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Myanmar

Myanmar, officially the Republic of the Union of Myanmar and also known as Burma, is a sovereign state in South East Asia bordered by Bangladesh, India, China, Laos and Thailand. 

 

 

Culture

Geography

About one third of Myanmar's total perimeter of 5,876 km (3,651 miles), forms an uninterrupted coastline of 1,930 km (1,200 miles) along the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea.
The country's 2014 census revealed a much lower population than expected, with 51 million people recorded. Myanmar is 676,578 square kilometres in size.
Its capital city is Naypyidaw and its largest city and former capital city is Yangon (Rangoon).
 

Map of Myanmar


Ethnic Groups

Myanmar is ethnically diverse. The government recognises 135 distinct ethnic groups with more predominant the following: Bamar (68%), Shan (9%), Karen (7%), Rakhine (3.5%), Chinese (2.5%), Kachin (1.5%) Chin (1%).

           

History

The history of Myanmar (Burma) is long, rich and diverse. Cultural shards have been uncovered along the central river plains that date to some 11,000 years ago. Evidence of continuous occupation of the land from the Stone Age right on through the start of the Common Era is testimony to Myanmar’s ancient claim as a place of civilization.

 

The Mon Settlers

The first historically documented inhabitants of the region are the Mon (600BC), whose trade and cultural links to India are the basis for Buddhism taking root in the land. The Mon settled throughout the south, in the Gulf of Mottana, along the Chao Phraya River, and in the Irrawaddy Delta.
 

Mon civilazation


The Pyu Settlers

Around 100 AD, another Buddhist culture, the Pyu, settled into what is now central Myanmar (Burma) and founded what became one of the largest and most prosperous trading centres in the region at the time, the city of Sri Ksetra.
 

Women of Pyu Era


Anawrahta & Bagan (The Golden Era)

King Anawrahta (around 1050AD) founded the first unified Burmese state at Bagan and officially adopted Theravada Buddhism. This was followed by a period of unprecedented growth and prosperity. Thousands of temples and hundreds of monasteries were built and the great kingdom at Bagan flourished.

 

  

Bagan valley                                                              Bagan Kingdom

   

Bagan Anawratha period                                                         Anawaratha temple


13nth to 18nth century

In the mid-13th century the empire began to decline. Then in 1287 the Mongols invaded Burma. They soon withdrew, but afterwards the Burmese empire broke up.
 

Mongolian invasion


The Mon people in the south became independent and a people called the Shan, from what is now Thailand, seized part of Burma.
In the 15th century the first European reached Burma. An Italian named Nicolo di Conti travelled to Bago.
Later, in the 16th century the Bamar people revived.
They conquered the Shan and created a second Burmese Empire. Then, in the 17th century the French, British and Dutch made trading contacts with Burma.
Yet the Second Burmese Empire declined and in 1752 the Mon people of the south, with help from the French, captured the Bamar capital of Inwa bringing it to an end.
 

Inwa

However, the Mon triumph did not last long. A Bamar called Alaungpaya led a counterattack.
He took Inwa in 1753 and captured the Mon capital in 1755. (He renamed it Yangon).
In 1785 his successor Bodawapaya conquered western Burma. So he came to rule all of Burma.
 

Alungpaya Dynasty


The Modern Era- British Occupation

The modern era of Burma began when the last dynasty looked west to neighboring India in the early 19th century and bumped into another dynasty, the British Empire.
Burmese then came into conflict with the British in India.
The British conquered Burma in stages and then added it to their colony of India. The British and the Burmese fought three wars.
After the first Anglo-Burmese War of 1824-1836 the British took parts of western Burma. In 1852, after another war, they took parts of southern Burma.
Finally, after a third war in 1885, the remaining part of Burma was formally annexed by Britain, on 1 January 1886.

 

     

British Occupation 1885                                                Burma British Occupation Era

Not surprisingly, the Burmese were resentful and in the early 20th century nationalism grew. In 1932 there was a rebellion in Burma, but it was crushed. However, in 1937 the British made Burma a separate colony from India.
They also granted Burma a legislative council.

 

Jiraffe women in London 1935


The Japanese invaded Burma in January 1942. They gradually drove back the British and they captured Mandalay on 1 May 1942.

 

Japanese Occupation in Burma


Then, in December 1942 and in February 1943, the British launched two offensives. Both failed. However, in March 1944 the Japanese invaded India but failed too in their ambition.
In June 1944, the British pursued them into Burma. The British captured Mandalay on 20 March 1945 and they occupied Rangoon (Yangon) on 3 May 1945.

 

    

British take back Burma 1945                                        British soldiers 1945 Burma


However, by 1945 it was clear that the British could no longer hold onto Burma.
In 1947 there was a decision taken to make Burma independent.
Elections for a constituent assembly were held in April 1947 and work began on drawing up a new constitution.
Burma became independent on 4 January 1948.

 

   

Independence of Burma                                                        Independence of Burma


Jaded Times

Independence did not immediately spawn national unification.
General Aung San and several of his allies were killed by political rivals, months before the country was cut loose from the British Empire.
He, or a similarly charismatic native leader, could have unified the people and, by so doing, would have avoided a deep and dark era.

 

     

General Aung San                                                          Aung San


The first government of an independent Burma briefly flourished, but the interference of military leaders began within 10 years of independence.
Promotion of Buddhism and tolerance of ethnic movements irked watching generals.

