We are now in the Burmese month of ‘Thadingyut’ (September/October) and the reasons to be happy and celebrate are plentiful in Thadingyut for which reason this month is, apart from Thingyan, probably the most joyful of the entire year here in Burma. Soon we will be celebrating the ‘Thadingyut la pyei mee htun pwe daw’, the Thadingyut Full-moon Light Festival.
Off the cuff, I can think of six good reasons caused by which the whole country is now pervaded by an air of happiness and joyfulness that words can hardly describe. The feeling of the current atmosphere that I want to convey is most probably understood best or entered into by my fellow ‘westerners’ when I describe it as being spring-like.
All of these good reasons for feeling good together account for the happiness of the smaller part of the people here while the feeling of great pleasure and happiness of the larger part of the people is caused by a selection of these reasons. But what are these various reasons in detail? OK, let us take a closer look at them and join with the people.
One main reason – if not the reason – accounting for the general happiness not being occasioned by a specific and only for a few days lasting event is the weather.
As much as the Burmese people – and I myself too – have in Kason (April/May) longed for rain after the intense heat of the summer months of Tabaung (February/March), Tagu (March/April) and Kason (April/May) they/we are now in Thadingyut looking forward to the ‘cool’ winter season from Nadaw (November/December) to the second half of Tabodwe (January/February).
Presently we are in a transitional period from the rainy to the dry winter season and soon, the season of cyclones, lightings, heavy rains, floods, muddy streets and ways, broken power lines and the high humidity that causes a stifling closeness, permanently damp and mildew clothes, problems to the respiratory system of many people and serious colds and influenza will be history and the days will be sunny and dry but not too hot.
Especially in the south and the coastal regions of Burma the monsoon season is apart from the blessing that the rain constitutes for the nature a distinctly unpleasant time, which will luckily soon be over. Certainly, this alone would be reason enough to be happy but as mentioned previously there are other reasons, too. These several other reasons are linked to the end of the Buddhist lent or Waso, which is market by Thadingyut.
While the terms ‘Wa’ and/or ‘Thadin’ mean ‘Buddhist Lent’, the meaning of the term ‘Gyut’ or ‘Kyut’ is as much as ‘the end’. Subsequently, ‘Thadingyut’ can be translated with ‘The End of Buddhist Lent’.
One of these other reasons is that lovers can soon rush into each other’s arms and tie the knot something they have been eagerly waiting for since marriages are taboo during Lenten time. Just as the lines of a song about a young girl that longs for her lover to come and marry her during Thadingyut that was sung by Ma Mya Yin and some twenty five years ago a great hit in Burma put it:
“Maung malar phaw kwar kin,
Thadingyut taw myee,
Thadingyut taw myee.”
“I am feeling lonesome when my beloved is not with me.
It is nearly Thadingyut time now;
it is nearly Thadingyut time now.”
The young girl must not worry. Her lover will come and take her as an old poem phrases it:
“To ride merrily, merrily all the way to happiness.”
Soon she will – dressed in her beautiful wedding dress – be sitting beside him in the white, with flowers and paper garlands festooned car that leads the long column of cars filled with relatives, friends and acquaintances towards the wedding hall for her ‘Lethtet pwe’ (wedding reception).
In Thadingyut, thousands of couples enter the state of marriage and every day a large number of these columns of cars are winding through the streets of cities, towns and villages to bring bride and bridegroom to wedding halls that are now working at full capacity.
From my desk where I am now sitting to write this article I am sending my congratulations and best wishes for the future to all of them; may your lives as wives and husbands be marked by happiness, good health and prosperity.
You see, the month of Thadingyut is also the month of love. This fact is not only expressed by the now very special relationship between lovers or husbands and wives-to-be but also the special feelings and respect that is shown by the younger people be it grand children, children, pupils or students towards their parents, grandparents and teachers, in particular, as well as elder people, in general.
However, the mere aspect of love is not the only element of this tradition called ‘Kadaw’. It also includes the elements of remembrance, gratitude and purification, i.e. the remembering with gratitude of all that one owes to grandparents, parents and teachers and being purified from all wrongful actions one might have intentionally or unwittingly done by asking for forgiveness. This, however, is not a one-way procedure. It is reciprocal as at the same time the elder people on their part ask the younger people for forgiveness for any trespass committed.
