Da Gu La and Rakhine Traditional Water Festival

  • Laywadi Tun Saw Khine
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Rakhine ethnic women throw water on revellers as they celebrate the water festival traditionally.

The first month of Myanmar calendar year is pronounced as Da Gu La in spoken language, however if we strictly adhere to the literal pronunciation(according to its spelling) it should be pronounced as Tan Khu La as it writes wefcl;v. In many cases in Myanmar Language pronunciation does not follow the general rule “To pronounce as it writes” This is a lovely peculiarity of Myanmar language.
Tan Khu La is the time when Myanmar pick the fruit from toddy palm. Fruit of toddy palm bears the name “Htan”in Myanmar. Pick is represented by Myanmar word “Khu.” So, “Htan Khu” may be the origin and corrupted to “Tan Khu” in later time. “La” is “month” in English. According to one source it was noted “Tar Ku” was used in Ava Period bearing the meaning the “change from old to new year”
When we say Da Gu La, every Myanmar people know new year is coming with immediate preceding of water festival (Thingyan in Myanmar language) for three or four days in which all the citizens regardless of race and religion participate and enjoy.
When we say Da Gu La, it invokes every Myanmar to remember distinctive natural features such as flowers, season and Zodiac of the month. Full bloom of Padauk (pterocarpus) and Ngu Shwe War (cassia) flowers signify the month of Da Gu and its festival,Thingyan. Padauk and Thingyan are the twin for Myanmar citizens. Aesthetic writers or poets metaphorically cited the Da Gu La as the most beautiful month of the year with trees crowned with full blossoms enticing the bees and butterflies around and that beauty is embellished with the sweet songs of birdies which are mostly predominated by songs of koel (Eudynamys scolopacea) very commonly composed in Myanmar romantic songs, poems and novels. Da Gu lavished with pleasant natural beauty can make the separated lovers feel more yearning to see each other. In some literatures the attraction of natural beauties of Da Gu la is described a little bit in exaggeration to be able to make the saintly persons with high spiritual power lose its power and degraded to secular laymen.