 

Junta Era

In 1962, the military-civilian tension came to a head with a coup that toppled an elected government and established what the coup leaders (general U Nu was in charge) called “the Burmese way to Socialism.”
One-party politics followed. Newspapers were closed, which consolidated the transformation from an open society to a closed one.
 

 U Nu

 

A decade of military dictatorship ended in 1974, when Army leaders gave themselves constitutional credibility in a new People’s Assembly.
Nevertheless, nothing changed. Burma continued to be personally exploited by people at the top, while ethnic groups scattered around the country, continued to be marginalized. Guerrilla insurgencies gained new momentum.

Another dozen years of Burmese life on a short and barbed leash ended with major student-led eruptions in 1988.
A resulting coup seemed providential because it called for revision of the self-serving 1974 constitution and multi-party elections (1990).
However, the tactic boomeranged when an anti-military party called National League for Democracy easily prevailed at the polls. Military leaders simply refused to honour the vote.
 

Myanmar unrest 1988

In the aftermath of the demonstrations and the spurning of credible election results, most of the Western powers imposed economic and political sanctions on Myanmar.
The resultant drying up of exports crippled the Burmese economy and deepened poverty.
Refusing to capitulate, the ruling junta, instead, cultivated deeper economic relationships with some Asian countries, notably China.

During the following 20 years, things changed only in the margins.
Ethnic groups on the borders gained strength and the co-founder of the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi, became a symbolic leader of the opposition.
As the daughter of General Aung San, the novice politician leveraged her heritage as a national champion.
Her reward was years of house arrest and denial of citizenship privileges.
Winning the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1991 gave her international standing but didn’t end the harassment.

 

   

Aung San Suu Kyi                  The Nobel Prize Lady

 

Time of Change and Lustrous Future ahead

In 2008, almost 50 years of darkness began to be pierced by the bright light of hope.
Somewhere in the deeper recesses of the uniformed ruling establishment, a sense of fatigue had set in.
A mini-dawning of the futility of their course apparently occurred.
A public protest led by Buddhist monks in 2007 was dispersed, but even violent reprisals against those demonstrators were less sustained than in the past.

In 2008 Burma was devastated by Cyclone Nargis, which killed tens of thousands and left many more homeless. Nevertheless the junta went ahead with a referendum on a new constitution.
The junta claimed proudly that 92% voted yes. However, parliamentary elections were duly approved for 2012—and Suu Kyi was allowed to be a part of them.

The forward movement accelerated when Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won nearly every contested seat. This time the results were validated by the generals.
Their former colleague, Thein Sein, was elected president, which was skeptically received by the public after decades of dismal leadership by generals in civilian executive positions.

 

Peacemaker

However, Sein electrified the country.
He made peace with Suu Kyi, arranged ceasefires with nearly all the ethnic fighting cadres in the mountains, released hundreds of political prisoners, loosened restraints on media, and even challenged China as a usurper of Myanmar’s natural resources.
These decisions were not only breathtaking in their scope, but seemed to challenge the power of the still-dominant military leadership.

 

Thein Sein

Though Sein operated only on the margins of limits agreed upon between him and his former military colleagues, the fact is he was pushing forward and not standing still.
Each of his initiatives dulled a blade that had been pushed against the throats of his fellow citizens of Myanmar for decades.
He established undeniable credentials as a reformer, and his reforms were the kinds that codify fairness and build trust.

 

2015 Myanmar general elections

Myanmar general elections were held on 8 November 2015.
These were the first openly contested elections held in Myanmar since 1990.
The results gave the National League for Democracy an absolute majority of seats in both chambers of the national parliament, enough to ensure that its candidate would become president, although NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi was constitutionally barred from the presidency.

The new parliament convened on 1 February 2016 and, on 15 March 2016, Htin Kyaw was elected as the first non-military president of the country, since the military coup of 1962. On 6 April 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi assumed the newly created role of State Counsellor, a role akin to a Prime Minister.
 

Myanmar leaders 2016

 

Buddhism- Pagodas (Stupas)- Monasteries

The majority of Burma or Myanmar's population (which is almost equivalent to 89%) follows Buddhism.

Burma was introduced to Buddhism after the Theravada Monks were sent there as well as to other Southeast Asian nations, by Emperor Ashoka.
This mission was followed by the Burmese people getting attached and adapting Buddhism as their religion.
As the time went on, many rulers governed the land with the influence of Buddhism increasing, as it went on.
The Shan dynasty, meanwhile, established themselves as rulers throughout the region now known as Burma.
Thithatu, established his rule in Bagan and he patronized many Buddhist monasteries and temples in the region.
These Buddhist temples (stupas) were later known as Burmese Pagodas, since they were built with Pagoda styled architecture.
Buddhist monasteries are known as wihara in Burmese, a word practically meaning "monastery", but the native Burmese word kyaung is more preferred.