In brief, the Kadaw ceremony is not merely an act of obedience and paying respect but does also serve the purpose of – in a manner of speaking – burying the hatchet. Schools and universities, for instance, organise so-called ‘Paying of Respect’ ceremonies, ‘Saya ka daw pwe’ as they are called in Burmese.
Come to think of it, your grandparents, parents and/or teacher ask you to forgive them any trespass they might have intentionally or unwittingly committed. Is that not a wonderful and really touching tradition and a reason to be happy? The tradition of Kadaw has its roots in the ‘Samsara’, the cycle of re-birth in Buddhist belief.
So, Thadingyut not only is the month of love but also the month of paying respect and forgiving. But when I come to think of it, respect and forgiveness are integral parts of love. Or is it not?
A further reason for people’s happiness is that they can now move the house, something that, naturally, is also closely linked with getting married. Moving the house too, is something that is not done during the Buddhist lent as this is considered taboo. Now the people can do this.
But being the Burmese people they are the people here are in their vast majority very superstitious what, by the by, is a very fertile breeding ground for soothsayer, nat gadaws and astrologer. Subsequently, to consult a ‘Badin saya’ (astrologer) in order to avoid that ill fate might fall upon one is an essential procedure preceding the moving of the house. The exact month, week and day as well as the direction of the new house are properly worked out by the astrologer.
At the time of this writing I remember the very famous and much sought after astrologer Min Thein Kha. He was a teacher of a friend of mine but unfortunately passed away some year ago.
Under the authority of the ‘Guild or Board of Astrologers’, the badin sayas are annually issuing broadsheets called ‘Thingyansar’ that contain rules and regulations and is giving general predictions. It tells the people what to expect, what to do and how to behave. Astrology is in Burma a not only much respected but very important instrument for predicting or trying to positively influence the future.
Old or young, female or male, healthy or sick, educated or uneducated, rich or poor, almost every Burmese from lowest commoner to highest statesman is paying utmost importance to what his astrologer foresees and advices.
Matters of higher importance – be they of private, business or political nature – are not planned and are not taking place without prior consultants of an astrologer and/or palmist and additional offerings to sayadaws and nats. It is in the Burmese people’s nature; and, therefore, especially in the time of Thadingyut astrologers’ business is booming because many people will decide on and do important things after the festival..
It is divided into Days of Birth starting with Sunday born at the top and ending with Saturday born at the bottom. It contains like a horoscope advice for people born at the respective day.
Since the advice given is of the rather general kind many people do not really believe in it but take it serious nonetheless.
Think of your country. Everyone is reading the horoscope but no one admits that he believes in it; yet it has some influence on their behaviour. Or think of bad luck on Friday the 13! No one is taking it seriously but everybody is more cautious; see what I mean?
This Thingyansar is telling e.g. Sunday born among others: “In this year be careful with making promises easily you may not be in a position to keep them.
If you want to make business or investments you must be very cautious. If you are, business will be good because good people are around you. From your family you may get a house and/or land.
Especially Tuesday and Thursday born people will be very good to you. If you sell a car this year you will make a good profit.”
The ‘Naga’ (mythological being, half serpent and half naga) plays an important role in connection with the moving of the house as the ‘Naga gaung hle’ (the direction of the naga’s head) decides on the direction of the new house.
The direction of the naga’s head is changing every month and it is important that the opposite direction of the naga gaung le or a direction that crosses the body of the naga is chosen as this brings ‘gang kaunde’ (good luck). If however the direction of the new home points into the naga’s mouth this is an omen of ‘gang ma kaung bu’ (bad luck).
The importance attributed to the naga is rooted in the naga cult that has just as the nat worshipping assimilated with Buddhism in Burma.
An additional reason for the Burmese people’s happiness in Thadingyut is that the pongyis are allowed to travel after the full-moon of Thadingyut. During Lenten time all members of the ‘Sangha’ are confined to their ‘Pongyi kyaungs’ (Buddhist monasteries) – something that was prescribed by Gautama Buddha himself – to study Pali and Buddhist scripture and to meditate.
