In the Burmese month of Thadingyut (September/October) it was predominantly the pleasure of anticipation that put the people into good spirit and made them happy; the anticipation of better weather (after the end of the monsoon season), of getting married, of moving the house, of going to hunt and as for ‘pongyis’ (monks) of travelling. In brief, the anticipation of all that what the people did not have or what to do is considered taboo during the three month of Buddhist lent.
With the arrival of the ardently awaited ‘Thadingyut la pyei mee htun pwe daw’ (Full-moon Light Festival of Thadingyut) that we have celebrated at the begin of October all those wonderful things have become true and now in the month of ‘Tazaungmon’ (October/November) the Burmese people are happily engaged in doing all of this and are enjoying the sunny, ‘cool’ and dry weather.
Those living to a large extent on hunting or can make good casual earnings with it have a higher income now, people’s menus are enhanced by fresh and tasty ‘Ame like’ (game) of all kinds, from ‘Tha min’ (deer) to ‘Taw wat’ (wild boar) to different species of ‘Taw kyat’ (fowl), lovebirds get married and move into new homes (as do many others), and pongyis are travelling to visit their families, which many of them did not see for at least three months. Everybody is feeling and showing happiness and the smiles grow brighter by the day as the ‘Tazaungdaing mee htun pwe daw’, Tazaungdaing Festival of Lights – which to prepare they will soon busy themselves with – and the ‘Pagoda Weaving Contests’ are drawing nearer. Tazaungmon is another month of happiness and celebrations on end.
Only some two weeks have passed since we have joyously celebrated the Thadingyut Light Festival and in about two weeks we will be celebrating the next popular light festival, the ‘Light Festival of Tazaungdaing’.
But Tazaungmon has more to offer than the light festival and the pagoda festivals with the weaving contests. Subsequently, the people of and in Burma do more than celebrating only these two events and weddings; many things are on this month and in the following we will concern ourselves with them in some detail.
Follow me into the colourful Burma, since 1989 called Myanmar (a name that is not undisputed) and the happy lives of the Burmese people in Tazaungmon. In the next days we will occasionally mix with the people. Then you can see what they are doing. That will help you to get a better understanding for what is going on here than you get from just reading what I am writing.
The four weeks between the two light festivals, both of which are accompanied by festivities and ceremonial offerings, are called ‘Kathein’. This is the period in which Burmese Buddhists donate ‘Kathein thingan’ (Kathein pongyi robes), slippers, ‘Htis’ (umbrellas), ‘Thabeiks’ (alms bowls), ‘Yets’ (hand fans), ‘Bagans’ (plates), ‘Qwes’ (cups), sets of ‘Zoon, Khat, Dar’ (cutlets) and even ‘Pari baw ga’ (furniture) and money to pongyis and ‘kyaungs’ (Buddhist monasteries). This they do for the purpose of gaining merits for this and their following lives they will have to live before finally reaching ‘nibbana’, the ultimate goal Buddhists want to reach. It is a state of neither existence nor non-existence. They can (and do) of course donate these things at any time of the year to the ‘Sangha’ (Buddhist order or Buddhist monastic community) but it is believed that the act of ‘dhana’ (giving) during Kathein is more meritorious than at other times.
The ‘pa de tha pin’ is a wonder tree on which everything grows that the human being needs and/or desires. You want to eat caviar or Parma ham or lobster or smoked salmon or a big, juicy and tender steak or whatever your favourite dish may be? You want to drink a bottle of sparkling champagne or wine or whiskey or beer or any other beverage you may favour? You want to have a nice Lacoste shirt or a wonderful Giorgio Armani suit or a dream-like Coco or Christian Dior dress? Or maybe you want an expensive timepiece with diamonds? No problem, the tree bears all these things instead of ordinary fruits and they are there for you to pick. Come to think of that! Whatever you want, you just go into the garden and simply pluck it from the tree. The words ‘want’ and ‘no more’ you could simply remove from your vocabulary because you would have everything (in material terms) at any time, in any quality and in any quantity and there would always be enough of everything. Is that not wonderful?
Well, according to legend this kind of tree really grew at the time mankind came into being. But greed and envy put an end to this wonderful time as it made the tree disappear. Problem was that people were permitted to picking only as much as they really needed to satisfy their immediate demand. But they started to pick more than they actually needed or could consume at one time and stored it or took things they actually did not need just because others had taken them and they wanted to keep up with the Joneses what prompted the tree to vanish. You recognise the parallels to the Christian ‘Paradise’?