 

                                                                              

pinmagon monastery                                        monastery in Bagan)

Burma is known as Land of Pagodas.
These shrines house many types of Buddha statues, which underline the faith of the worshippers who pay respect to Buddha.
The temples are in tiered structures. The tapering shape of a pagoda painted white or gilded into a shining gold is a basic part of any Burmese landscape. Many regions in Burma are home to many Buddhist temples.
The former capital Yangon (formerly Rangoon) has various famous pagoda temples like Shwedagon Pagoda, Sule Pagoda, Mae Lamu Pagoda, etc. Mandalay, which is a cultural and religious centre of Buddhism in Burma, has many monasteries and more than 700 Buddhist temples, like Mahamuni Buddha Temple, Shwenandaw Pagoda, Sandamuni Temple, and Kyauktawguy Paya Pagoda to name a few.

 

 

Sule pagod

 

Mahamuni pagoda                                           Sandamuni pagoda

 

Another region which is popular for its Buddhist temples is Bagan.
It is also considered as one of Asia’s most significant historical sites.
Formerly known as Pagan, the region is home to hundreds of old Buddhist temples, like Ananda temple, Thatbyinnyu Temple, Shwegugyi Temple, Mahabodhi Temple, Sulamani Temple, Dhammayangyi Temple and Mingalazedi Pagoda to name a few.
Unfortunately, the Bagan region has not been nominated as Monument of Universal Heritage by UNESCO, regardless of the presence of many ancient pagodas, Buddhist temples and monasteries in the region.
The preservation and restoration that had not followed strict historic rules was the reason for this exclusion.
 

   

Bagan valley temple                                                        Bagan temples)

As for monasteries, there are countless of them in Burma and act as the dwelling places for Buddhist monks in Burma. Thousands of monks start their monkhood there.
The Buddhist teachings and principles are passed on by the senior monks in these sacred places.
 

   

Monks in Myanmar                                                        Young monks

 

Myanmar’s (Burma’s) landmarks

Shwedagon Pagoda

The Shwedagon pagoda is the most important shrine in Myanmar.
The golden glow of its main stupa is an unforgettable sight, its smooth curves rising high into the rich blue of the tropical sky.
Countless smaller zeidis and pavilions (tazaung) crowd the platform of the pagoda.
Some engulf the base of the central stupa, while others are in remote corners of the platform, on top of Singuttara hill. The main platform was constructed more than 2,000 years ago, long before the founding of the city of Rangoon (present-day Yangon).

 

Shwedagon pagoda

The legendary history of the Shwedagon puts it’s founding in the lifetime of the Buddha Gotama, the 6th century BC. Encased deep within it, there is said to be a golden barge, studded with jewels, in the form of a mythical bird, the karaweik.
The golden vessel encloses eight sacred hairs of the Buddha, apparently given to two merchants from Myanmar, who journeyed to India.

Legend has it that it was a time of famine and the brothers had travelled with a boatload of rice that they had placed on 500 ox-carts. The mother of the two brothers, Taphussa and Bhallikam, had died and become a nat (spirit).
She had urged them to seek out the recently enlightened Buddha and receive his teaching.
The brothers found Buddha meditating and offered him cakes of honey, ornamented with golden flowers.
When it was time for their departure, they begged Buddha for a remembrance.
He honoured them by giving them eight hairs.
They placed these in an emerald casket, and then into a pyat, that was adorned with rubies.
The brothers, after many adventures, arrived safely in Rangoon with the relics.
A chamber was prepared and they were placed in a cave, deep within the Shwedagon Hill.

The Shwedagon hill (Singuttara) is situated north of the city’s busiest section, near the river front.
There are four approaches to the Shwedagon at each of the cardinal directions, but the main entry is the long staircase to the south.
Today, this opens on to a busy intersection, but it has always been the traditional entry, because visitors in the past would first arrive at the city’s port.
The Shwedagon Pagoda Road is lined with monasteries (kyaung), rest houses (zayat) and other pagodas, such as the Maha Vijaya, just opposite the southern stair.

 

Road to Shwedagon Pagoda

Before starting their climbing to the pagoda platform, pilgrims and visitors pause to remove their shoes and to circumvigate it, like all Buddhist stupas, in a clockwise direction.

The gold seen on the stupa is made of genuine gold plates (27 metric tones), covering the brick structure.
People from all over the country, along with monarchs, in its long history, have donated gold to the pagoda for its maintenance.
The practice continues to this day, after being started in the 15th century by the Queen Shin Sawbu (Binnya Thau), who gave her weight in gold.
The crown is tipped with 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies. The very top is tipped with a 76 carat (15 g) diamond.
 

Nuns in Shwedagon Pagoda

 

Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda and the Reclined Buddha

The Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda in Yangon is known for its enormous 65 meters long Reclining Buddha image.
The highly revered image is housed in a large shed North of Kandawgyi Lake.

The construction was sponsored by a wealthy Burmese Buddhist, Sir Po Tha, in 1899.
The image was completed in 1907 by another construction company, but was not proportioned correctly, and the Buddha's face had an aggressive expression.

In the 1950s, the old Buddha image was demolished and temple trustees began work to replace it, under the supervision of U Thaung, a master craftsman from Tavoy (now Dawei).
Large glass eyes were custom-created at Naga Glass Factory. The Buddha image was consecrated in 1973.
 

Reclined Buddha

The names of the contributors are inscribed on the beams of the building.

 

The Chauk Htat Gyi Reclining Buddha

The very impressive 65 meters long and 16 meters high Chauk Htat Gyi Buddha image is wearing a golden robe; the right arm of the Buddha is supporting the back of the head.
The Reclining Buddha image is decorated with very expressive colors, white face, red lips, blue eye shadow, golden robe and red finger nails.

