A Guide to Tourism Destinations and Beyond

Vol. 3 No.2 April-June 2004   

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Watch Your Step in Myanmar's Forests
Sacred GroVes Punish Disrespectful Visitors 

By Paul Spencer Sochaczewski
Watch your Step in Myanmar's Foerests
Sacred Groves Punish Disrespectful Visitors By Paul Spencer Sochaczewski

Story teller U Thu Taw Throughout Asia, things go bump in the night. A jealous wife puts a curse on her husband's mistress to make her go mad. A man coughs blood, and when doctors X-ray his lungs they find dozens of metal pins, placed by a Sorcerer. A farmer spends the night in the forest and when dawn comes, villagers find that he has entranced a man-eating tiger into a cage. 

These surreal episodes always seem to take place in vague locations such as "in a distant village, over the next hill." So, when I asked what trouble could befall someone who violated the sanctity of a sacred forest in Myanmar, I expected to hear the usual general responses" you'll fall sick," "bad things will happen."

I listened skeptically when I heard that a farmer's house had burned down after he and a companion were disrespectful in the lee O Thit Hla forest outside Bagan. I figured it was just another Asian folk tale, but these male factors actually had names. "The unfortunate men were U Aung Khin and his son-in-law U Aye San," explained village elder U Thu Taw. "Want to meet them ?"

Sign board put up by the Forestry Deptament at the entrance to Zee O Thit Hla sacred forest To get to the lee O Thit Hla forest, whose name roughly translates as "beautiful trees of lee O village," we drove about 10 kilometers outside the famous ruins of Bagan in the direction of Mount Popa, turned north and bounced along for 12 kilometers on a rutted dusty track. We pass fields of parched earth punctuated by one or two villages in which life in the thatched roof houses probably hasn't changed all that much since the monumental stupas of Bagan were built a thousand years ago. U Thu Taw, an age-softened man wearing a white turban and an immaculate long-sleeved white shirt, didn't seem especially surprised to see strangers pop into his dusty village of a thousand people and start asking about the local sacred forest.

If you ask the right question, you can find sacred forests throughout the swath of Hindu Buddhist coun1ries that runs from India through southern China and across to Vietnam. Holy groves are protected areas that generally have no government status, but nevertheless remain forested oases in heavily populated areas. Local people often insist that visitors follow strict folk rules when visiting these holy forests no swearing or loud noise, no lewd behavior (one couple reportedly became barren after they had a tryst in the forest), and nothing can be removed, not even a twig. 

"Forests have guardian spirits," notes Dr. Sein Tu, retired professor of psychology at Mandalay University. "Where the spirits feel slighted by infractions such as foul language, they are believed to mete out terrible punishments to the wrong-doer, as in the case of a young man known to me who scornfully urinated in front of a Nat-altar and suffered a complete mental breakdown."
At the entrance to the 40 acre forest we asked if we should remove our shoes. U Thu Taw murmured a vague incantation to the forest spirits: "These are visitors with tender soles, give them permission to wear shoes. "Apparently he received an OK, and he nodded agreement. Not wishing to tempt fate, however, we removed our hiking boots and socks.

Spirit shrine The air was cool inside the forest, a welcome relief from the arid, cactus-dotted landscapes outside the perimeter. We walked I amidst mature trees so large you couldn't put your arms around them, including several fine ficus trees, which are seldom found in the arid zone. This is conservation by the people, for the people. Sacred groves, or "life reserves," as one villager describes them, survive today because they serve people's physical and spiritual needs.

In one sense, sacred forests fit into my Cartesian, left-brained worldview they act as watersheds, offer shelter for animals, are repositories for medicinal plants and, in an emergency and given the proper ceremonies, can provide timber to rebuild a village ravaged by fire. But they are also places of magic. I asked my friend Dhanapala from Sri Lanka, a wise man who helps me make sense of Asian wonders, why these places have such power. "To understand how scared forests came into being, have a look at the Ramayana," he said, referring to the Hindu epic that is both classic cultural mythology and pragmatic morality tale.

A god-king named Rama and his brother Laksmana are in the fight of their lives against the evil giant Rawana, who has kidnapped 
Rama's wife. Rama becomes seriously wounded, and Laksmanaappears to bedead. The only thing that will save them are four medicinal plants that grow 3,000 kilometers away in the high Himalayas. Rama's wise adviser Jambavan (who is a bear) instructs the faithful Hanuman, the flying monkey general, to fetch the life-saving plants.

Hanuman carrying part of a mountain Taking off from what is now Sri Lanka, Hanuman soars to the medicinal plant mountain in northern India, but when he gets there cannot remember the right plants. Frustrated, he rips out the entire mountain and carries it back to the evil-empire of Lanka, where the mere smell of the plants cures Rama and Laksmana, thereby enabling Rama to win the battle and rescue his wife. But Hanuman's job is not over. He files back to the Himalaya and replaces the mountain in its original spot. It is difficult, however, to soar across a continent with a mountain on your shoulder without bits of earth falling off. Where these clumps landed, according to legend, sacred groves and holy forests appeared.

Back in the village, we were finally introduced to U Aye San,.a middle-aged man who appears perfectly, well, normal. "My father-in-law, U Aung Khin, was acting eccentric the morning that we entered the sacred forest. Yes, we were disrespectful," he confessed, "but we didn't know we were breaking the taboo." But ignorance is no excuse for breaking the law, and the spirit-policemen of lee O Thit Hla Forest delivered punishment.

" A few hours after we returned to the village I heard a commotion," he explained. " U Aung Kgin's house was burning. He was inside, and' got burned. But it was very odd. The cooking fire had been extinguished. The fire apparently started spontaneously, among the dried toddy palm leaves." .

Mr. Sochaczewski has visited sacred forests in dozens of countries.