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Tabaung, the month of Sand Pagoda Festival

By Dr. Khin Maung Nyunt, Maha Saddhamma Jotika Dhaja Sithu

TABAUNG (March) is the 12th month of Myanmar calendar and it is the last month of the year. Being a transition between Winter and Summer Tabaung still covers Winter for its first half which is from the 1st to the 15th and enters into Summer in its second half which is from the 16th to 30th. Days in this month are getting warm while nights remain still cold. This peculiar weather gave rise to an old Myanmar saying ]]aeYylvdkY ncsrf; waygif;v? vo&rf;}} (Days are warm and nights are chilly, Tabaung is the month so unruly). Astrological name of Tabaung is Mina (Pices) and its zodiacal sign is two fish. Ou tara phala guni (Owå&zvm*leD) which is asterism of two stars in Leo resembling the rear leg of a couch is the star of this month. Although many trees and plants bloom in Tabaung as it is the beginning of springtime, Tharaphi (Orchrocapus Siamensis) and Pon Nytet (Orchrocapus Siamensis) and Pon Nyet (callophyllum Inophyllum ) are traditionally marked as flowers of this month.
The word “Tabaung” has two meanings according to Wawhaya Linahta Dipani Kyan(Book on Vocabulary). First, it means it is the month for yearning or longing or reminiscence. As the month is so beautiful and pleasant that one recalls one’s sweet memories or one longs or yearns for one’s loved ones. Second meaning is that it is the month during which jaggery (palm sugar) is made from toddy juice (natural juice from sugar palm). Tabaung is described as the queen of all months because it is in this month that natural landscape bursts forth all its beauties and splendours — sky and clouds change their colours and designs, woodlands put on all hues, foliage bears a variety of green, brooks carry away fallen leaves of copper and gold, lakes turn emerald green or sapphire blue, cuckoos sing to herald Summer, doves coo continuously to prepare for their mating game. Sparrows repair and renovate their nests in anticipation of the monsoon. Swarm of wasps and bees buzz around whild flowers, while butterflies flutter away with the nectar they have gathered early. As the sun declines, dark blue mountains appear behind the veil of haze. There is the smell of farm fire burning somewhere. At dusk, sweet fragrance of seasonal flora is wafted by the gentle breeze. Nature’s night life begins as the waxing Tabaung moon gradually climbs above the treetops. Cacophony of cicada insects creates an eerie atmosphere. It is as though their incessant sounds accompany the dainty movements of the ripples in the lakes. The whole nocturnal scene is caressed by the silvery moonbeams. This is poetic Tabaung.
It is about poetic Tabaung that Ashin Kaludayi composed sixty stanzas of Pali poem to request the Lord Buddha to make a long journey through the glades to Kapilavatthu which was his royal father’s kingdom. Tabaung is the favourite theme of Myanmar nature writers. Myanmar poets of past and present never get bored in praising the beauties of Tabaung. The long poem named “Tawla” (Travelogue) composed by monk poet Shin Uttama Kyaw of the Innwa Period is an unsurpassing literary piece that described nature in Tabaung. In Twelve season poems that flowed from the prolific pen of Pho Thudaw U Min of the late Konbaung Period, the stanza on Tabaung runs as follows:
]]yef;a&TzDBudKifavQmufvdkY? ydawmufu,fwJh oif;csKd? Owå&mb&*kPfu? wdrfbkHrSm a&mifjcnf vif;vdkY? vrif;aomfwmESifh wlruGmxdef0gwJh? xGef;wJhtcgudk? aomifoJi,frdk? a&ndKu&pfrdkY? avn§if;i,fvm? pkHa[rmNrdKifxJu? 0rf;bJa&Tpif a&mfwdkY? azmfac:oH armifr,fusL;w,f? jrL;aysmf MuvdkY/}}
“This is the time when climbing
Orion glitters in the sky,
And shining with the moon at
Mingles with her’s his yellow
“The sweet scent of the Thara
And faint smell of the Padauk tree
Is wafted from the misty trees
Upon a gentle soughing breeze
About the sand banks of the
The white arms of a river gleam
I hear the clamorous return
Of wild duck and of silver Tern.”

