Nayon, the Month of the Festival of Religious Examinations

The Lord Buddha delivered the famous Maha Thamaya Sutta to the Devas and Brahmas of all universes. Photo: MOI

By Dr. Khin Maung Nyunt (Maha Saddhamma Jotika Dhaja Sithu)

Nayon is the third month in the lunar calendar of Myanmar people. It approximates to June, and it is the last month of summer. The peak of summer is Kason or May when the sun mercilessly burns up everything on earth reducing the country to a parched land. In Nayon the solar heat begins to decline as the monsoon arrives from the south-west direction bringing rainbearing clouds, releasing showers everywhere. Skeletons of trees which have stripped off all their year-worn yellow foliage begin to put on new emerald green garments.

Green carpet
The hard parched land has now become soft and fresh with rain water and in no time it turns into a green carpet of grass. There is a Myanmar saying ”e,kefrdk;ao; jruf om;arG;” ”Little showers of Nayon nurture tender grass”.
The word ”Nayon” had been spelt differently in different periods of Myanmar history. In the Bagan Period it was spelt as ”Nan Yon” or “Na Yon” where as in the Innwa Period it was spelt to sound ”Nan Yon”.
Astrological name of Nayon is May Htone (arxkef) or Mithuna (Gemini). May Htone is derived from the Pali word ”rdxke” (mi htu na) meaning a couple of man and woman. The astrological symbol of Nayon is a couple of man and woman holding a long rod and a harp. Sometimes a pair of Keinnara and Keinnari (male and female mythical birds with human head) is presented to symbolize this month. In Nayon the Moon and Jehta star together and the Sun and Migathi star together reach noon time. The flower of the month is jasmine, star-like pure white bloom with pleasant fragrance.

Three counts
Nayon is important in Myanmar culture on three counts. Firstly it is the month during which Myanmar farmers begin ploughing their fields. It is the first month of wet cultivation. In the time of Myanmar Kings, Le Htun Mingala (v,fxGefr*Fvm) or royal ploughing ceremony was held in this month so that there would be good rain and good harvest. Secondly it was on the full moon day of Nayon that the Lord Buddha delivered the famous Maha Thamaya Sutta to the Devas and Brahmas of all universes. So the full moon day of Nayon is marked as Maha Thamaya Day which Myanmar Buddhists celebrate by reciting the said Sutta and doing good works. Thirdly it is in the month of Nayon that religious examinations are held for the Buddhist monks.

Three Sasanas
There are three Sasanas (Teachings of the Buddha) in Buddhism, namely Pariyatti Sasana which means acquisition of a sound knowledge of the Dhamma the Law, and all religious literatures and scriptures through intensive and extensive learning, Patipatti Sasana which means the being accomplished in knowledge and Priveda Sasana which means the acting according to knowledge communicated and acquired. Pariyatti or learning of the Dhmma is primarily important.

Diligent study
Monks are encouraged to devote themselves to the diligent study of all religious literatures, Tipitakas. Tipitakas literally means three baskets-(1) Vinaya (2) Sutta and (3) Abidhamma. All Buddhist monks including novices must learn them and pass the examinations held annually in the month of Nayon.

Laity’s support
Buddhist laity of all walks of life-from royalty to the commoners see to the needs of the examiner and examinee monks. Cash donation and other contributions in kind are collected to support the holding of the religious examinations. Nayon is the month in which the learning period of the whole year comes to an end. So Examinations are held to test the academic progress of monk scholars. A festal atmosphere is imported to this function by offering food and priestly utensils to the monks at the Examination centres.

Earliest mention
The earliest mention of religious examinations being held was found in the volume three of the Myanmar Chronicle called Hman-nan Yazawun Tawgyi i.e. The Glass Palace Chronicle. On page 239 we find the following paragraph:
”In the year 1000 M.E. (A.D 1638) the monk teachers examined the student novices on the subjects they had learnt. Hundred and eight novices passed the examinations. Seven of them were ordained at noon, on Sunday the 14th waxing moon of Kason.
”So it is commonly assumed that the festival of religious examinations originated in the reign of King Thalun (A.D. 1629-1648). But the month mentioned in the paragraph was Kason, not Nayon.
In the Lawka Byu Har (avmuAsL[m) or commonly known as Inyone Sardan (tif½kHpmwrf;) which is a treatise on ”Court Ceremonies and Festivals of 29 Kings of Innwa and Nyaung Yan dynasties” compiled by Thiri Uzana the Inyone Minister, we find reference to holding of religious examinations in the month of Nayon under royal patronage of Innwa kings who far proceeded King Thalun. Holding of religious examinations in Nayon and ordination of successful candidates in the subsequent month Waso are in natural sequence. The academic terms of religious education come to an end in Nayon and new academic year commences in the first month of Buddhist Lent that is Waso. So it is appropriate to hold religious examination in Nayon and to start again teaching in Waso. Other historical and literary evidences indicate Nayon as the month of the Festival of religious examinations.
On page 376 of the Glass Palace Chronicle, Volume three it is mentioned that:
His Majesty took occupancy of the Palace ”Kyaw Aung San Nan” (ausmfatmifpHeef;) and then at Innwa he built a monastery which was dedicated to the Most Venerable Baddhanta Nyana Wara who stood first in the religious examinations. This learned monk received the title ”Pahtama Kyaw” (yxrausmf) and later he came to be known as ”Kyaw Aung San Hta Sayadaw” (ausmfatmifpHxm;q&mawmf).

