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Friday, August 20, 2010

IS IT THE DRAGON'S LAIR? THE NAGA PYWET TAUNG AT MINBU

IS IT A DRAGON'S LAIR?
THE NAGA PYWET TAUNG AT MINBU
by:Hpone Thant

Long, long time ago, even before Buddhism had taken roots in Myanmar people were awed with the forces of nature: the clashing of thunder and bolts of lightning that flashed in the sky must be of Gods fighting in heaven, the visitation of illnesses are but punishment from the Gods to those who had defied them. And smoke and fire belching from a volcano must have seem to them like a dragon(Naga in the Myanmar language) spitting out his fiery breath from the bowels of the earth.

Naga worship is not new in Myanmar. In Buddhist stories and folk lores there are many mentions of these mythical creatures. In a tale of old Tagaung, a vigilant youth, Pauk Kyaing, slayed a dragon( who was also a secret lover of the Queen with powers to transform himself into human form) and became King himself. King Kyansitta of Bagan era had a dream where he was shielded by a dragon under its hood and took it as an omen that he will become King one day. This episode is said to be honoured at Bagan when King Kyansittha built the Nagayon(meaning shielded by the dragon) Pagoda. Many pictures of Lord Buddha can be seen where He sits under the spreading hood of a large dragon.

And also among our hill cousins there are many fables where the naga(either a female or male) is named as one of the couple, whose union produced their linage.The Akha beliefs that their womenfolks turn into sleeping female dragons at night and so they sleep apart from their husbands. The Pa O girls of southern Shan State remember their matriarch in their dresses; three layers of clothes that resemble the scales of the dragon plus a circular hairpin that they say is to resemble the naga's eyes. A statue of a mythical female figure with a dragon headdress, Mya Nan Nwe, inside a pavilion at the Botatung Pagoda in Yangon, commands great respect from the female folks as one of their benefactors.

A Myanmar proverb also admonishes unbelievers "Never lie to a Nat or a Naga"or misfortune will fall on you.

So it is no surprise that anything connected with the nagas will have a great interest for the people of Myanmar.

Near Minbu, in central Myanmar, there is a unique geological site. It is called the NAGA PYWET TAUNG"( Mountain where the Naga Breathes). Pilgrims going to the nearby Naga pywet Taung Pagoda invariably also go to see this geological phenomenon. Actually for the scientifically-minded it is an ordinary mud volcano but to the ancient primitive people of the area, with their beliefs in supernatural beings, this must have been seen as a manifestation of the existence of the fiery dragons(naga) living deep inside the earth.

This mud volcano is not very high. In fact it is just about 10-20 feet high. But it belches grey, oozy mud periodically, accompanied by distinctive noxious sulphur fumes, further consolidating the peoples' belief in the mythical creatures.

However, there is one mystery here. In the Myanmar calender we have a notion that the Naga points its head to a certain direction at certain time of the year. Myanmar people belief that it is bad to travel down the direction of the Naga's tail as it will bring misfortune, either when travelling or moving house. Better to transverse the Naga's body or to go in the direction of the mouth. And the curious thing is that the flow of lava from this mud volcano inexplicably shifts direction according to the direction of the naga's tail as shown in the appropriate Myanmar calender month.

So the US of A has its geysers in Yosemite but we have Minbu Mud Volcano. Maybe this is truly the lair of the fire-breathing dragon. Who knows???????????

Minbu is just across the Ayeyarwady River and accessible by car using the bridge at Magway. The NAGA PYWET TAUNG is not far out of town.


Monday, August 16, 2010

PILGRIM FISHES

PILGRIM FISHES

by:Hpone Thant

A large tributary of the Ayeyarwady rivers flows in from the west near the township of Pwintphyu in the Magway Division of Central Myanmar. This is the Mon Chaung. Pwintphyu is also famous for one of the most venerated pagoda in Myanmar, the Legaing Kyaung Daw Ya Pagoda.

Pagoda legends tells us of how during the life time of Lord Buddha this place was where He had a monastery (Kyaung Daw Ya means in the Myanmar language: site of the holy monastery). It was also said to be constructed of sandalwood. And there is another attraction for the pilgrims to visit the pagoda, the pilgrim fishes!

During the monsoon season the Mon Chaung is filled with rainwaters cascading out of the eastern slopes of the distant foothills of the Rakhine Yomas(ranges) and the southern Chin Hills. The Ayeyarwady river is also in flood. This is the time when huge catfishes come to pay homage to the Legaing Kyaung Daw Ya Pagoda.