The soles of the feet contain 108 segments in red and gold colours that show images representing the 108 lakshanas or auspicious characteristics of the Buddha.


Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda-Buddha

 

Buddhists pay their respect to the Reclining Buddha by burning incense sticks and offering flowers.
Around the Chauk Htat Gyi Buddha image is a number of shrines, one for each of the eight days of the week in Asian astrology (Wednesday is split in two days).
Local people pray to the shrine belonging to the day of their birth.
A few inscribed plaques in English and Burmese contain information about Buddhism and the teachings of the Buddha.
A similar very large Reclining Buddha, but in a slightly different pose, is the Shwethalyaung Buddha, in the town of Bago, North of Yangon.
Around the Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda are several monasteries. In the Ashay Tawya monastery hundreds of monks study the teachings of the Buddha.
Just across the street from the Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda is another temple, the Nga Htat Gyi Pagoda that contains another huge Buddha image, a seated one, wearing a golden robe.
 

Seated Buddha

This temple also contains a mural of a long line of followers of the Buddha, with the Buddha and the first few of his followers appearing to come out of the painting.

 

Karaweik Hall

The Karaweik Hall, also known as Karaweik Palace is one of Yangon’s many landmarks.
From distance the Karaweik Hall looks like a huge golden barge floating on Kandawgyi Lake, glittering in the sun.

The hall, actually, is a concrete structure looking like two enormous golden birds with a roof in the shape of a Pyatthat, a Burmese style multi tiered, very ornate roof structure.
The prow of the ship is built in the shape of a Karaweik, a bird from Burmese mythology.
A golden ball is hanging from its beak.
The back of the structure is formed by the tail of the Karaweik bird in red and gold colours.
On top of the tail there is a depiction of a Nat spirit.
 

Karaweik Palace 

Inside Karaweik Hall are reception halls, conference rooms, buffet restaurants and theatres.
Visitors can enjoy an extensive buffet, a selection of Chinese, Burmese and Western food, while watching a variety of traditional Burmese entertainment.
The entertainment which lasts some 2½ to 3 hours consists of shows like the Burmese marionette theatre, the elephant dance and traditional Burmese dancing.
The dancers wear traditional style Burmese costumes. There is also an exhibition of Burmese arts, handicrafts and traditional costumes.

 

Royal Palace Mandalay

The last Palace built by Burmese Royals

When King Mindon Min founded Mandalay in 1857, he ordered the construction of a new Royal Palace, the so called Mya Nan San Kyaw.
The old Royal Palace in the former capital Amarapura was dismantled, transported to Mandalay and rebuilt there.
 

Royal Palace Mandalay

The Mandalay Royal Palace is the last Palace built by Burmese Royals (Konbaung Dynasty).
On the large complex there are dozens of buildings, including audience halls, throne halls, a monastery, a watch tower, a court building, a tooth relic building (which in spite of its name it never contained a relic from the Buddha, but it houses a Buddha statue instead) and a library where the Buddhist scriptures were kept.

 

Mahamuni Buddha Pagoda

One of Burma’s most important pilgrimage sites is the Mahamuni Buddha Pagoda in Mandalay.
This temple enshrines the gold plated Mahamuni Buddha image, which according to legend was made during the life time of the Buddha and cast after his image.
 

Mahamuni pagoda

Inle Lake

At an altitude of just over 800 meters, the lake is one of the most unique ecosystems in Myanmar (Burma), playing home to mollusc and fish species that can't be found anywhere else in the world.
However, Inle Lake isn't just about the creatures that live in it.

Its waters are the lifeblood of four large towns and countless villages, which are scattered around its rim.
The nutrient-rich waters support diverse agricultural operations, from rice to fruits and vegetables, a significant amount of which is grown right on the water, with platforms made from weeds and bamboo forming floating gardens.
 

Inle Lake

It is also home to the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival, which is one of the largest Buddhist festivals in Myanmar.

The various peoples who live around the lake have also devised a rather unique method of traversing Inle's waters.
The fertile lake often results in blooms of unwanted weeds like the water hyacinth, and in order to see above the curtain of green, rowers attach an oar to one leg, allowing them to propel the boat while standing up.

Inle's unusual character has resulted in it becoming a popular tourist destination for foreigners and locals alike, attracting the construction of hotels and guest houses nearby.

 

Reclined Buddha (meaning)

This particular position of the Buddha is better known as the Mahaparinirvana in Buddhism.
Buddha is said to have known that his death was approaching and had asked his disciples to make a couch for him in a bush, so as to make it easy for him to lie down.
Although he had attained enlightenment, as a human being, Buddha had to leave his physical appearance.
This moment is believed to have taken place in Kushinagara in India when he was eighty years old and about to reach Mahaparinirvana, the state beyond Nirvana.

The reclining Buddha statues are not supposed to induce the state of sadness to the followers but rather to be taken as a form of encouragement and a reminder that all beings have the potential to be awakened or enlightened and release themselves from any fear or suffering of the human existence.
The serene and smiling expression of the reclined Buddha statue portrays the compassion and calmness that comes with the enlightenment.

