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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

THE HOLY MONTH OF KASON



"The land dries up in Tagu but all is parched in Kason". That is the saying in Myanmar as the sun scorch the countryside with its blazing heat. The village ponds are dry and the rivers are low. But soon there will be a light sprinkling of rains. Not the heavy downpours of the monsoonal months but enough to let the mango buds make their appearance. They are the mango showers, alerting the farmers to get ready for the new planting season and giving the cityfolks the promise of the taste of the sweet tasting exotic mango fruits.

But the Myanmar month of Kason ( May) is also one of the most important months in Myanmar Buddhist chronology.
It is associated with the FOUR GREAT HAPPENINGS in Lord Gautama Buddha's Life.
The first is that He received the prophesy that He will become Lord Buddha in his future life.
The second is that He was born on the Fullmoon Day of Kason
The third is that He attained Enlightenment under the Bodhi tree(Ficus religiosa) on this day.
The fourth is that He "entered Nirvana (died)" on this day.
And in all the Buddhist countries of South East Asia this month is regarded as one of the most auspicious month in the Buddhist calendar.

In Myanmar this Fullmoon Day of Kason(May) is celebrated all over the country. The most common celebration is to water the Bodhi tree inside the precincts of pagodas and monasteries. As we believe that Lord Gautama Buddha attained his Enlightenment under the Bodhi tree people regard these trees as symbolic icons of worship. They gather in procession and bring water to be poured on the roots so that the tree should survive the hot summer heat.

The grand celebration of the Kason Holy Day is elaborately celebrated at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. The Pagoda Trustees organizes an official ceremony at the main Bodhi tree on the South East corner of the pagoda's platform. Youths dressed as mythical Celestial Beings, some in the costumes of Sakra, the King of the Celestials, others as Brahmas(other inhabitants of the Celestial Abode), garudas(mythical birds) and dragons lead the procession of devotees. The devotees, all dressed in sombre dark brown sarongs and white shirts and blouses, each with a pot of cooling water in their hands approach the Bodhi tree and pour water on it. This procession, which will consist of members of the various charitable and voluntary religious associations associated with the Shwedagon Pagoda, then circle the platform chanting Buddhist mantra and prayers and then will congregate back at the Chan Tha Gyi Tazaung (the big pavilion on the north-west corner of the pagoda) where the venerable member-monks of the pagoda's advisory group are offered "soon", or lunch. The ceremony will end with the sounds of "Sadhu, Sadhu, Sadhu, a joyous exaltation by all the assembled guests to let all creatures in the universe to hear and rejoice in this holy act.
Photos :Sonny Nyein

Saturday, April 17, 2010

TAUNGGYI HOTAIR BALLOON FESTIVAL




November is the best time to visit Taunggyi, the capital of Southern Shan State. The Kahtein Holy Robes Presentation Ceremony, the Festival of Lights and the Taunggyi Hotair Balloon Festival occur at the same time on the Fullmoon Day of the Myanmar month of Tazaungmone(November).

As Tazaungmone nears everyone is excited. They are gearing up to compete in the annual Taunggyi Hotair Balloon Festival. The festival is also a competition between the town's various quarters on who can send up the most elaborate and decorated hotair balloons. The competition is divided into 2 parts: the daytime competition and the Nya Mee Gyi or the Big Night Balloons, sent up at night.

The legend goes that Tazaungmone is the fairest of all Myanmar months and the sky is clear. At this time the peole had also finished their harvest and it is time to pay homage to the Sulamuni Pagoda, said to be in the Abode of the Celestial Beings. They construct hotair balloons out of bamboo and locally made mulberry paper(Shan paper) in various shapes and sizes. They most popular would be of course in animal shapes. These are normally sent up during the daytime.The judges would give them points on the originality, the design and the flight characteristics of the competing balloons and decide the winner.