But the catfishes must be invited. On the Fullmoon day of Waso(July-August) the presiding Abbot of the Pagoda would go out towards the junction of the Mon and the Ayeyarwady rivers to invite the fishes up the Mon Chaung tributary. The whole procession of boats would also accompany the monks on this journey. The monks chant Buddhist Suttas and mantra as they lead the convoy of boats, the lay people follow in their own boats with much song and merriment. At the junction with the Ayeyarwady river the leading boat scatter some food into the water and sail back, with the monks chanting the Buddhist texts all the way. But the fishes are not yet in tow. They might come up in a couple of days. The fishers living here dismantle all nets and fish traps along the way during the whole period of the Buddhist Lent so as not to harm the fishes. It is believed that these giant fishes come to pay the ir homage to the Legaing Kyaung Daw Ya pagoda during the Lent. They stay the whole 3 months period of the Buddhist Lent, disappearing only after the Fullmoon Day of Thadingyut(October). During this time pilgrims from all over the country would congregate here. They go into the water to put gold leaves on the head of the fishes. These fishes are big. Some about 3-4 feet in length but they stay calm when people wade into the river to gild their heads. They are also said to be vegetarians. Pilgrims throw balls of rice husks or popcorn into the water to feed them.

Legaing Kyaung Daw Ya is reached by crossing the Ayeyarwady River at Magway and drive on from Minbu to Pwintphyu. The place where the fishes are fed is about 2-3 miles from the pagoda itself, on the banks of the Mon Chaung. The road to Legaing Kyaung Daw Ya is an all-weather road.There are no accommodations at Pwintphyu or Legaing and visitors must return to Magway for hotel accommodations.






Sunday, August 8, 2010

TAUNGBYONE NAT FESTIVAL : A CURIOUS HOLDOVER OF ANCIENT BELIEVES

By: Harry Hpone Thant



Wagaung corresponds to the Christian month of August. It is the period when the monsoon rains reach Upper Myanmar and Ayeyarwady Rivers is full, stretching from one bank to the invisible bank on the other side. It is also the time when the waters of the Ayeyarwady River reach the small village of Taungbyone in Madaya Township, Mandalay Division.

Also this is the time of one of the most famous Nat (Spirit) Festival in the country, the one that dates back to the Bagan Dynasty, nearly 2 centuries ago.

Once upon a time during the time of King Anawrahta of Bagan there lived two mighty warriors, Byatwi and Byatta. Byatta fell in love with an Ogress-Princess Mae Wunna of Mt. Popa and had two sons, Shwe Hpyin Gyi and Shwe Hpyin Lay. After their father had been murdered in one of the court’s intrigues King Anawrahtha took pity on these two young boys and made them his favourites.

Then King Anawrahta went to war against the Chinese to demand the Buddha’s Tooth Relic and on his way back made camp at the village of Taungbyone. The King also commanded that a pagoda should be erected at this site to mark his expedition. His edict was that all his followers should contribute one brick each to the construction of the pagoda to be called “Su Taug Pyi Pagoda”(Wish granting Pagoda).

But the two young adolescent boys were in their teens already and as usual more interested in merry-making, drinking the intoxicating toddy wine daily or engage in cock-fighting and other mischiefs. The elder even fell in love with a village maiden and both forgot to fulfill the King’s command. Two spaces were left vacant on the inside wall of the pagoda and nobody went out of the way to tell the two young brothers of their lapse.

This was the chance the other jealous members of the court were waiting for. The King came to pay homage at the Pagoda’s Consecration Ceremony and saw the two empty spaces. When told that the two brothers had ignored the King’s command, the King told his courtiers to punish the brothers for their violation. The King thought they would be caned lightly with willow stalks but the other members of the King’s entourage had other ideas.

Taking the King’s permission at face value the jealous court officials bound the two youths, took them to the river bank and because royal blood is forbidden to be split on the ground, bludgeoned them to death inside velvet bags. And as the story goes both of them became nats(spirits)

The time came for the King to leave for Bagan but his raft was unable to move. Enquiring about this mishap the two young nats revealed themselves and retold their tragic tale. The King took pity on them and commanded that they be given this region as their fiefdom. Two life size statues were made and this started the custom of the Taungbyone Nat Festival, every Wagaung.

And to commemorate the Consecration of the Su Taung Pyi Pagoda, the King made it mandatory that a Festival be held yearly on the Full-moon Day of Wagaung. But, curiously, instead of the Su Taung Pyi Pagoda Festival being celebrated it has transformed itself into a nat (spirit) festival.

The Taungbyone Nat Festival gathers all believers and followers of Shwe Hpyin gyi and Shwe Hpyin Lay nat brothers from all over the country, as well as some curious foreign visitors. Mostly they are business persons. They come to pay respect to the two nats, ask for supernatural intervention in their business dealings or make good their promises for the success of their endeavours. And the spirit mediums ( nat gadaws) erect stalls and dance to entertain the two nat brothers for a fee. But why most of these spirit mediums are transvestites is beyond explanation or comprehension.