 

Monks and Nuns in Myanmar (similarities and differences)

There are about 300,000 Buddhist monks in Myanmar (Burma).
Their orange robes and shaved heads are instantly recognizable.
But there are also about 20,000 Buddhist nuns who also shave their heads but wear pink robes instead of orange.

Spending time with the monks is one of the highlights of any visit to Myanmar.
It is a cultural experience to witness their meals, studying, praying, offering services to the community or simply walking over a bridge.
They are generally very friendly and often approach travellers for a chat.
 

Monks and Nuns

Girls and women enter the monastic life, shave their heads, take ordination vows, practice meditation and read scriptures just as male monks do.
They don’t perform ceremonies though or travel overseas, and they carry only ten precepts, the ethical rules in Buddhism, the same number for novice monks.

The only other difference and the most striking is the pink robe. It is often worn with an orange sash over the left shoulder.

The nuns are called sila-rhan (pronounced thila-shin) which means the “keeper of morality.” That’s a supreme order for a girl of any age, but Myanmar’s nuns bear the title with cheerful humility.
Often, they have left home at an early age to live in the nunnery, where they spend their time in service to the community, collecting alms, teaching, studying and meditating.

Buddhist males are expected to become monks twice during their lifetime, as boys and as men, but there is no such expectation for girls, so joining the order is the choice of the girl or her family.

For poorer families, the pink robes are a way for their children to escape poverty, become educated and have an honorable position in society. For some it is simply a rite of passage, but many take up the pink kasaya (robe) for life.

Although generally considered quieter than their monk counterparts, once you engage with nuns, nuns can be just as cheeky or shy as any other girl in the world.

As a visitor, take a moment to listen. One can learn much from these gentle “pink nuns”.

 

 Shinbyu

It is the most important duty that parents owe to their son by letting him go forth and embrace the legacy of the Buddha, join the Sangha and become immersed in the teachings of the Buddha, the Dhamma, at least for a short while, perhaps longer if not for the rest of his life.
A boy may become a novice on more than one occasion.
Those who are not blessed with a male child will seek for an orphan boy or a boy from very poor families in order to receive this special dispensation by the Buddha and hence gain great merit by the act.
Shinbyu may well be regarded as a rite of passage or coming of age ceremony as in other religions.
Allowing a son to spend some time, however short it may be, in a Buddhist monastery is regarded by most Buddhists as the best religious gift that his parents can give him and it is believed to have a lasting effect on his life.

The day before the main ceremony, a tea party accompanied by music and dance is held for guests.
Various sweets and tea (sometimes a whole meal) is offered and the guest bring presents for the novice-to-be.
 

Young Novice

The big day starts early with a procession called the shinlaung hlè pwe to the monastery, the young boy dressed in resplendent silks embroidered with gold as a royal prince or king, shielded from the sun by a gold umbrella and led on horseback by an orchestral band headed by a clown with a moustache called U Shwe Yoe, holding a parasol and dancing merrily.
This ritual symbolises Rahula’s (Buddha’s son) departure from the royal palace with its sensuous pleasures and luxuries at the age of twenty nine, leaving his wife and newborn son in search of the Four Noble Truths.
Behind his horse follows the family, his proud parents carrying the monastic robes, eight requisites, called pareihkara shippa, and also his sisters or young village maidens carrying ceremonial boxes of lotus blossoms, all in their best silks, with the rest of the joyous party completing the procession.
The novice-to-be may be the centre of attention, but his sister may at the same ceremony have an ear-piercing with a gold needle, dressed up as a royal princess herself.
 

Novice Ceremony

At the monastery, a ritual haircut supervised by the monks takes place, the boy exchanges his princely garb with white robes and recites the ten presepts of Budhhism.
Then he wears the saffron robe of the monk and is given his alms bowl in an atmosphere of joy, pride and some tears, since the parents are overwhelmed by emotions.
No physical display of affection can now be considered appropriate until he leaves the monastery.
More over his position in the family changes and during this period the parents pay to him their respects and speak to him in a special language used by monks, in case they want to meet him during his special journey of knowledge and understanding of Buddhism.
 

Buddhist Novices

Thanaka

Thanaka  is a yellowish-white cosmetic paste made from ground bark.
It is a distinctive feature of the culture of Myanmar, seen commonly applied to the face and sometimes the arms of women and girls, and is used to a lesser extent also by men and boys.
The use of thanaka has also spread to neighboring countries including Thailand.

The wood of several trees may be used to produce thanaka cream.
These trees grow abundantly in central Myanmar.
They include principally Murraya, but also Limonia acidissima (theethee or wood apple).
The two most popular are Shwebo thanaka from Sagaing Region and Shinmadaung thanaka from Magway Region. Thanaka trees are perennials, and a tree must be at least 35 years old before it is considered mature enough to yield good-quality cuttings.
Thanaka in its natural state is sold individually or in bundles, but nowadays is also available as a paste or in powder form.
 

Thanaka Powder

Thanaka cream is made by grinding the bark, wood, or roots of a thanaka tree with a small amount of water on a circular slate slab called kyauk pyin, which has a channel around the rim for the water to drain into.

