Enchanting Myanmar
  A Guide to Tourism Destinations and Beyond

Vol.3  No.1  
October-December 2003

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The Impossible River

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Festive Inle

"Where are you from, lads?" "We are from Indein village". "What are you doing here? "We are here to tow the holy barge". A chorus of voices raised in verse is heard long before the singers are seen. A flagpole draped with the colors normally associated with Buddhism dips and snaps in rhythm. This is one of the towing boats from the villages in the lake arriving to tow the golden barge of the Hpaung Daw Oo Images on their tour around the lake.

"The Hpaung Daw Oo Pagoda is known far and wide, even in other countries. The Hpaung Daw 00 Pagoda Festival has become one of the most famous festivals for international tourists," a pagoda trustee tells us. "Tourists flock here and many are awed by the five priceless gold images of the Buddha but mostly by the deep piety of the inhabitants of Myanmar, whether they be Bamar, Shans,Pa O or Taungthus." The five images have so often been covered with gold leaf that by now they look like solid gold spheres.

Annually four of the five Buddha images start their journey around the Inle Lake in the Myanmar month of Thadingyut (October). The festival date is set every year by a committee of elder monks and trustees but normally it will begin by the 2nd or the 3rd Waxing Day of the month of Thadingyut and ends just after the Full Moon Day.

The ceremony starts with putting 4 images on the golden barge which is in the form of the mythical Karaweik bird.
The devotees had gathered since early morning and the crowd fell silent as the monks and the trustees approached.

The barges make their tour After paying homage to the images the ceremony starts as usual with Buddhist prayers. Later, under white and gold royal umbrellas the images are carried aboard the gilt Karaweik barge adorned with huge gold umbrellas and small flags associated with Buddhism.

"Why are there only 4 images going around, instead of all five?" A pilgrim, who obviously is the first timer from the lowlands, wanted to know. "Yes, there are 5 images but only 4 go on tour. Once when we took all 5 a sudden storm came up and nearly capsized the barge. All the Images fell into the water. We scrambled to salvaged, the images but were able to retrieve only 4. Dejected, we returned to the pavilion and miraculously the 5th image was already there in the original place on the platform, wet and covered with moss. After that we take only 4 images on the annual tour. There is a marker at the spot where the images fell to the bottom," the elderly trustee explained.

 A smaller barge precedes the big gilt barge. This is the original barge used in the olden days and it is now the custom to let it go in front. The current larger barge is the donation of a wealthy family from Taunggyi.

Dozens of tow boats take their place and at the appointed time the big barge is towed on its first leg of the journey. The young men on the boats are filled with joy for it is a great honor to be selected to tow the holy barge. In unison the oars dipped and flash in the sun but the unique spectacle is that all the rowers stand up and use their legs to row. This is authentic Inle tradition, for only here that the practice of rowing with the legs can be seen. "Are you tired, lads?, No, we are not, we are not!" the rowers answered in chorus. "Earned two pence's but one is for charity. Can anyone equal us in generosity!" they chant. The rowers are proud of their charitible traditions.

The whole procession snakes it way along the Lake and heads towards a village. 'There is a place inthe lake where the holy barge will turn into a narrow channel all by its own. The rowers just let it drifts. It is the holy powers of the images", one of the trustees told us. A scientifically-minded person might explain that it is the current and the wind but it is still a miracle by any explanation that such a huge barge turns by itself into a narrow channel.

  The four images from the Phaung Daw Oo around the resident image from a monastery The four images being carried to the golden barge  

It is here that the images will make their first stop at a local monastery. Already the pilgrims are lined on the banks. Many small canoes are waiting for the arrival of the holy barge. On each small canoe the whole family is waiting to pay homage to the images: grand parents, parents and children. In the prow is placed a silver bowl with offerings of flowers and steaming cups of rice and other food. But together with the traditional dried bean curd and rice cakes are also pastries and cakes from the bakeries in town for only the best should be offered to the Buddha!