However, during Kathein you can see this tree again. It ‘grows’ at many places. Of course, these trees are not real trees but wooden triangular frames with wires strung from one side of the frame to the other. You see that man-high things over there, the one with the many paper decorations clipped to the wires and the artful decoration made of paper? Yes, the one that resembles a Christmas tree with a Christmas star at the top. That is a pa de tha tree and the ‘paper’ decorations are real bank notes that are tucked to the frame. Looks nice, does it not?
But in contrast to the ‘real’ pa de tha pin, from these pa de tha trees you do not take anything at all. On the contrary, you put something onto them as these trees represent the spirit of ‘dhana’, of ‘giving’. On, for instance, the many street festivals that are held at this time you can see these triangular shaped wooden frames on which people put ‘fruits’, that is their donations in money or in kind. So, if you happen to pass a pa de tha tree during one of the next days, please hang a folded bank note or a small gift on it. It must not be a large amount. Any amount or thing that you donate will earn you merits and I wish you that a real pa de tha tree will be growing on your doorstep and that you will never again have to say the word ‘want’ or to hear the words ‘no more’.
The pa de tha ‘trees’ are brought – once they are full of ‘fruits’ donated by companies and ordinary people like you and me – in long processions of good-humoured people accompanied by ‘Do bats’ (music troupes) and dancing groups to the respective monastery the donations are dedicated to. Each monastery is not allowed to accept more than one tree or set of these triangular wooden frames. The distribution of the gifts such as robes, slippers, hand fans, cooking pots, pans, blankets, etc. to the members of the Sangha (monks) is done by way of ‘lucky-draw’ or lottery.
The Tazaungdaing Festival is also called ‘Kattika Feast’ and it is often referred to in the ‘Jatakas’ (Buddha’s birth stories). When I am writing about Burma I am often mentioning, among others, Jatakas and find it at this point useful to give you a few words of explanation. Jatakas are the morally and individually instructing stories of Siddhartha Gautama’s (the later Buddha’s) lives as it is assumed that the Buddha progressed through many his Enlightenment-preceding existences in various forms of living creatures and even as supernatural being. Among these various existences were, e.g. that of a prince, a deer, a dog and a god. The Jatakas frequently originate from Gautama Buddha himself and according to early Buddhism the gaining of knowledge of all of his former lives was an essential part of his Enlightenment. The Jatakas are one part of the three parts comprising ‘Tripitaka’ or ‘Tipitaka’ (Pali for ‘Three Baskets’), which are the fundamental scriptural canon of Buddhism.
There are plenty of stories and legends that deal with the subject of festivals in Tazaungmon. There is, for instance, one story according to which Burmese people have to actually thank thieves for being given the opportunity to celebrate in Tazaungmon. What do you say? That is quite a strange and hardly believable explanation for the festivities in this month?
Well, maybe. As I repeatedly say in my stories about Burma, its people, their culture and Buddhism there are often different stories told about the same thing or event and it is despite all diligence difficult and mostly impossible to find the truth in the absence of objective facts and evidence. But before you make up your mind let me tell you this. I have two quite big and heavy flower pots with young palms in front of the door to my ground floor apartment. This morning when I came out of my door to go to the ‘mane zay’ (morning market) they were disappeared. It did not take me long to understand what had happened. I went down the street to the corner and, well, what do you think did I see? Correct, my palms. There they were. I gave the two boys who happened to be there and smiled at me 200 kyat each (one bun filled with custard is 150 Kyat, so they will have had a nice breakfast snack) and they carried the palms back to my door. You know what has happened and what that has to do with the story about the thieves and the Tazaungdaing festival? Most probably you will not know that. So, let me tell you the story from its beginning some hundred years ago.