Time of Examinations
Although festival of religious examinations in Nayon was not recorded yearly, there is no doubt that they were held regularly throughout Myanmar history. Examinations took place in the Thudhamma zayats built by the King. Preparations were made in advance such as gilding the zayats, renovating and decorating the surroundings. Pavilions were constructed in which the monks were fed daily and were presented with offertories. A special ”min lan” (rif;vrf;) or royal road was made lined on either side with yazamat fences (&mZrwfuGuf) (Diamond shaped design of lattice fences) and flower pots. The surface of the royal road was covered with fine white sand. At the end of the road was built a richly decorated Pavilion for Their Majesties and the court from where they watched the examinations proceeding and paid homage to the monks. Naturally festivities took place where royalty appeared in public.

One whole month
According to the Maha Yazawun or the Great Chronicle religious examinations in the Konbaung dyansty took one whole month, beginning on the 8th waxing of Nayon and ending on the 8th waxing of Waso. But normally examinations lasted two to three weeks, depending upon the number of candidates and the subjects examined varied from time to time. As religious examinations held by the King were very ardous, demanding too much of physical and mental energy, monk candidates were asked to change to become laymen during the examination period so that they could partake of evening meal to replenish their strength. Examinations were both oral and written. Candidates had to recite passages from the prescribed texts by heart and give correct answers to the questions without hesitation. During the time of King Bodawpaya (A.D. 1782-1819) a royal order was issued in 1153 ME (A.D. 1791) prescribing the texts for examination. This order remained in force till the reign of King Bagan (A.D. 1846-1853).

Peak of progress and perfection
During the reign of King Mindon (A.D. 1853-1878) religious examinations reached the peak of progress and perfection. He was a devout Buddhist King who promoted Buddhism by supporting Sanghas (Assembly of monks) as best he could. He convened the 5th Buddhist Council in 1871 which revised and edited the Tipitakas or the Buddhist Canon. The authorized version of Tipitakas was then inscribed on 729 white alabaster slabs, Vinaya on 111 slabs, Suttas on 410 slabs, and Abidhamma on 208 slabs. These slabs are housed in cave-like brick buildings set up in the precincts of Maha Loka Marazein Pagoda at Mandalay. In 1873 he invited all learned monks from the four corners of his Capital to his Palace and put up his supplication requesting the Most Venerables to train novices and young monks so that they could recite not only Vinaya but the whole Tipitaka by heart. So from the year 1873 onwards religious examinations were held to select the most learned and brilliant candidate called ‘’Pahtama Kyaw” (yxrausmf). The King built a big Pahtan zayat
(yXmef;Z&yf) and 33 examination halls called ‘’Thudhamma zayats” of teak, varnished with red vermillion and finely gilt. Some of them still stand in good condition at the foot of the Mandalay Hill.

Four grades
There were four grades of examination viz. (i) Pahtama Ngal (yxri,f) or Lower Grade (ii) Pahtama Lat (yxrvwf) or Middle Grade (iii) Pahtamagyi (yxrBuD;) or Higher Grade and (iv) Pahtama Kyaw (yxrausmf) or Highest Grade.
His son and successor King Thibaw was a successful candidate in the first three grades. When he became King he passed Religious Examination Law, which was the first of its kind in Myanmar history. It was published in book form by the Hluttaw Press in 1883. By this law there were only three grades, Lower grade, Higher grade and Highest grade.

Three forms of examination
Examination took three forms (i) recitation by heart (ii) oral examination and (iii) written examination. Success or failure was decided on the merits scored in all forms of examination. From among the successful candidates the one who scored the highest total marks was selected ‘’First” and the rest were classified under the lists, list I and II according to their merits.

Lavish reward
Successful candidates were lavishly rewarded by the King. A big Pujas (ylZm) or honouring ceremony was held in the courtyard where richly decorated pavalions were set up. The Pahtama Kyaw candidate was carried on a gilt palanquin borne by 40 men with gold umbrellas shading him. The other candidates wearing rich attire with gold salwe on their breasts followed either riding horses or being carried on the sedan chair according to their positions in the examination results. Royal musical Ensemble called ‘Sain Waing Tawgyi’ played music of welcome and honour. Their Majesties and the Court appeared in state on the podium of the Hluttaw (Council of Ministers in the time of Myanmar Kings) and poured lustral water from the gold libation ewer as the successful candidates in line approached him to receive the rewards from him. Kyats 1000 in pure silver for the Lower grade, kyats 1500 in pure silver for the higher grade and Kyats 2500 in pure silver for the Highest grade were presented. In addition, the privilege of tax immunities was granted to their parents and nearest relatives.
The Pahtama Kyaw was adopted by the King and should he choose a career he would be appointed clerk with the prospect of promotion to Wungyi (Minister) one day. If not, he could remain monk, well supported by the King who would build a monastery for him and might raise him to be ‘’raja guru” or King’s Teacher.

Well Preserved
Although Myanmar fell under the British rule for 117 years this tradition of holding religious examinations was well preserved. Even during the second World War when Myanmar was under the Japanses occupation, attempt to revive
this tradition was made in 1943 by the then Adipadi Government. It was called Vinaya
(Code of conduct) Examination of Burma. There were four grades and only treatises on Vinaya were prescribed for examination.
To-day this tradition of holding religious examination is kept alive by the Government and the public in co-operation.

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