The Nya Mee Gyi balloons are more elaborate. They cost quite a big amount of expenses, some even in hundreds of thousands of Kyats. The organizers bring their contraptions to the competition grounds and set up the balloons to be flown into the night sky. Many are decorated with small lanterns hung on the sides. The judges give points on the originality, the intricate designs on the sides, the pyrotechnical display when aloft etc. And these balloons must also be sent up in an allotted time or be disqualified.

These balloons are really huge. Some would measures in tens of metres in diametre and over 10-20 metres tall. They also carry a load of fireworks. As theses huge balloons ascend toward the stars, the fireworks shoot off in spectacular pyrotechnic display , much to the delight of the onlookers.

Loud cheers erupt as the balloons goes up but the unsuccessful teams stay silent, vowing to do better next year.

Photos by:Sonny Nyein(Swiftwinds)


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Gon Shans Also Celebrate Thingyan


Up on the hazy blue mountains of Eastern Myanmar live the Gon Shan people. Most of them live around Kyaing Tong and that is where the Gon Shan Thingyan(New Year) is normally celebrated.

The story goes that once upon a time there was a very beautiful princess but she was very active sexually. And because of that there was much fighting and sorrow among the people. But when she died, and because of her bad behaviours while a human, she re-incarnated as a frog. Every year at this time of the year she must be married to the King of the Celestial Beings to satisfy her lust and so bring about good rains for the harvest.

The town folks of Kyaing Tong still follow the traditions to this day. On the eve of Thingyan the Auspicious Red Drum is hung in the town centre. It must be beaten the whole 24 hours but only by the members of a particular family which has been doing this as a tradition for generations. Then someone from another family, which had performed this task for generations also, is dressed up as the Thagyamin(King of the Celestial Beings). On the appointed day (normally the last day of Thingyan), the procession, led by the monks and the Thagyamin, winds its way towards the nearby river where a clay statute of the frog princess waits for their arrival. The town folks follow the monks and the Thagyamin and also carry with them a papier mache Thagyamin on a palanquin. On the banks of the river the papier mache Thagyamin and the clay frog princess are symbolically wedded and the procession returns to town and after the customary chanting of Buddhist mantras and sutras the monks the ceremony ends.

photos: Sonny Nyein(Swiftwinds)

Sunday, April 11, 2010

WISHING YOU ALL A HAPPY MYANMAR NEW YEAR (MYANMAR THINGYAN)




Myanmar celebrates New Year or Thingyan according to the lunar calendar and this normally falls around the middle of April.

This is the traditions handed down from generations to generations. The earliest instances of Thingyan during the Bagan Dynasty are seen on the numerous mural paintings in Bagan's pagodas. There was even a story of a jilted queen who tried to poison her King because she felt she was shamed during the royal Thingyan Festival. But that is another story.

Legends tell us of a bevy of female Celestial Beings entrusted with holding up the severed head of the Brahma( another Celestial Being) who had lost his bet on the question of how wide is the Universe. This severed head has so much magic power that it cannot be placed on the ground as it would scorch every living thing on earth and if thrown into the ocean as it will evaporate all the waters in the oceans. So a bevy of female Celestial Beings were chosen to hold on to it at their abode in the heavens. And every year in the Myanmar month of Tagu this head is passed from one guardian to another. But others say it is to signal the change of seasons in the northern hemisphere, from the cold winter days to sunny Summer days. A wake up call for the farmers to prepare their fields for the new harvest with the coming of the monsoon rains.

But whatever the reason. Thingyan is one of the most auspicious time for the Buddhist people of Myanmar.

Many foreigners see Thingyan as a time of play, splashing water on each other and merry making. Maybe they are influenced by the images and commercialization of such an auspicious event in the neighbouring country. And how sad that they miss the real essence of Thingyan.

During the duration of Thingyan devotees crowd the pagodas. Many go to spiritual retreats at the monasteries during this time. Others observe the Sabbath for the whole duration of the Thingyan, some in monasteries or at home.