According to ‘Badin sayas’ (astrologers) each planet represents basic human drives and each sign of Zodiac represents a set of human characteristics. Tazaungmon is – so the astrologers told the kings – the month in which the constellation and direction of movement of astronomical bodies, particularly the stars and the moon, bends certain people’s thoughts on mischief and that this is the month in which thieves are particularly active. Bearing in mind the local people’s (what of course includes the kings) strong belief in the influence of unknown forces (superstitiousness) it is a small wonder that as the story goes kings ordered that festivals have to be celebrated in Tazaungmon. This order was given in the hope that the merry-making and happiness would distract people’s minds from mischievous thoughts and that, subsequently, thieves would not ply their trade. I do not know whether this ploy has actually worked out. How would I? However, what I know is that this story is the backdrop against which is to be seen the old tradition that groups of young boys and men spend whole nights during Tazaungmon to play practical tricks on people by, for example, stealing flower pots with plants that can often be seen standing in front of houses and piling them at cross-roads (does that sound familiar to you?) or stealing clothes (preferred are woman clothes that, e.g. are hung outside to dry) and hoisting them at the top of poles or removing sign boards from shops and putting them on people’s doors. So, during the next days you should be fully awake to the ‘dangers’ of a ‘Thako gyi nja'(thief master night) and take well care of your clothes as you may otherwise one morning find e.g. your underwear fastened to the top of a bamboo pole and fluttering in the wind. All of this is, of course, done in the spirit of fun. No one feels offended and everybody has a good laugh. Should something like that happen to you please try not to be angry and to see the funny part of it. No one intends to do any harm to you.
Apropos many stories about Tazaungmon and the Tazaungdaing Light Festival; do you see the young woman with the many jewels over there in the ‘Thabin the’ or ‘Zat a pwe’ (group of actresses and actors performing theatre) who is just throwing flowers at the royally dressed young man on this thing that looks like a chariot? That is the young maid Ummadandi, the actress playing the role of Ummadandi respectively. And the young man is playing king Kutha. Come, let us go and watch them, there is a play, a ‘Zat pwe’ (traditional Burmese theatre) in progress. They are just playing a very popular story of which I like to tell you.
Ummadandi was according to legend an extremely beautiful young woman. She was the daughter of a wealthy and noble family. King Kutha had heard of her great beauty, entertained the idea of marrying her and sent a group of soothsayers to have them check the distinctive features of her body and face in order to have them confirmed that she was as beautiful as he had heard and to find out whether she was fit to be the queen.
In order to fully understand what now follows you must imagine that Ummadandi was very famous for her striking beauty. And, of course, she knew very well the affect her beauty had on men and was not accustomed to any of her wishes not being granted, her desires not being fulfilled, respectively. She was a real knockout and much sought after by many a respectable young man towards some of whom she was by all means favourably disposed. But being the object of a king’s (!) desire and the prospect of becoming queen (!), what could possibly top that? A dream would come true if king Kutha would decide in her favour and she had no doubt that he would do so once the soothsayer would report back to the king.
So, and now this group of fortune tellers is coming on order of the king. She deemed king Kutha’s interest in her a great honour and, subsequently, presented herself in the best light possible. Accordingly, the men sent by the king were most warmly welcomed and offered food. And now it comes. Immediately upon seeing Ummadandi in the flesh the fortune tellers got into a state of enchantment induced by Ummadandi dazzling beauty. They began to stutter and made a mess of their food. Ummadandi expressed her consternation about this improper behaviour and the fortune tellers left. Angry about and ashamed of their behaviour and in fear of the king’s finding out about their bad behaviour they made the decision to lie to the king and to tell him that Ummadandi was not suitable to become a queen. And that they did whereupon king Kutha decided that she was not worthy of him and, subsequently, did not pop the question. Instead, she was given to the king’s general who took her as his wife.
Naturally, Ummadandi was very enraged by the fortune tellers’ foul play and being resented by the king had very seriously injured her pride and vanity; she was determined to take revenge. Knowing that her time would come she patiently waited for a good opportunity. She knew that would most likely be on Kattika as the king usually made a triumph tour through the festively illuminated streets of the city on full-moon day in order to demonstrate how close he was to the people and to give them the feeling that he was with them to celebrate the Tazaungdaing Light Festival. Ummadandi’s husband – the king’s general – suspected that his wife was up to something and circumspectly instructed her to stay out of king Kutha’s sight because he would be on duty on Kattika. He knew that the king at the sight of the beauty of his wife would lose control over his thoughts.
But, of course, Ummadandi was by no means willing to let this great opportunity to take revenge slip. The shame, the injury of her dignity and self-esteem she had sustained due to both the soothsayers’ shameless lies and the king’s rejection were so severe that she could not let things pass in silence. After all, not only had she been humiliated but her future as a queen was also destroyed because the fortune tellers had deliberately made king Kutha believe something that was not true by giving a false report.
