Enchanting Myanmar
  A Guide to Tourism Destinations and Beyond

Vol.3  No.1  
October-December 2003

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Festival of Elephants

By Ma Thanegi
Photos: Sonny Nyein

When someone mentions dancing elephants of Myanmar, tourist will immediately think of a circus while the locals know it's a pagoda festival... what else?

Legends tell of a kinga thousand years ago placing holy relics on the back of three elephants and setting them loose; he built a pagoda at each of the places they rested. One elephant stopped on top of a hill in Kyauk Se, a town just south of the up-country old capital of Mandalay Kyauk Se is rich farmland and from the time of llth century Bagan Kingdom it was known as the granary of Central Myanmar. Ancient kings had built canals and dams in the area the better to utilise its fertility. With such historical connections, it is not surprising that Kyauk Se remains a conservative Myanmar town, and religious traditions and cultures are still very much a part of the daily life.

Participants of the dance competition paying homage to the Uttay Na Spirit shrineTo commemorate the construction of the Shwe Tha Lyaung, the Reclining Buddha Image on the hill, annual festivals are held and elephant dances accompanied these festivals.
It might be that the townspeople want to remember and give thanks to the elephant that had chosen their town to have the holy relics enshrined. Others say that it is also to honour Uttay Na, the patron Nat (Spirit) of Elephants. He is a spirit worshipped by elephant handlers and his shrines are present in all timber camps.

Every year in October when the Full Moon of Thadingyut signifies the end of Lent with a Light Festival, teams from many towns gather for the annual dance competition. In preparation for this event they have been busy for months, not with making live elephants practise dance steps but with making elephants: otJt of bamboo, cloth, paper and as much glit foil and glitter they could put into the construction.

The makers of these cloth and paper elephants are famed all over the country, their art handed dpown from father to son with the rules of proportions set in verse the easier to remember. Their craft is called Sutb'ji, and is included in the list of the Ten Noble Arts. Another mode of this same craft is making pandals and figures out of paper and gilt for temporary ceremonial pavilions.

Before work starts, an auspicious day is chosen. Early on that morning flowers and prayers are offered before first stroke of work is done, as the time past noon Is considered inauspicious; rituals rarely start after 12 noon in Myanmar.

The master of a dance troupe raising a homage offering before the dance begins The master leads the dance

The frame is made of green bamboo soaked in water for pliability, and spliced into thin strips. They are secured with a thin piece of twisted bamboo, which is stronger than it sounds. The head is made separately; the body has an open belly and need not have legs of bamboo. The masters have their own tricks of how to fold the bamboo to make the best foundations and these secrets are kept in the family. Visitors to the workshop are definitely not welcomed if not actually escorted out, for spies from other towns may try to get a glimpse of the work in process. When the frame is done to satisfaction as to size and Torm, thin cloth or hand-made rice paper dipped in glue is wrapped allover it, leaving holes for neck, belly and legs. Several layers are placed until the 'skin' has a hardy thickness and is then allowed to dry thoroughly. 

Various styles  Various styles

The dance steps of elephants are also nimbleA paint of soot and adhesive such as water from boiled rice is used for black elephants and the nobler white one gets several coats of lime.

Then comes the no less important art of decorating with glitter, gold foil, satin, velvet, ribbons, faux pearls and glass gems sewn or glued on with a such a richness that a Maharajah's elephant would turn green with envy. Pieces cloth sewn into tubes are attached as legs where two men will stand. The head is connected to the body but in such a way that the man in front can turn it. The trunk is flexible, made with rings of bamboo set into a long, tapered roll of cloth. The man in the back is responsible for fancy legwork and the movement of the tail. The dancers not only go through the prim and dainty steps of classical ballet but also acrobatic twists and turns, very nearly like break dance, but just stopping short: to be too westernized in their moves would lower their marks significantly.

Lastly, the name chosen by the team is painted in grand curly letters on the sides. Those serious about competing make sure to choose a dignified name, for entrees called The Matrix or Ermine were sure to be disqualified on the spot by the stern judges. When the elephant is completed, the team will come to collect it from the atelier and carry it home with pomp and ceremony, as if they escort a live one, all the while chanting prayers and playing music, no doubt with girls scattering rose petals.

Competing for the grand prize The dancers have been practicing on their own with the old elephant from last year, as they are determined to keep the new one in a pristine condition for the competition. They are the heroes of the village or neighborhood and everyone makes sure they are kept healthy and happy since six months prior to the show.

Every year, the competition takes place the day before the Full Moon of Thadingyut, which will officially end Lent. In 2003 the Full Moon day is on the 10 th of October. The winning team will have the honor of performing at the pagoda on the Full Moon day.

Some elephant teams do not enter the competition, but will parade and dance in the streets just for the fun of it. These tea ms play to the audience and gather their own fan base by performing comedy skits such as of an elephant coming home drunk after a night out with the boys or one trying to break into the modeling profession. The better-behaved competing behemoths tend to look down their trunks at these riff-raffs but they are the ones who every year get the most laughs.

The judges, made up of township officials, pagoda trustees and other distinguished personages, make the elephants go through three types of classical dances during which the competitor must not have any part of its anatomy come loose.
The other rules of the competition are that apart from behaving themselves in a manner befitting the occasion, the elephants must circle the marketplace three times, so that the audience would see everyone and choose their own favorites, which naturally enough would be the one from their own neighborhood or village.

Marks are given according to the appearance, the dancing, their own specially written song, the singing, music and teamwork. Each category has a maximum of a hundred points. 

A little shrine to Uttay Na Spirit at one elephant camp in the jungle The judges are very strict and no elephants dare to be too frisky, not even the baby ones manned by boys of under-ten, in a competition of their own class. The smaller elephants are also popular competitors as children begin early when it's the honors of their hometown at stake. Months after the festival, the baby elephants with tattered ears or tail could be seen dancing along dusty lanes allover the region, troupes of tagging boys quarrelling as to whose turn is next to be the elephant.

The competition begins early in the morning, and goes on the whole day with a short break.

By dark, the winners announced, and there is much rejoicing. The top three winning elephants stand proudly to receive the trophies while their musical teams break into earsplitting joyous celebration. The winners will be busy until the next Lent begins, for they will be great demand allover the country to perform at State functions, to welcome groups of tourists, to amuse the guests at notification and other charitable ceremonies and even to go around town raising funds for good works.

Early next morning pilgrims climb up the 97Sft high hill to the image on top to offer cakes, fruits and sometimes even small elephant figurines in clay. Along the way, wealthy patrons and religious organizations set up panda's to offer free food and soft drinks.

This is the moment of ultimate happiness for the town's people; once again they honor the Lord Buddha with symbols of the noblest of creatures. They go home tired and happy, already looking forward to next October's show of the dancing elephants.

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