The most popular ceremony at this time is the Shin byu ( the novitiation of young boys and youths) into the monkhood. For the parents this novitiation ceremony is a great joy, not to mention a great merit making occasion. For this ceremony re-enacts the Rejection of Prince Sidhattha of all the worldly attachment of the royal court of his father, going into the forest and later attain Enlightenment to emerge as Lord Gauttama Buddha. The newly initiated monks (or novices) are repaying also the boundless love of their parents with gratitude by becoming monks or novices even temporarily during the Thingyan holidays.

The ceremony starts with the future young monks or novices dressed up like princes of the court. Then they are escorted to the pagoda and around the town in a procession. The cars ( or a horses) to carry them would be decorated with golden umbrellas fit for the royal princes. A big feast hosted by the proud parents for invited guests will also wait for them when they arrive back. Sometime this Novitiation Ceremonies might also be combined with an Ear Piercing Ceremony for the girls. The girls will also be dressed in the costumes of princesses of the royal court and accompany the boys around the town.Their ears are pierced in an elaborate ceremony with the proud grandparents or the parents presenting them with their first earrings. After all the guests had gone back the immediate family will go to a monastery of their choice and the Abbot shaves the young boys heads and don them with the saffron Holy Robes of a monk.

At all Myanmar homes family shrine room is dusted and cleaned. The Buddha Images, many priceless heirloom objects handed down from generation to generation, are washed and some will be re-glided with gold leaves. The whole family participates at this auspicious occasion.

Many young people organize mass ceremonies to kowtow to the senior citizens in the neighbourhood, wash their hairs or trim their nails as gestures of reverence and acts of making merits.

Another act of gaining merit during this time is the sparing of cattle and other animals from the abattoirs. The condemned animals, like cattle, goats and other, even birds are let off to roam free. This is called Zivitadana or the act of granting life and one of the most noblest of all meritorious acts.

The Myanmar Thingyan (New Year) is not all rowdy amusements, gaudy attaire and loud music or water throwing but also a great religious occasion, lovingly preserved and followed by every Myanmar Buddhist in the country.
Photos: Sonny Nyein(Swiftwinds)





Friday, April 9, 2010

COLONIAL YANGON


Yangon(or Rangoon, as the British colonials would say) is now a busy cosmopolitan city. But before that it was just a small fisher village on the banks of the swift flowing Yangon River.

It was the time of open warfare between the two powers in what is now known as Myanmar. The Bamar Kingdom in the north and the Mon Kingdom in the south. Each was fighting for hegemony over the alluvial lands of the Ayeyarwady delta.
In 1755 King Alaungpaya, the founder of the Myanmar Konbaung Dynasty defeated his Mon enemies and to honour this victory he named this small, lazy fisher village :YANGON", meaning the "End of Animosity". It became one of the outposts of the Myanmar Empire in the south. Yangon also witnessed many other tragedies occasioned by many skirmishes between the Mons and the Bamars but still it endured.

The British, during their 1st Anglo-Myanmar War of 1824 briefly occupied this small town as their base and logistic terminal but later returned it to the Myanmar Court. Even at that time there were already many foreigners calling the town their home. Ships from many nations across the globe call at Yangon port to conduct business.

There was another war between the British Empire and the Myanmar Kingdom in the mid 1800s. It was the 2nd Anglo-Myanmar War and it heralded the new re-birth of Yangon. The British , this time were here to stay. At the end of the hostilities, Myanmar was partitioned into two parts. The North was under the Myanmar Crown but Lower Myanmar now belonged to the British. Commerce grew and the city prospered. It became a multi-cultural centre with Chinamen, Indians, Englishmen etc. Yangon became the Administrative and the Commercial Capital of what is now known as British Burma.

Another Anglo-Myanmar War in 1885, known in history as the 3rd Anglo-Myanmar War marked the end of the Myanmar Konbaung Dynasty and the whole country was annexed to the British Empire by January of 1886. The British commercial interests exploded. Yangon was the place for such renowed British commercial houses as the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, the Bombay Burma commercial network, the Steel brother company, Rowe & Co, where the best of Myanmar society do their shopping and of course the grande dame of all, the Strand Hotel.. British banks, like Grindley's also began to appear in the city. There was a branch of the Hong Kong and Shanghai bank in Yangon.But whatever the different commercial activities these organizations persue, the one thread that they have in common was to construct impressive buildings in what is described as "colonial architecture style", imitating the structures found in their home country.