As soon as her maid informed her of the arrival of the king’s chariot she took position at the window, opened it in the right moment and threw flowers at the king what prompted him to turn his face into her direction and to look at her. The moment their eyes locked she gave him her most seductive smile and withdrew into her room. As was to be expected, king Kutha was thunderstruck at the sight of the most beautiful woman he had ever seen and a look of agitation flashed over the king’s face the instant he realised how utterly foolish it was of him to give this most beautiful and desirable woman to his general without calling into question what his fortune tellers had told him about her. She was there for him to take and he had refused her. It hit him with such a force that he was unable to continue his parade and therefore he immediately returned to his palace. Upon arrival he at once retired to his private chambers where he lied down and mourned in agony.
The story does not tell what happened to the soothsayers after the king had become aware of the nasty trick they had played on him and recovered from his pain. Instead, the story continues with the general’s offer of his wife to his king whereupon king Kutha was deeply ashamed of himself. The end of the story is that the king after being cured of his infatuation went on with his fair and just reign.
The story of Ummadandi and king Kutha is a favourite with the Zat troupes during Kathein and especially tomorrow on the full-moon day when we celebrate the Light Festival of Tazaungdaing. I hope you have enjoyed this zat pwe (I definitely did and do so time and again) and that you will accompany me tonight to the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda where the annual ‘Pagoda Weaving Festival’ is taking place.The weaving contest will last till tomorrow morning. I can assure you that you are missing out on something truly impressive and exceptionally interesting if you choose not to come with me.
So, here we are on the already crowded terrace of the great Shwedagon Pagoda and I congratulate you on your decision to accompany me. I promise you that you will not regret this. We will later watch the young weaver in action and also relish the nationwide in this night eaten specialty ‘Mezali bud salad’ that as the people believe has – provided it is prepared under the magic light of the full-moon and eaten at the proper time – the magic property to heal all ailments.
Mezali (cassia siamea) is the common local name for a tree with thick foliage and its blossoms. It is a medium-sized tree that provides edible leaves and flower buds. The buds are of greenish-brown colour, the blossoms are bright-yellow.
While we are strolling about I will give you some further information about this event. Right now as I am telling you about the pagoda weaving festival, a similar competition is about to begin at pagodas all over the country, some of the most famous of which are, of course, this Shwedagon Pagoda here in Yangon, the Ananda Temple in Bagan, build By King Kyanzittha in 1091, the Mahamuni Pagoda in Mandalay, build by King Bodawpaya in 1784, the Kyauktawgyi Pagoda in Amarapura (Amarapura is one of Burma’s main centres of weaving), build by King Pagan in 1847, the Kaungmudaw Pagoda in Sagaing (about 6 miles/10 kilometres outside Sagaing), built by King Thalun in 1636 and the very famous and unique Kyaiktiyo Pagoda, build in the 11th century by the legendary King ‘Tissa’, who as legend has it was the son of a ‘Naga’ (mythical being half serpent and half human) princess and a ‘Zaw Gyi’ (alchemist, sorcerer).
The Kyaiktiyo pagoda is located in the Mon State, about halfway between Pegu and Thaton (both cities were capitals of the mighty Mon kingdoms), some 6 miles/10 kilometres away from Kyaikto, on top of a huge gold plated boulder known by the name of ‘Golden Rock’.
On the Full-moon Day of Tazaungdaing the Kyaiktiyo pagoda is centre of pilgrimage for thousands of Buddhists from all over Burma. In the full-moon night they attend here a unique ceremony in which they offer nine thousand candles to Siddhartha Gautama Buddha and say prayers.
During the night preceding the Full-moon Day of Tazaungdaing unmarried girls and young women meet on the temple and pagoda grounds to provide proof of their weaving skills. Compared to the quite boisterous Kathein offerings, which are accompanied by all the trimmings such as folk dance, ‘Pat-Waing’ (double headed drum), ‘Pat-Ma-Gyi’ (large double-headed drum) and ‘Hne’ (flute) music and processions the robe weaving festivals are rather a quiet although as you will see, definitely cheerful and entertaining affair enjoyed by young and old, women and men, weavers and onlookers alike. It is the highlight of the Kathein offerings. Till the morning of the full-moon day the young woman are sitting concentrated in front of their hand looms and are weaving as fast as they can, which as you will see is very, very fast.
The Burma crafts of cotton and silk weaving have a long tradition and in the rural areas it is now as ever highly valued if a young woman is good at weaving. To take part in a pagoda robe weaving contest is a great honour for the women and – what, of course, goes without saying – to win the contest even more so. But winning or not it earns much merit and brings glory to the art and craft of weaving. In times past there were contests between neighbouring villages.
