Runes and Charms of Olden Days
By Maung Yan Way
Illustrated by Sonny Nyein
On that beautiful spring morning, our boat flew on the mirror-calm waters of Inle Lake and soon we arrived in Ywa Ma, one of the main villages of Inle. As soon as our boat came near the floating market of Ywa Ma, other boats with sellers of object d'arts and souvenirs of Inle clamoured around us. They had shelves on their boats displaying their wares: Shan lacquer, carved figurines, silver trinkets for which Inle Lake is famed. I also saw several folding books we call parabeik, that were used extensively in ancient times before we knew about the western style of printing and book binding. Now we see these folding books made of paper in all sizes, in both 'black' parabeik form and 'white.' Black is when the pages are painted black and the text or designs written in a stylus made of soap stone or else white paint used as ink. The pages of the white parabeik were written with ink made from soot or red ink made from cinnabar. The designs are painted in colours obtained from roots, clay and flowers.
As I looked at the designs of runes and charms in one of the books the seller was offering me, my thoughts went back to the ancient times when such designs were made by creative artists. The wall paintings in the Paya Thonzu Temple complex of Bagan, the ones in the Min Nanthu and those of the Abeyadana Temple of Myin Kaba all had wonderful paintings of dragons, celestials and magical creatures, humans with heads of elephants and horses: such a diversity of fantasy that were born from the minds of artists. Some were symbols of the rites and beliefs of the ancient people before they became devotees of Buddhism. Although Buddhism flourished since King Anawrahta's time, belief in runes and magic survived through the centuries practised mostly by people living in very remote areas. Runes are written on paper, which is burnt, and then the ashes swallowed, or they are etched on thin sheets of gold and silver and kept in small lockets and worn on a chain. Some tattooed the runes on their bodies, such as the design of cats or tigers on the thighs, which they believe will make them so light of foot they could jump over walls. It was not only humans that are decorated in this way: navies of the ancient kings had runes carved on them, and we can still see some drawn on the walls of temples. In building new cities, the kings would have runes and magic portions buried under the city gates, according to old texts that described the administration of the Myanmar kings called "Myanmar Min Oke Choke Pon Sar Dan". These texts were written on palm leaf books also called parabeik, but here the sheets are separate and not connected like the latter day folding books made of paper.
In an ancient parabeik on warfare, Thaynin Ga Byu Har Kyan, it was stated that soldiers of the day had charms tattooed on their bodies to protect them from harm. It was considered manly to have tattoos from one's waist down to both knees. The night of the Full Moon of Tazaungmone, which is in November, is considered magical, so special charms are tattooed or drawn on that night. In tattooing it was usual to use both red and black ink. Such rituals and designs were recorded on various white or black parabeik, and handed down from generation to generation.
These parabeik are a fascinating part of the culture of old days. Some show how to draw the designs as they must be completed with one stroke, and some state the verses the master must recite while copying the designs, to make them potent.
In the study of designs of runes and charms, I noticed that there are four categories.
1. The Myanmar alphabet and numbers
2. Designs based on animals and birds
3. Designs based on mythical creatures such as ogres and dragons.
4. Designs based on a combination of human and animals or birds
As shown in 1 (A), the Four Elements of Wind, Water, Fire, Earth are represented by the four letters Sa Da Ba Wa
(p " A 0). In 1 (B) the letters are written in a beautiful hand with prayers of popularity, having wishes granted, and a success life.
In 2 (A) the designs of a pig and dove are drawn with elegant and beautiful lines done in one stroke. We see tigers, dragons, peacocks, monkeys, elephants and cats as popular motifs for animal patterns. In 2 (B) the cat and tiger are very well proportioned, drawn by such a talented artist.
The designs of mythical creatures are most interesting. In 3 (A) are some of the celestial beings from the 32 that were drawn all along the inside flanks of ships in the King’s navy.
3 (B) shows the Ponnaka Ogre from the Jataka Tales, an ogre who had ridden his horse wildly all over the earth. He symbolises fury and velocity. These patterns are also used on humans in tattooing.
3 (C) shows the Baw Ritha Ogre and charms in connection with his powers. The drawing of the ogre with a pointed sword over his shoulder is most elegantly done.
For the strange combination of humans and animals, 4 (A) shows a human body with three ogre heads. 4 (B) is about two ogres combined with the figure of Ganesh, the Hindu elephant-headed god. In 4 (C) the human body is drawn with the letters of the Myanmar alphabet.
As the Inle hawkers continued to offer us their wares, I thought that a part of our cultural heritage of runes and charms have almost disappeared, to survive only as exotic souvenirs for the tourist trade. However, they still retain their place in our lives as a form of folk art. With these thoughts simmering in my mind, our boat made a turn and we were soon heading towards the Hpaung Daw Oo Pagoda of Inle Lake.