In the precinct of the monastery is a festival atmosphere. Stalls selling souvenirs or calendars with portraits of famous local movie stars are selling like hotcakes. People flock to teashops. A family of Pa O are hovering around. "Where shall we go?", the patriarch was asking. The hill folks do not like cakes and pastries. They trooped towards the stalls selling local delicacies such as Wet tha Chin or pork kneaded with rice and Nga Htamin Chin or fish kneaded with rice. Stalls selling deep-fried gourd fritters are also filled with groups of mountain folks.

       As the holy barge is maneuvered at the landing the monks from the monastery stand in reverence to receive the images. School children were also lined up to pull the images into the main hall of the monastery after they' are put on a wheeled pavilion. Scores of women devotees chant prayers as they accompany the images into the hall.

Leg rowers show their skill The hall is packed. The offerings from the devotees fill all four sides of the special platform in the center where the images are placed. The scent from the incense sticks wafts in the unmoving air inside the hall. Reverently, the images are brought in and placed on this platform as all pray. Groups of school-children and village maidens had formed groups to chant in unison the Buddhist prayers. A teacher explained, "The children are from the nearby village school and are very pious, It is a great honor and a great merit to be able to recite Buddha's prayers at this ceremony", "There are five images here but then you said only four go in tour", it was the same pilgrim we met before," Yes, the fifth one is from this monastery, so you see five images" the old trustee patiently explained. Later the monks, both the invited and the residents, are offered lunch by a well-wisher. This is a typical scene repeated at all the stops but one of the best times to witness the celebration is at Nyaung Shwe.

 Between Linkin village and Nyaung Shwe is a long stretch of water. After a night at Linkin Monastery the barge starts for the journey for Nyaung Shwe early in the morning. The mist hang heavy over the water but already the pilgrims are arriving with their boats lining the route. At the appointed hour the barge is towed to Nyaung Shwe. The pilgrims follow in their own boats, for many are natives of the town and had come out to welcome the Barge. At Nyaung Shwe a huge crowd waits for the images. Simple people from the countryside, town folks, and many others from allover Myanmar pack the route. Beautifully dressed girls in their native costumes wait and young men are ready to show off their prowess as master rowers in front of the girls. After the images are in town there will be celebrations with dance performances and boat races.

The whole village turns out in welcome The images stayfor3 nights at Nyaung Shwe. From the jetty the images are carried with great ceremony to the holy pavilion and placed in the center of the hall. Throughout the day people will come with offerings: Pa O women in their distinctive headdresses, the Shan men in their baggy pantaloons and other pilgrims from all over the country, all gaily dressed but with piety in their hearts.

The most spectacular time to see the true nature of the people is to arrive at the pavilion at dawn. Before the first rays of the sun had tinted the eastern sky the pilgrims are already in the hall with many still arriving.

A group of elderly Pa O men and women said, "We had started out from our village on the other side of the mountain before midnight and walked to reach Nyaung Shwe in time for the dawn prayers". The offering of food at dawn is considered very auspicious and inside the hall it is full with devotees and food offerings and flowers i silver vases and bowls. Buddhist monks, nuns en, women and even young people are praying softly or counting their rosaries. Although the hall is packed the atmosphere is serene and tranquil as everyone is deep in meditation on and prayer.

A delicious lunch of pork kneaded with rice and fresh vegetables There is also a scat ring of foreigners who are busy with their came s. "I am from the U.K and this is the first time I am I Myanmar". But this scene is fantastic. I had never dreamed at there could be so much devotion n the people for their religion", a tourist told us. As we left the eastern sky is already bright an the stalls are opening.

Pagoda festivals in Myanmar are both religious events and social occasions. It is the time for people to pray, meditate, engage in commerce, trade news, see the shows, meet old friends, for boys to meet girls and all in love.
But whatever the native, pagoda festivals are where everybody can d their own enjoyment.

Hpone Thant is a regal contributor to Enchanting Myanmar and other publications on the culture and traditions and nature of the country. He can be reached at: harry@swiftwinds.com.mm 

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