Knowing that for the vast majority of people the word ‘weaving’ is quite a common yet rather empty term I am taking the liberty of giving you a few words of explanation so that you can duly appreciate the amazing skills and achievements of the weavers.
Weaving on hand looms is plain weaving. The fabric produced on a loom is made by interlacing two sets of yarn or threads at right angles. The vertical (longitudinal) thread is called the ‘warp’ whereas the horizontal (transverse) thread is called ‘weft’ (in American English ‘filling’).
The basic process of weaving consists of threading the weft alternatively over and under the warp from one outer warp to the opposite outer warp (left to right and back) in a cyclic process and the process of loom weaving involves four successive basic steps; the installation of the warp thread, the ‘shedding’, the ‘picking’ and the ‘beating up’. To prepare the loom for operation the warp threads forming a surface of closely spaced, parallel threads are held taut. Then at the beginning of the cyclic weaving follows the ‘shedding’. This raises some of the warp threads in order to allow the proper placement of the weft. In plain weaving, every other warp thread is raised and the weft thread is threaded below and above the warp threads. The spaces between the lowered and raised warps are called ‘sheds’. Then follows the ‘picking’, which is the process in which the weaver is pulling the weft through the sheds by means of a ‘shuttle’ that is of ship-like shape with pointed ends and contains a spool of weft threads. The next step is the ‘beating up’ in the process of which the new weft is forced against the previous one so as to get a compact fabric. The beating up is done with the help of a comb-like implement called ‘reed’ with closely spaced wire teeth. At the end the raised warp threads are dropped by lowering the ‘heddle’ and the new set of warps is raised for the new cycle what locks the weft firmly into place.
In the aforementioned manner the young women weave against each other in a fair and due to the overarching common goal of weaving robes that will be offered to Buddha images more uniting than caused by personal interests dividing contest. There is no enmity between the contestants and once the shuttles are laid out of hand they will happily celebrate together. But now they will begin to weave and do so continuously all through the night till tomorrow morning. The speed with which they are weaving is truly amazing. Hands, shuttles and reeds are flying in a never-ending cycle. The only a fraction of a millimetre thin threads are under their skilful hands transformed into a compact fabric. Millimetres of this fabric grow into centimetres, centimetres into metres and, finally, the yellow and red robes are ready.
At dawn the contest is over and the during the night produced robes are in a ceremonial process offered to the Buddha images of the respective pagoda that has been the scene of the weaving contest as well as to the pongyis (monks) in the kyaungs (Buddhist monasteries). After the robe weaving contest and the robe offering ceremony the weaver take their well-earned rest in order to be later fit to continue the day with the celebration of the Tazaungdaing Light Festival. Particularly actively is the Tazaungdaing Light Festival celebrated in the Shan State, especially in its administrative capital Taunggyi, were during Tazaungdaing the ‘Lu Ping Festival’ that is originated with the Pa-O people (a Shan tribe) is held.
This festival comprises two parts, which are daytime and night-time ‘hot-air-balloon contests’. The balloons in which to build their creators put a lot of time, patience, love and money are really huge (some metres high, wide and in diameter) and are for the daytime competition mostly made in the shape of religious buildings such as pagodas or animals both real and mythical such as Hintha birds, dragons, horses and elephants. These hot-air balloons are very impressive, to be sure, but even more beautiful are those with hundreds of candles brightly illuminated balloons of the night-time contests, which are mostly made in the shape of globes. How proud the owners and creators of these balloons are is something that you can see when looking into their faces; and proud they can be of their master pieces. I tell you honestly, I would not like to be a member of the commission deciding on winners and runners up. I think they do all deserve to be given the first price.
Combined with the groups of actresses and actors that perform the folksy form of theatre, the ‘Anyein Pwe’ that is concerned with episodes of the everyday life, or ‘Pya Zat’, a form of theatre in which pieces of the fantasy world are performed (here a heroic prince must overcome demons’ and sorcerers’ evildoings in order to rescue his princess), the groups of musicians and dancers that present dance theatre, called ‘Yein Pwe’, the many vendors that sell goods and products such as toys, balloons, snacks and beverages and the happy and gay overall atmosphere the Lu Pin festival truly is an event that is very unlikely to be ever forgotten; as are the Light Festival and the Pagoda Weaving Festival.
So, that was it for now.. I dearly hope that I have successfully managed to let you have a nice time by entertaining you well and bringing the country of Burma, its people and their cultures closer to your heart.
I am looking forward to see you again.