Take a walk around today's Yangon CBD and one can still see these magnificent buildings in all their faded glories. Start your walk from the Sule Pagoda in downtown Yangon, right in front of the Yangon City Development Committee offices(the municipality) and go east. Take a right turn at Pansodan Street (previously called Phayre Street) towards the river. Take another right turn along the Strand Road until the corner of the Strand and the Sule Pagoda Road and get back to your starting point. And you will be surprised to see how many of these colonial style structures had survived through the years.

photos: Sonny Nyein(Swiftwinds)


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Thursday, April 8, 2010

TAUNGGYI FESTIVAL OF LIGHTS




The November moon hang bright in the dark sky flanked by millions of twinkling stars. This is the most important night in November( or in the Myanmar Lunar calendar the month of Tzaungmone). This is when the sky is clear of all clouds and the time for people to pray to the Sulamuni Pagoda said to be in the Abode of the Celestial Beings. People all over Myanmar will light up their localities with brightly coloured electric lights or lanterns. And also send up gaily decorated hot air balloons up the sky.

One of the best place to be at this time of the year is in Taunggyi, the capital city of Southern Shan States. The majority of the population there is the Shans with equal numbers of the Pa O ethnic groups and a sprinkling of the Bamar, the Danu and the Palaung groups also. But the common character that binds them is their deep religious belief in Theravada Buddhism. And this most auspicious day of the Fullmoon of Tazaungmone is the best day to show their piety.

Since early afternoon, the surrounding villages and wards of Taunggyi are a beehive of activity. The girls are busy with making themselves pretty and the boys are also working on various decorated floats or lighted lantern poles. Everything must be perfect or the village will lose face in front of the gathered crowds.

As the sun's rays disappear behind the high mountains the procession starts. Decorated floats with stories from the Jatakas (the stories from the many lives of Buddha before He attained Enlightenment) proceed at the front of each group representing a village or a ward in town. Then comes the girls, all in their native dresses and holding a lighted lantern on a pole. There might also be a troupe of musicians beating on the long traditional Shan drums and cymbals: tattooed martial arts master dancing with the beat and showing off his skills. The procession slowly make its way towards the Sulamuni Pagoda (said to resemble its name sake in heavens) at the other edge of the town. Once all the groups in the parade are assembled on the pagoda's platform traditional Buddhist mantras and prayers are recited and the Taunggyi Parade of Lights comes to a happy end.

Photos: Sonny Nyein(Swiftwinds)

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

KAHTEIN CEREMONIES



When the rains cease in October, begins the time of many religious ceremonies in Myanmar. One of such ceremonies is the KATHEIN CEREMONY( Offering of Holy Robes to the monks).

Lord Buddha had permitted the monks to accept new Holy Robes and change the old and soiled Robes, after many months of incessant rains. Lord Buddha allowed the devotees
to present the monks , not only with Holy Robes but also with other necessary victuals during the period of one month, from the fullmoon day of Thadingyut(October)to the fullmoon day of Tazaungmone(November). The devotees all over the country are busy celebrating this auspicious ceremonies at their own neighbourhood monasteries but none so colourful or joyful as the Kathein Ceremony in Taunggyi.

One the eve of the Fullmoon of Tazaungmone the whole countryside comes alive. Surrounding villages and quarters in town are scrambling to construct the most elaborate decorations(padethabin) where to hang and showcase their donations. Everyone is excited and everyone joins in.Girls are busy with discussions how to make themselves pretty but the boys are practising on their traditional musical instruments, the long ozi(drum) and the Shan cymbals. Many are also practising their Shan martial arts moves and accompany the parades.