Thanaka cream has been used by Burmese women for over 2000 years. It has a fragrant scent somewhat similar to sandalwood.
The creamy paste is applied to the face in attractive designs, the most common form being a circular patch on each cheek, nose, sometimes made stripy with the fingers, known as thanaka bè gya, or patterned in the shape of a leaf, often highlighting the bridge of the nose with it at the same time. It may be applied from head to toe (thanaka chi zoun gaung zoun).
Apart from cosmetic beauty, thanaka also gives a cooling sensation and provides protection from sunburn.
It is believed to help remove acne and promote smooth skin. It is also an anti-fungal.
The active ingredients of thanaka are coumarin and marmesin.

 

Traditional clothing (Longyi)

Longyi  is a sheet of cloth widely worn in Burma. It is approximately 2 metres long and 80 centimetres wide.
The cloth is often sewn into a cylindrical shape.
It is worn around the waist, running to the feet.
It is held in place by folding fabric over without a knot.
It is also sometimes folded up to the knee for comfort. Similar garments are found in India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Malay Archipelago.
In the Indian subcontinent it is known variously as a lungi, longi, kaili or saaram.
The longyi patterns are usually different in the various ethnicities. The longyi is made of cotton, mostly, but in celebrations and special occasions can be also made of silk.
 

Women Wearing Longyi


Arts and crafts

Kalaga

Lengths of kalaga, or richly embroidered cloth, were traditionally used as portable curtains by monks, royalty, and rich people.
Kalaga pieces could be attached, with ropes, to trees, posts, or pillars to create an enclosed, private area.
The art of kalaga making declined rapidly after the British took over Myanmar and abolished the monarchy.
Many old pieces of kalaga were donated to monasteries or were bought by collectors.
Some beautiful pieces are now housed in museums outside Myanmar.
The art of kalaga making was kept alive by Burmese classical drama, whose dancers and marionettes wear kalaga costumes. In the 1970s, tourism helped revive the craft.
 

Kalaga

Today, kalaga pieces are made mainly for export and come in varying shapes and sizes.

 

Lacquer ware

Lacquer is a light, waterproof, easily moulded material, painted on objects, such as boxes, bowls, umbrellas, musical instruments, statues, and furniture, to give the items an attractive, patterned surface and a glossy finish.
The lacquer used in Myanmar is the sap of a wild tree (unlike the lacquer used in India and Europe, which is the secretion of an insect).
The trunk of a mature lacquer tree can measure up to 6 feet (1.8 m) in circumference.
The sap, tapped by making cuts in the tree trunk, is stored in airtight containers.
Its natural colour is black, but certain kinds of lacquer can also be stained red.
The best lacquer in Myanmar comes from Shan state.

Historians believe that the art of lacquer ware originated hundreds of years ago in Siam (Thailand, today) and spread to China before reaching Myanmar.
Today, the oldest and largest lacquer industry is based in Bagan, in central Myanmar.
Other lacquer ware centres include Mandalay, Ywama on Inle Lake, and Kengtung (a town in Shan State).
 

Lacqearweare

Most lacquer ware items have bases made of long, thin strips of bamboo coiled or woven, into specific shapes.
Lacquer can also be painted on wooden or metal objects.
Plain lacquer is mixed with finely ground clay, with ash from teak sawdust, or with rice husks to produce lacquer for different layers.
The lacquer is then painted onto the object. After each layer is applied, the lacquer is dried and polished.
Each item can have several layers of lacquer.
When the final layer has been applied, designs may be cut into the lacquer to reveal layers of colour beneath.
Gold leaf patterns may also be applied to the object's surface.
A single piece of lacquer ware takes between six months and two years to produce, depending on its quality.
Fine lacquer ware bowls are made with very thin bamboo strips interwoven with horsehair.
Even after the final layers of lacquer are applied, the bowl remains so flexible that its sides, when pressed together, can bend without cracking.

 

Gold Leaf

Myanmar gold leaf is traditionally used to gild items - such as lacquerware, musical instruments, religious images, and manuscripts storage chests - for royal or religious use.

Mandalay is the center of the gold leaf industry in Myanmar.
In the manufacturing process, small lumps of gold are pounded into thin strips, then heated and flattened in a machine. The resulting sheets are repeatedly hand-beaten, then cut into small squares, placed between sheets of special paper, and wrapped in animal skin.
Beaten again until they are no thicker than a layer of paint, the gold sheets are cut into squares of about 2 inches (5 cm), sandwiched between sheets of special paper, and sold in bundles.
 

Gold leaf making

 

Marionette puppet theatre

Myanmar marionette performances were a popular form of entertainment in eighteenth-century Myanmar, before the British took control of the country.
At their peak in the nineteenth century, marionette shows were more popular than live theater and received royal patronage.
Today, however, overtaken by videos and movies, marionette theater is a dying art form.

Traditionally, the puppets are about 22-27 inches (56-69 centimeters) tall, with up to eighteen strings.
Performances are based on stories from the Jataka, the sacred text that recounts the Buddha's many incarnations, or past lives.

A puppet troupe consists of puppeteers, singers, and an orchestra.
The success of the troupe depends more on the talent of the lead singer than on the skill of the puppeteers.
The audience comes not only to watch the show but also to listen to and appreciate the poetry of the lyrics.
 

Burma marionettes  

 

The Kayan (Padaug) long-neck women (giraffe ladies)

The Kayan are a sub-group of Red Karen (Karenni people), Tibeto-Burman ethnic minority of Myanmar (Burma).

