out for easier reading. Volumes are formed by a
bamboo peg near each end impaling the leaves placed
one on the top of the other ; and the whole manuscript
is enclosed within wooden boards on the top and bottom,
and tightly rolled in cloth or paper and tied. The
monosyllabic roots or radicals forming the basis of the
lano;uao;e are either nouns or verbs. Out of these the
language is built up with the aid of vowel prefixes or
affixes of various sorts. By the addition of these the



verbal roots can be turned into nouns, adjectives, or
adverbs. They give the tenses to verbs ; and they form,

Online LibraryJohn NisbetBurma under British rule--and before; (Volume 2) → online text (page 28 of 41)