Rakhine Traditional Water Festival (Thingyan)
Almost all indigenous ethnic groups celebrate the Thingyan in Da Gu La, but with trace of their own tradition and social mores. Rakhine people also have their own new year water festival (Thingyan) which is the most noteworthy of all traditional festivals of Rakhine. Traditional activities of Rakhine Thingyan are marked by making the paste of scented wood like Thanakha (Limonia acidissima) or Sandal wood, sacred bathing of the images of Buddha, washing hair of old women by young ladies, keeping Sabbath, doing charity deeds, paying homage to the elderly persons and participating in water dousing celebration. In some places some of the above mentioned activities become less pronounced and in some places they have disappeared.
Before sacred bathing the Buddha Images, young men and ladies gather at an appropriate place of village or ward and grind the sandal woods on the specially designed stone slabs with smooth surface. Rakhine traditional music troupe comprising Rakhine youngsters are playing the music with Rakhine Thingyan songs and antiphonal chants in loud chorus encouraging and entertaining the ladies at their labor in grinding the sandal wood. People around are also participating in the joyful event. The paste of sandal wood is collected in silver bowls and kept at a monastery or a religious congregation hall. The sandal wood paste is used in the collective sacred bathing of Buddha Images, stupas and shrines next day. Only after the completion of sacred bathing events, people are dousing each other with the spirit of washing the sin and sinister influence out of the body before the new year comes.
Tha tradition of sacred bathing Buddha images was known to have started since the era of 3rd Danyawaddy. During 3dr Danyawaddy era at BC580 Sandar Thuria took the throne and at BC 554, 12 years after his coronation he came to know that Gottama had attained enlightenment and became Buddha in Myitzima land in the west (now Nepal). He strongly desired to see Buddha and according to the advice of his counsellors he vowed and implored Buddha in his spiritually resolute mind to do him a favour of visiting Danyawaddy. The Buddha complying with the king’s request came to Danyawaddy together with 500 Sangha retinues and delivered sermons on Buddhism. Before Buddha and his entourage left for home the king Sandar Thuria had his men cast a Bronze image of Buddha on full moon of Kason La 123 Myanmar Year and finished on 1st waning moon of Kason La. The king named the bronze image Maha Muni.The king had it consecrated by Buddha himself and let the people pour the scented water on the image. Then, people poured the scented water on each other. Thus came the tradition of water pouring festival in Rakhine, and Rakhine people celebrate the water festival only after the sacred bathing of Buddha Images.
There are two ways of celebrating water festival in Rakhine State, one is going round the village or wards to douse water other people and another way is to douse water from pandals. In the former type young men who are necessarily single go in groups carrying scented water to the houses where the ladies are residing. Then requesting the permission to pour water on the lady he wants to douse from her parents. Then lad and lady exchanged pouring scented water and then they enjoy full-fledged water throwing on each other. The other way is to set up the pandals at an appropriate place in the village or ward and lads and ladies gather at the pandal. and throw water. The significant difference between Rakhine Thingyan and those of other parts of Myanmar is, in Rakhine Thingyan a wooden long boat with full of water is placed in the pandals. The belles of the village or ward come to the pandal under the guardianship of a medium-aged woman who has to take care of the ladies on behalf of their parents. The number of guardians depend on the size of the pandal. Lads have to take permission from the guardian to pour water on the lady he wants. After getting permission lads can take water from the boat and pour it to lady who is on other side of the boat. It is so amusing to see the pairs on each side of the boat dousing each other smiling or laughing merrily. Lad used to call the lady he pours “Ma Yee.”
Another peculiar type of merry-making in Rakhine Thingyan is that a group of ladies or women bide their time to catch a boy or young man and if they can do it, they paint his face in a humorous design and force him go round the village or ward and ask him to do something like monkey dancing, ogre dancing or prince dancing and collect the money from the onlookers. Then the collected money is donated to a monastery or pagoda or etc. This is creating a fun of Rakhine Thingyan to raise fund for donation. In Rakhine language it is called “THingyan Chaing Pwe”
When we go to the religious aspect of Rakhine Thingyan, most of the elderly persons usually go to monasteries to keep Sabbath, to listen the sermon of monks and doing meritorious deeds. Some young men also are found to do the same. The pagodas and monasteries are crowded during the water festival. The last day of water festival in Rakhine is marked by washing hair with scented water bearing some kinds of tender leaf or flower astrologically selected to be relevant with the day on which one was born with a view to have virtual effect on one’s life.
Tradition says that the last day of Thingyan is called “Atat Nay” that signies the day the Indra (King of Deva or Nat) ascends to his celestial abode after descending the world of human being on Thingyan “Akya Nay”, the first day of Thingyan recording the names of bad individuals and good individuals in his two different books during the three days of Thingyan event. The “Thingyan Bulletin” prepared by experienced astrologers says that the people born on the day that coincide with the day of “Thingyan Atat Nay” are in the realm of ill fate and they have to do meritorious deeds such as keeping Sabbath and donating food to the monasteries and to the neighbours as well to preclude the effect of ill fate. Then he has to donate the water pots to the pagodas or monasteries in the evening and he has to wash his hair with scented water at the time prescribed in the “Thingyan Bulletin” to do away with the ill fate.
Next day to “Thingyan Atat” is the first day of the New Year by Myanmar calendar. Paying homage to elderly people is celebrated extensively through out the Rakhine State on Myanmar New Year Day. Generally people are doing good things on the first day of new year. There is belief if some one spends money for something on the first day of new year the money will flow out from your pocket all the year round.

To be cautious the national culture not to get overwhelmed
Nowadays, Water Festival (Thingyan) are losing more and more of the national character and culture. Rakhine is no excepton. Traditional long boat to contain water starts to be replaced by modern water tank. Bowls used to pour or throw water is supplanted by hose and pipes. Traditional attire is also substituted by western-styled modern dress. Those changes are the harbinger of vanishing of the identity of traditional Rakhine Thingyan. People, especially youngsters take the Thingyan as an occasion for excessive drinking, wild dancing, showing of excessive mischievous acts, exchanging abusive and lewd words, seeking sex mate and everything out of control. Everybody accepts merry-making is the trade mark of Thingyan, but not meant for everything that tarnishes or blemishes the good tradition of new year water festival or Thingyan.
Rakhine communities are widespread throughout in Myanmar. They are celebrating their traditional Rakhine Thingyan. It is very important to uphold our own tradition and also to respect the tradition of other indigenous people. We, all the people in Myanmar regardless of race and religion should avoid activities and behaviors that blight the Thingyan of auspicious Myanmar New Year. All the ethnic people should embellish Da Gu La by Thingyan Festivals with national identity tinted with their own traditions and culture. Please be cautious to not make the Thingyan an ugly occasion.


(Translated by Khin Maung Win)

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