Women of the Kayan tribes identify themselves by their forms of dress.
Women of the Kayan (Padaug) tribe are well known for wearing neck rings, brass coils that are placed around the neck, appearing to lengthen it.
The women wearing these coils are known as "giraffe women" to tourists.

Girls first start to wear rings when they are around 5 years old.
Over the years, the coil is replaced by a longer one and more turns are added.
The weight of the brass pushes the collar bone down and compresses the rib cage.
The neck itself is not lengthened.
The appearance of a stretched neck is created by the deformation of the clavicle.
Many ideas regarding why the coils are worn have been suggested, often formed by visiting anthropologists, who have hypothesized that the rings protected women from becoming slaves by making them less attractive to other tribes.
It has also been theorised that the coils originate from the desire to look more attractive by exaggerating sexual dimorphism, as women have more slender necks than men.
It has also been suggested that the coils give the women resemblance to a dragon, an important figure in Padaug folklore.
The coils might be meant to protect from tiger bites, perhaps literally, but probably symbolically.
 

Padaug

Padaug women, when asked, acknowledge these ideas, and often say that their purpose for wearing the rings is cultural identity (one associated with beauty).

The coil, once on, is seldom removed, as the coiling and uncoiling is a lengthy procedure.
It is usually only removed to be replaced by a new or longer coil.
The muscles covered by the coil become weakened.
Many women have removed the rings for medical examinations.
Most women prefer to wear the rings once their clavicle has been lowered, as the area of the neck and collarbone often becomes bruised and discoloured.
Additionally, the collar feels like an integral part of the body after ten or more years of continuous wear.

In 2006, some of the younger women started to remove their rings, either to give them the opportunity to continue their education or in protest against the exploitation of their culture and the restrictions that came with it.
After removing the rings, women report discomfort which fades after about three days.
The discoloration is more persistent.

The government of Myanmar began discouraging neck rings as it struggled to appear more modern to the developed world.
Consequently, many women in Myanmar began breaking the tradition, though a few older women and some of the younger girls in remote villages continued to wear rings.

 

Literature

The earliest Myanmar literature was primarily of a religious nature and was inscribed on stone.
These inscriptions go as far back as the Bagan period in the 11th century.

Palm-leaf manuscripts and folded paper manuscripts came into existence only after the 15th century.
The literature during this period was mainly concerned with the Janaka tales told by the Buddha to his disciples in answer to certain questions.
It was in the form of drama and epistles or missives, written in verse.
Works on law and history were written in prose.
Many dramas were written during the 16th to 18th centuries, while in the 19th century, poems, drama, and chronicles were produced.
 

Literature

After Myanmar fell to the British, the country's literature began to reflect the impact of a Western culture; the arrival of the printing press also influenced literature, which previously had been written for a much smaller audience.
Plays that had been written for the court became widely available; these plays were not performed on the stage but were meant to be read.

Novels were a later development; the first Myanmar novel was an adaptation of Alexander Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo, but written in a Myanmar setting.

Myanmar classical literature is flowery with long, difficult sentences and is concerned with the supernatural and magical. Originating from the court of the Myanmar kings, it was greatly influenced by Buddhist Pali and Sanskrit sources.

Modern Myanmar literature can be said to have had its beginnings in the 1930s when the University of Yangon was founded and the Department of Myanmar Studies established.
There was a new development in literature known as the khitsan movement whose writers used a simple and direct style that has continued to this day.

Present-day literature is still dominated by religious works, although there are many novels, short stories, poems, children's books, translations of foreign works, and works on culture, art, and science.
Popular fiction consists mostly of romantic novels.
Literary awards are presented annually. Many well-known writers are retired government servants, some of whom have worked or are working in institutes of higher learning.
Most writers have a permanent job and write only in their spare time.

 

Music  Culture

Traditional Myanmar music is based mainly on percussion.
Various kinds of music, songs, and dances are named after the kinds of drums used.
Large sidaw (see-daw) drums are used for formal music, long bonshay drums for folk music, and pot-shaped ozi (OH-zee) and two faced dobat (DOE-bat) drums for village celebrations.
Other instruments include oboes, flutes, gongs, cymbals, bamboo clappers, and bamboo xylophones.

The Myanmar orchestra includes a drum circle of nine to twenty-one drums suspended on a circular wooden frame.
A gong circle of up to nineteen gongs is arranged in scale on a wooden frame around a single performer.
Westerner instruments, such as violins, guitars, and accordions, sometimes accompany the traditional instruments.
 

 

Dance

Myanmar dance has existed from pre-Buddhist times when nat (spirit) worship was performed with dance.
Dance movements were strongly influenced by classical Indian and Thai dance.
Myanmar dance is rather vigorous and requires some difficult acrobatic feats.
It is also quite decorous; male and female dancers do not touch when dancing together.
Young beginners are taught the ka-bya-lut, a basic traditional dance.


Myanmar Puppet

An interesting dance is one in which dancers perform like puppets.
It has been said that Myanmar dance had to be copied from puppets because the marionette theater had replaced human dancers for a period.
The principal female dancer wears a court dress with a bodice and long-sleeved jacket that has stiff curved edges at the hips; the longyi has a train that the dancer kicks out as she dances.
Principal male dancers dress as princes in silk longyi, hackett, and white headdress.
Other roles include pages, soldiers, zawgyi (meaning wizard) and nat.
 