The Taungbyone Nat Festival itself is a very interesting spectacle: ancient beliefs and rituals that still linger into the 21st century. This is also a very lively and boisterous festival. Festival goers tease and shout, many with profanities and vulgar expressions to each other, but nobody take offence. This is to please and imitate the two young nat-brothers’ behavior when they were alive. A life they spent with much drinking and gambling and having fun. It is also a curious superstitious holdover that on the appointed day, the traditional village which had supplied roasted rabbits to the two brothers to take with their toddy palm beer still bring symbolic roasted rabbits to the festival grounds and offer to the Statues but the village that supplied the ropes to bind the brothers is banned to visit the festival and condemned to clean up the site after the festival. However, the new generations of believers now bring as offerings, bottles of Johnny Walker to the two nat brothers. Perhaps they had changed their preferences from the traditional slightly intoxicating toddy palm juice to a more potent and internationally recognized brand!

The most important date of this Taungbyone nat Festival is the day when the two life size statutes are taken for the bathing rituals (Cho Yey Daw Thon Pwe). Believers push and shove playfully to get as near to the palanquin carrying the statues, hoping that the nats would favour then with a blessing in their business ventures.

Taungbyone is easily accessible from Mandalay by car but as there are no accommodations for tourists it is a day trip destination only. Also because the Festival is celebrated according to the Myanmar lunar calendar, international visitors are advised to enquire ahead the exact dates from the travel agents. The two vacant spaces, said to be the quota of Shwe Hpyin Gyi and Shwe Phyin Lay are still visible to this day.

Photos: Sonny Nyein

Sunday, August 1, 2010

NYAUNG GAN:AN ANCIENT PYU BURIAL SITE

NYAUNG GAN ANCIENT PYU BURIAL SITE
by: Hpone Thant

On a mound just overlooking the Chindwin River by the small village called Nyaung gan in Butalin Township of Sagaing Division is a cemetery. But it is not a simple village cemetery. This cemetery is an archaeology site. It is one of the rare Pyu burial grounds. The cemetery is hidden inside a grove of banana plantation but quite easy to access by foot from the village.

Pyu people are believed to be the ancestors of the present-day Bamar people.They were also highly civilized. The Pyus also founded many city states during their time. sent emissaries to nearby pricipalities. Some of the most famous Pyu city-states were, Sriksetra(Thayekhittaya), near Pyay, Beikthano, on the highway from Taungdwingyi to Magway and Hanlin, near Shwebo in Upper Myanmar. Pyu settlements had also been found in the Samon River Valley, near Wundwin township in the Mandalay Division and along the Ayeyarwady River banks at Kya nyat(near Tagaung). The Pyu also have their own language and a developed culture. A collection of five dancing figurines made history not very long ago when they were stolen from the National Museum, sold to an international antiques collector but later graciously returned by the owner to Myanmar.

But they also have the custom of burying with their dead various implements and utensils.This practice had helped in the identification of their burial sites.

Nyaung gan village is a typical Myanmar village, similar to other Dry Zone villages in Upper Myanmar. But one extraordinary phenomenon had made it different from the other Myanmar villages. Not far from it is a cemetery that the local villagers refer as Loke Taing gone(Burial Mound).It had laid there undisturbed for centuries. Nobody knew why this piece of ground was named as "Loke Taing Gone". The village elders say the name was handed down from generations to generations and they had always known that there was a cemetery nearby.

Then the Archaeological Department started excavations and unearthed more than 60 skeletons buried underground, including other artefacts typical of a Pyu burial practice. Forensic investigations also confirmed that all skeletons were identified as Pyu era remains. Almost all the skeletons were buried with their heads pointing North, except for one. The Pyu beliefs that the heads must be pointed northwards to help the departed spirits find their way back to the native lands where they had originated. But nobody could explain why one was not buried this way. Maybe he was an outsider who died at this place or something.Nobody knows. At some places the skeletons were also stacked, one above the other, some two and even in three tiers.

But there was a puzzle that still needs to be solved. Many of the skeletons were wearing pieces of square stone bangles on their wrists. Even now these bangles were impossible to take off. They would not slide out as the palms were obstructing. But then how did the wearers put these stone bangles on when they were alive? Surely the bangles were not put on after death. The palm, as stated above, would not fit the hole even with only the bones remaining. There were also no cuts or any signs on the bangles that point to anything that the bangles were tempered before being put on.

So who were these people? When did they live and , above all, how did they manage to put on the stone bangles? The mystery had remained locked for centuries now and would probably stay that way for many more years in the future.

Note:
Nyaung gan Village is easily accessible by car from Monywa, only about 2-3 hours drive. Leave the car at the village and walk a short distance to get to the cemetery. The site is now under the protection of the Archaeology Department.
Loke Taing is a very old Myanmar word for cemetery.