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A Guide to Tourism Destination and Beyond

Vol. 2

No.1

October-December 2002

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Hearts Full of Charity


By Hpone Thant
Photos By Sonny Nyein & Maung Maung Latt (Chit Nyo)

The gilt barge with the Phaung Daw Oo Images

"Have two cents in my pocket but one cent I shall give to charity. Can anybody be equal with us in generosity"; a popular folksong by our up-hill cousins shows how generous people in the Shan plateau are. They are well known for their charity and generosity. And they are also very pious.

Pilgrims line the route

The monsoon season has been a busy period for the farmers but soon the rain clouds will be away and the people will collect their harvest and they will be ready to show their charity and generosity for it is a time of festivals in the Shan State.

Our cousins, the Shans, the Innthars, the Pa-O, Danu and Palaungs people who live on the high mountains of southern Shan State will be celebrating many festivals; Phaung Daw Oo Festival in the Inlay Lake, the Khatein Holy Robes offering ceremonies at monasteries, the Parade of Lights and the Hot Air Balloon Festival at Taunggyi.

The Kahtein procession at Taunggyi

Phaung Daw Oo Festival

Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda is the most well known of all festivals in southern Shan State. Situated inside the Inlay Lake the pagoda houses five Buddha Images on a pedestal. The legend is that it was King Alaung Sithu of the Bagan dynasty who consecrated these Images.But legends apart, these Phaung Daw 00 Images are specially venerated by all the people of Myanmar. Pilgrims from allover the country has been coming here to pray and put gold leaves on these Images that after centuries they had lost all their original shapes and are now heavy lumps of gold nuggets.

The Kahtein procession at Taunggyi

The Phaung Daw 00 Images by tradition tour the villages in the lake in the month of Thadingyut (October). Four Images are carried on a gilt barge towed by leg-rowers on its journey. Pilgrims line the route with flowers and other offerings. At night stops Buddhist holy texts are chanted by the monks and laity alike. One tradition is that only 4 Images are taken on tour. "Once when all five were taken a big storm suddenly came up and overturned the barge and all five were thrown into the lake. Repeated dives could only salvage four Images but when the Pagoda Board of Trustees came back dejected to the pavilion there they found the fifth Image on its place, wet and covered with moss", a senior pilgrim explained to us. "So, only four Images are taken on tour now and the place where the gilt barge sank is marked and clearly visible inside the Lake. Do you see that wooden pillar with the shelduck on top?" our friend pointed.

The Kahtein procession at Taunggyi

"What is the best place to view this procession?" we asked. The best days to view this ceremony would be when it crosses the widest part of the lake towards Nyaung Shwe, the principal town of the region and at Nyaung Shwe itself where the Images reside for three days. Hill people come down in their native dress and it is carnival time in town. Another time is to catch the Images being transported back to the pavilion where they usually reside.

The Khatein Ceremony

The Buddhist Lent coincides with the monsoon season. By the canons of the monkhood, the monks are allowed to own only three sets of holy robes. After three months of monsoon rains however it is inevitable that these robes would be ragged and need replacements. Consequently, Lord Buddha had allowed the laity to offer new holy robes for the monks between the full moon day of Thadingyut (October) and the full moon day of Tazaungmon (November). These ceremonies are called Khatein ceremonies and are Buddhist religious ceremonies and held allover the country at monasteries. But none is so colourful and elaborate as in Taunggyi, the capital of the Southern Shan State.

Sheep and cattle take to the skies in Taungyi

"Tomorrow is the Full Moon Day and what have you done?" we overheard a group of teenagers talking. What they are saying was that as the next day is the Full Moon Day of Tazaungmon there is to be a big procession in Taunggyi to carry the holy robes and other offerings for the monks to the City Damayone or the City Prayer Hall. The villages and quarters in and around Taunggyi vie with each other in making elaborate shapes and figures from their offerings. The offerings would not only be holy robes but also other items that would be useful for monks; blankets, cupboards, wall clocks etc. These are hung on bamboo frames and on the morning of the fullmoon ofTazaungmon the devoutees carry their offerings and parade around Taunggyi with music playing and dance troupes leading the way, before being brought to the central City Prayer Hall in the middle of the city. There lots are drawn by the town elders and the offerings carried to the respective monasteries. The ceremony ends with the offering of soon (lunch) to the most venerable monks of the district who are invited to this important occasion.