The traditional festival held in Taboung is Sand Pagoda Festival. Earliest historical evidence so far traceable is found in the literature of the Innwa Period. Shin Maha Thilawuntha, one of four noted monk poets of the Innwa Period composed many Pyo (Poem of epic proportions) verses of which one Pyo named “Buddha Pati” (History of His Enlightenment) Pyo has the description of the month Tabaung and the Sand Pagoda festival. It runs as follows:
Catfish, carps and all their members
Frolic in the river.
Seagull and Sheldrake make
lovely call
Aquatic birds brahminy duck,
hamsa and river
Tern, Gleefully greet each other
in ecstasy.
On the silvery sand bank is
The Festival of Sand Pagoda.”
From this description we may safely assume that Sand Pagoda Festival was annually held in Tabaung in the Innwa Period. As all Pagoda festivals are associated with Buddhism and since Buddhism was well established in Myanmar long before the Innwa Period, it is possible that Sand Pagoda festival originated in the time much earlier than the Innwa period. One fact to support the existence of Sand Pagoda in the Bagan Period was the world renowned Shwezigon Pagoda of Bagan. Its history says that Kind Anawrahta (A.D 1044-77) built that Pagoda on the sand bank of the Ayeyawady River. Its original name was Shwe The Khon (a&ToJckH) meaning golden pagoda on the sand bank.
In Buddhist literature we find the origin of Sand Pagoda. Buddha Sasanika Kyans (Ak’¨om oeduusrf;) say that the building and worship of Sand Pagoda was a cultural tradition of Buddhist religion dating far back to aeons of time. History of the first building of Sand Pagoda is mentioned in Apadan Pali, Palinupadake Mahathera Apadan (ty’gefygVdawmfykvd EkyÜg’u r[max&fty’gef) it is as follows:
“In the time of hundred thousand kabas (Cosmic Aeon) ago there lived a hermit named Devala in a hermitage at the Himalayas. The hermitage was created by the Devas. He had several pupils and disciples. One day he came out from his hermitage and made a Sand Pagoda which he decorated with flowers and reverently worshipped it as representative of the Lord Buddha. He received peace of mind and spiritual bliss. His pupils and disciples asked the hermit why he built and worshipped the Sand Pagoda. The hermit replied that ancient literature of Vedas says that the Lord Buddha was attended by many pupils and disciples and he was the Exalted Sage to revere. I build this Sand Pagoda dedicated to the Lord Buddha and worshipped it as his representative. The hermit further explained the peculiar marks, extraordinary traits, glories, infinite qualities, moral character and sila of the Lord Buddha. On hearing the hermit’s explanation the pupils and disciples became inspired to pay homage to the Lord Buddha. So they also made Sand Pagodas to worship.
In the hagiography of Polinahtupiya Mahathera it was mentioned that the hermit Narda who was the future Pulinahtupiya Mahathera made Sand Pagoda to worship all Previously extinct Buddhas who had entered Parinivirna. He decorated the Sand Pagoda he made with three thousand small bells and worshipped it day and night.
In the month of Tabaung water in the rivers, streams and lakes ebbs, and sand banks appear in them. On these fertile sand banks Myanmar cultivators grow seasonal crops such as maize, corn, groundnut, sweet potatoe, peas, tomatoes, tobacco, and many vegetables and fruits. After these agricultural products are sold out, the cultivators have cash and enough rest time until the next rain comes. With money and leisure, they turn to religious activities. Myanmar kings made Sand Pagoda festival the seasonal festival of Tabaung and it was held at the Palace as well as at every riverside town and village. The King, the Chief Queen and the whole court came out to the sand banks where Sand Pagodas were made and homage given them ceremonially, followed by public entertainments and festivities.
Sand Pagodas are of graduated five tiers, tapering to the top. Each tier of white sand is flanked by bamboo mattings and posts. The five tiers represent five layers of Mt. Meru the legendary Mountain in Buddhist cosmology. After all five tiers are filled with clean and pure white sand, paper streamers, prayer flags, festoons and flowers are artistically arranged on them. With fruits flowers and other offertories devotees come in procession accompanied by folk dancers and musicians. They circumambulate the Sand Pagoda three times and finally pay homage to it. Sayadaw the head monk who leads the invited monks presides the occasion and he gives the devotees five moral precepts to observe. Libation ceremony is performed to share out the religious merit with all sentient beings.
Sand Pagodas last till the next rainy season. But some sand pagodas were encased by brick and cement to last long. So in some waterfront towns we find sand pagodas of permanent nature. Though they are still called Sand Pagodas they are like any other solid pagoda of brick and plaster. Now-a-days Sand Pagoda festival is no longer held on national scale. Only few towns and villages along the rivers hold it annually as their local event. In its place Tabaung festival has come in. For example at the Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Tabaung festival is held yearlyin Tabaung. It was on the full moon day of Tabaung in the Maha Sakarit year 103 that the Shwedagon Pagoda was buyilt. To commemorate the founding date of the Pagoda, Tabaung Festival is held every year. In the days of Myanmar monarchy the Governor of Hanthawaddy on behalf of the King paid a ceremonial visit to the Shwedagon Pagoda, on the fullmoon day of Tabaung. He worshipped it and donated many offertories. Theatrical performances were held for public entertainment. The following is an excerpt from the book The Burman, His Life and Notions by J.G.Scott who used a pen name Shwe Yoe. It is his remark on Tabaung Festival he saw in 1882.
“The greatest of all the pagoda feasts is, of course, that of the Shwe Dagon in Yangon, with its pilgrims, not only from the furthest parts of Myanmar and far-away Shan hills, but also from over the seas, from Siam and Cambodia and Korea. But the vastness of the gathering and the proximity of the great town spoil the national character of the festival, and introduce too many elements of nineteenth century civilization in the shape of merry-go-rounds and hack carriages. A “jungle” feast is not only more characteristic, but more appreciated in its way by both town and country fold.”

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