At the signal everyone lifts the huge bamboo contraptions, hung with Holy Robes and many other necessary victuals for the monasteries and the parade starts winding its way around the town.Singing, dancing the procession winds its way around the town and ends at the main Congregation Hall in the centre of the town. Here the town's revered monks wait to give sermons and then lots are drawn for the donations: which monastery will receive which padethabin( the bamboo contraption hung with donated items).

Taunggyi Kahtein Procession is famous all over Myanmar. People from all over the country, as well as international tourists, gather annually here to witness this incredible show of piety and charity, typical of all Myanmar people, be they Shan or Pa O or Myanmar.

photo: Sonny Nyein(Swiftwinds)

THE AMAZING KYAIKHTIYO PAGODA(THE GOLDEN ROCK)


The Kyaikhtiyo Ranges overlook the Gulf of Moattama(Martaban)toward the Andaman Sea.And sparkling and shimmering in the distance is the Kyaikhtiyo Pagoda, famously known as the Golden Rock.

This pagoda is a natural wonder. The base boulder, on which the pagoda stands, is balanced finely on the tip of another outcrop itself divided from the main platform by a chasm. The base boulder (and the pagoda on top of it) is gilded with pure gold, pasted on by countless numbers of pilgrims over decades, if not centuries, that it now resembles a huge golden rock. Hence the name the Golden Rock.

According to legend there were two hermits that lived on these hills long time ago and one of them had been given some locks of Holy Hairs by Lord Buddha himself when he journeyed her. But nearing the end of his days on earth this hermit had appealed to the King of The Celestial beings(Sakra or Thagya Min)to find him a boulder in the shape of his head and having found one he buried the Holy hairs inside the boulder for future generations to worship.

The round boulder on which the small pagoda stands will rock if pushed gently. Put a matchstick under the boulder between it and the underlaying outcrop and it will break.Seen from afar the the boulder seems to lean towards the ravine below but all believe that it will always stay balanced because of the power of the Holy Hairs inside.

Male pilgrims(females are prohibited to cross over) paste tissue thin gold leaves on the boulder but the gilding of the small pagoda is only done every 3 years by the Pagoda Trustees.

The Kyaikhtiyo Pagoda Festival season normally begins from the end of the rainy months in October and lasts until the Myanmar New Year Celebrations in mid-April.

There are good hotels at Kyaikhtiyo and also budget accommodations at the foodstalls cum accommodations for the pilgrims by the side of the main platform.

Kyaikhtiyo(Golden Rock) is easily accessible from Yangon by car or by train. Then transfer to small open bed utility trucks at Kin Mun bus terminal to ride up to Yathedaung terminal. Pilgrims then can hire sedan chairs or walk up to the pagoda platform.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Wonderful Dolphins of the Ayeyarwady River



The Ayeyarwady dolphins(Orcaella brevirostris)live in the Ayeyarwady river of Myanmar. This river flows down from way up north, having its sources in the glaciers of the eastern Himalayas, until it reaches the Bay of Bengal. But in the stretch of the river between Mingun and Sintgu there is a group of these dolphins who had made friends with the fishers from the surrounding villages/
The fishers from these villages had formed a rapport with the dolphins. They go out in their small canoes and tap on the sides with a wooden mallet. This is to tell the dolphins that they are here and ready to cooperate with them to look for fish. The dolphins would appear and start looking for fish. Normally in pairs they would circle around and around the school of fish and form them into a tight ball. Along the way they signal the fishers which direction to follow with the waves from their flukes(tails). Once the fishes are in a tight formation they would slap down with their flukes and that s when the fishers would cast their nets.

This interactive fishing with the dolphins had been going on for decades. It is a technique handed down from generation to generation.The fishers would never harm the dolphins as they regard them as their own parents helping the children earn their living.

Now the government had recognized the threat posed to these wonderful creatures by such causes water pollution, increased riverine traffic and illegal dynamite fishing and had now demarcated a dolphin reserve, both to safeguard the dolphins and also to preserve the lifestyle of the dolphin fishers.
Photo: by author