This is also the time for the ‘Sar pyan pwe’, examination in Buddhist scripture, which are taken from the beginning of the second half of ‘Nayon’ (June) on. However, after the end of the Buddhist lent in Thadingyut they can again travel. This is good news for both the pongyis and the believers. For the pongyis because they now get out of the confines of the monasteries and can spread the (in Sanskrit)’Dhamma’ (in Pali) ‘Dharma'(‘that what is right’), the teachings of Buddha) and for the Buddhist laypeople because they can now give again every morning alms to the pongyis in order to earn religious merits. This leads us to the religious main event and reason for happiness and celebration in Thadingyut: the ‘Festival of Lights’.
What is this Festival of Lights and why is it celebrated? Here I have the answer(s) for you.
Just as about everything that is of relevance to and importance in Christianity goes back to A.D. 0 (zero) the times of the birth and the later life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ everything concerning Buddhism has its roots twenty five centuries ago in the times of Siddhartha Gautama (c 563 B.C. to c 483 B.C.), the later Gautama Buddha; his birth, life and becoming Buddha (Enlightened One). This is also true for the Festival of Lights in Thadingyut, which originates from one of the main events in Gautama Buddha’s life, namely his descent from ‘Tavatimsa’ (abode of the celestials/gods or heaven or seventh-highest abode of heaven) where he spent the three months of the Lenten time in order to preach the most profound and difficult part of the ‘Dhamma/Dharma’ (teachings of Buddha), the ‘Abidharma’ to his mother Maidaw Maya who was re-born in Tavatimsa as Deva or celestial being ‘Maidaw-mi-nattha’ (Mother Angel-God) and the ‘Devas’ or ‘Nats’ (celestial beings or guardian spirits).
The result of my research is that as to the details of the legend of Gautama Buddha’s descent from Tavatimsa – the for the Festival of Light relevant event – there are several different versions in circulation. These differences concern the source(s) of the bright light his descent was according to the legend accompanied by, on what or how he descended and by whom he was accompanied when coming back down to earth.
Some sources say that his body was emitting the bright light. Others say that the bright light was created by the candles, lanterns, oil-lamps, ‘See-mee lights’ (small saucers filled with sesame oil lit by wicks of cotton) and torches that were lit by the multitude of people that had come together to welcome him and to light his way.
According to yet others the source of the bright light were torches held by angels who lined the way of his descent or that the bright light was emitted by the jewels the ladder on which he descended was encrusted with. Maybe it was a mix of all of these that created the bright light.
As to how or on what he descended some say on a bejewelled ladder (see the last explanation for the source of the bright light), some give no further particulars at all and speak merely of ‘descent’ and others (the majority) say on three ‘Prasads’ (stairways) made of and decorated with gold, silver and rubies. With regard to his entourage do some say it comprised of an undefined number of followers; others say it were ‘Arahats’ and five hundred disciples and yet others speak of a delegation or group of celestials.
Whatever the source of the bright light was, however Gautama Buddha descended and whoever was accompanying him, it remains the fact that his descent from Tavatimsa is that what is celebrated with the Festival of Lights in memory of this most significant religious event.
In an act of symbolic revival and imitation of the bright light this event was illuminated by the entire county is in the evenings and early nights lit up by millions on millions of candles and lamps.
They are on walls, railings of balconies and stairs, on trees, set afloat on paper lanterns as light offering on the water surfaces of ponds, lakes and rivers and fixed to balloons that are sent up to the ‘Culamani Pagoda’ that is believed to be located in Tavatimsa. In their thousands people go to pagodas, in Yangon preferably the Shwedagon Pagoda to welcome and worship Gautama Buddha.
By the way, this legend about Gautama Buddha is not to be mistaken for the legend of Thagyamin’s coming down to earth in Thingyan, although the story is essentially the same.
Another essential part of the Thadingyut Festival of Light is fireworks and the offering of alms to pongyis.
The Festival of Lights usually lasts three days from the eve of the ‘Full-moon Day of Thadingyut’ to the day after the full-moon day. However, at Inlay Lake in the Shan State the festival is celebrated for full 18 days. But wherever in Burma you are at this time, throughout the whole country this is the time for jollity and happiness. An air of joyousness pervades the air and everywhere smiling faces, music, songs and dances.
The Festival of Lights truly is an exciting event that leaves a lasting impression – especially this year as it was not spoilt by rain what, alas, is often the case – and I hope you did enjoy being part of the crowd celebrating it.
If you like you can accompany me in four weeks when we celebrate the ‘Tazaungdaing mee htun pyei daw’, the Tazaungdaing Light Festival on the full-moon of Tazaungmon. You are cordially invited.