Hot-Air Balloon Competition

In conjunction with the Khatein ceremonies at Taunggyi is the Hot Air Ballloon Comptition. One of the organizers explained to us : "Initially, this was a simple ceremony by the youths of the town to pay homage to Sulamuni Pagoda said to be in the abode of the Celestial Beings in haven. Also, Novenber is the month when the sky is clear and the the weather is fair and a good time to keep alive our ancient tradition of constructing hot-air balloons from local materials. Now this simple affair has become world famous."

This is a unique opportunity to preserve those traditions. Balloons are made of bamboo frames and papier mache, what the locals call "Shan paper", made from the mulberry plant. During the daytime competitions are held for various categories of hot air balloons; one-animal category; double animals; a group category etc. These are judged by the appearance, the flight performance etc and points given. "Tet thwa be he, tet thwa be (it is successfully flying") cries the owners of high flying balloons with joy while those whose balloons prefer to show their love for mother earth instead goes back with renewed determination to try better next year. However, whether in victory or defeat it is great fun for everybody.

"But the most spectacular events are what are called Nya Mee Gyi or Big Night Balloons" one of the judges elaborated. These are huge balloons, some 20, some 30 feet in diameter and height and hung with loads of fireworks weighing many kilograms. Furthermore they are hung with lighted lanterns on the sides. Air is heated with a mixture of furnace oil and rags and other flammable things and once they are aloft they make most remarkable sights againsts the dark sky. One complication is to light all the

Scence from Nya Mee Gyi or Big Night Balloons

lanterns in time before the huge balloon struggles to fly away as it fills up with heated air. Point will be deducted for non-completion of set tasks within a stipulated time. At a predetermined height pyrotechnics display will start; rockets and star clusters will shoot out from the balloons. And these fireworks are designed in traditional way; ginpowder, charcoal and a little bit of magnesium. A good design, the flight characteristics, the decorations on the sides and dangling below, a good fireworks display, all are important to get good ratings. Only the most experienced of hot-air balloon constructors can make a truly impressive balloons which will perform as expected.These masters are highly respected. Needless to say a good deal of energy, enthusiasm and money, as well as experience, goes into creating these monster balloons and the rewards are also substantial. Prizes are said to be around hundreds of thousands of kyats .

Scence from Nya Mee Gyi or
Big Night Balloons

Parade of Lights

Scence from Nya Mee Gyi
or Big Night Balloons

Another spectacular sight is the Parade of Lights performed on the evening of the Fullmoon Day ofTazaungmon (November). The air is crisp with a bite of winter. But the whole of Taunggyi comes alight with flickering candles in the gathering dusk as the inhabitants wound along the main street with lighted candles in their hands. Decorated and lit-up floats also comes along with stories of the life of Lord Buddha made in papier mache or painted on huge billboards. Even some episodes from the life of Lord Buddha would be acted out on some specially decorated flat-bed trucks. This is by Buddhist tradition a homage to the Sulamuni Pagoda, said to be by legend in the abode of the Celestial Beings. Also as mentionned above, the month of Tazaungmon (November) is one of the more auspicious months. According to Myanmar astrology this is the only month in the year where the sky is clear and bright and all the nine planets and stars are visible. The rocession then ends up at the Sulamuni Pagoda at the edge of the town, the namesake of the same.

Parade of Lights at Taunggyi

These scenes are witnesses to the deep religious feelings of our brothers and cousins living far away in the eastern mountains. But at the same time all are bound firmly with the same sense of piety and charity that runs deep in all the ethnic groups that live in the territory called Myanmar. .

Hpone Thant is a regular contributor of articles to the magazine. He can be reached at harry@swiftwinds.com.mm

Enchanting

Myanmar

A Guide to Tourism Destination and Beyond

Vol. 2

No.1

October-December 2002