 

Yein

The yein is a popular dance at the Water Festival celebrations.
It involves uniformly dressed dancers, usually female, dancing in unison.
The hna-par-thwar is a duet dance betweeen a male and female.
The elephant dance, performed at the Elephant Dance Festival in Kyaukse near Mandalay, has the dancers in a papier-manche and bamboo-frame elephant costume.
 

 

Anyein

The anyein is a combination of solo dancing and clowning by lu-pyet, or clowns.
The clowns sing, dance, compose, impromptu speech, and make jokes about current events and various other topics, some of which are quite bawdy.
During the intervals when the clowns appear, the dancer rests or changes her costume.
Sometimes two or more dancers take turns dancing.
The entire performance lasts about two hours.

Many of the ethnic dances are performed with swords or different kinds of drums.
Ethnic dances include group dancing in which young boys and girls dance together, which is not very common in Myanmar dance.
 

 


Cuisine 


Myanmar Cuisine: A Tasty Journey

The food of Myanmar is delicious and an important part of any visit to this incredible country.
While dishes here may not be as commonly known as those of its neighbouring countries such as India, China, and Thailand, the food here does not actually differ dramatically from other Southeast Asian cuisines.
As is the case with most countries, the cuisine here is diverse and exciting.
It is impossible to summarise it but, nevertheless, there are a few really interesting dishes worth trying.

 

Mohinga

This breakfast dish is possibly one of the most popular meals in Myanmar.
A savoury dish consisting of rice noodles, served in a fish-based broth and accompanied by ginger, banana stems, lemongrass, onions, garlic and more may not sound like the most appetising meal, but there’s a reason why it is the unofficial national dish.
Depending on where you are, optional extras can include hardboiled eggs, fish cakes, fried onions and other tasty additions.
To top it all, the dish can be seasoned with lime or chili flakes to taste.
Whether you enjoy it for breakfast or throughout the day, from one of the many street vendors, Mohinga is always a hearty meal.
 

 

Exotic Salads

Some of the most famous dishes to come out of Myanmar have to be its salads.
More interesting than you might initially think, salads in Myanmar are extremely flavoursome and one of the most popular kinds has to be Lahpet Thoke, more commonly known in the West as tea leaf salad.
Myanmar is one of the few countries where you can eat tea leaves as well as drink them, and this salad consists of fermented tea leaves along with other ingredients, such as peanuts, dried peas and ginger.
All this results in a delicious dish of complimentary textures and flavours, and you get the added bonus of a caffeine boost!
 

 

Curries

Milder than the ones you will find in India but just as tasty, Burmese curries are ideal for those who aren’t as keen on spice or want to try a different take on curry.
There are plenty of different varieties available, with different meats, fish, and vegetables all available to be served in a curry sauce that is oilier than ones you’ve likely encountered before.
It is this oil, though, that causes the milder flavour. Often, you will find that curries are served with side dishes that are almost as enticing as the main dish itself, such as rice, salads, fried vegetables and soups.
 

 

Deep Fried Foods

Pretty much anything that can be deep fried, more than likely will be deep fried in Myanmar, with deep fried snacks being a popular type of street food that is readily available almost everywhere.
Everything, from samosas to tofu, is available deep fried and often accompanied with some kind of topping or dip, or with the fried food even being used as the topping itself.
While not necessarily the healthiest food around, you won’t want to miss out on sampling this snack, at least once during your trip.


   

 

Thali

Less of a dish and more of a dining experience, and one you won’t want to miss out on, Thali is a kind of all you can eat scenario.
Served on a metal platter, for a small charge you will be able to enjoy unlimited rice, soup, curry, chutney, vegetables and whatever else is going.
While much of the food in Myanmar tends to be great value, this is one meal where you definitely get your money’s worth, so be sure to try it while visiting.
 

 

Rice and noodle dishes

Rice and noodles feature heavily in Burmese cuisine, usually accompanying other dishes or being enjoyed as a light snack between meals.
One variety of noodle and rice you should make a point of trying are Shan noodles and Shan rice.
Both of these dishes are named after the region of Burma from which they originated. Shan-style rice is rice that has been prepared with turmeric and is usually topped with fish flakes and garlic oil, meanwhile Shan-style noodles is a dish consisting of sticky rice noodles usually served with pork or chicken, along with vegetables and other additions such as peanuts or sesame seeds.
 

 

 

Desserts

Myanmar people do not always have dessert during normal meals at home, but it is customary when entertaining a guest or giving a charity feast.
Apart from fruits of various kinds, the most common desert is laphet or pickled tea leaves salad served with roasted sesame seeds and peanuts, fried beans and garlic, and a small amount of dried prawn.
 

 

Shwe Kyi or rich semolina
is another popular dessert served at feasts and on special occasions.
 

 

Kyauk Kyaw or seaweed jelly 
mostly with a coconut milk layer on top, is also a common desert.
 

 

Thagu or Thagu Byin 
which may have acquired its name from the Malay origin, is sago or tapioca pudding sweetened with fruit syrup and enriched with coconut.
 

 

Jaggery
is the humblest of Myanmar traditional desserts, a complimentary dessert provided in Myanmar meal shops and also the only dessert popular in rural families, especially in Upper Myanmar.
 

 

                                                                                                                                                       Lefki