To the colorful procession coming from Wan Tha’s village, the magic of the moments to come were to be worth whatever pain they might feel in their feet from over a day’s walk. It is Palaung tradition for the man’s delegation to come to the woman’s home for the ceremony, and the weather was auspicious for the journey. Wan Tha was to marry Ma Ko the next day, January 7th, in Peinnebin, her community, and the approaching party was quietly excited. They had stopped for the night at a smaller village fifteen miles away, so this morning everyone was pretty fresh. Slowly but surely making their way along the reddened track, they took shortcuts where it seemed appropriate, following well-worn paths that led at right angles steeply upwards to meet the next curve, and resting occasionally on the shoulder.
Thirty strong, and mostly women, they stopped a mile or so down the road from Peinnebin to make final preparations to be seen by one and all. Baskets and bundles, slings and shoulder bags were carefully set down. Within a few minutes, after some shy jokes about their curious guest, long hair was let out, and brushes and combs appeared, along with a few small mirrors and some bottles of water. With the self-possession only a lifetime’s experience can give, the older women quickly took over, adjusting the elaborate headdresses of the girls not yet married. After almost an hour, the local boys who had skipped school to come down and watch sensed the group was ready, and scrambled back up the hillside to herald the grand entrance.
This is a mountainous region, and only ten or fifteen years ago much of it was planted in poppies, which thrive at high altitude. While the volume of that illegal crop needed to be large to be profitable, it required relatively little regular care other than a watchful eye. One could still see, on impossible inclines, tiny lookouts built with just that in mind. Under the somewhat ironic supervision of the Burmese government, however, the poppies were eradicated here and these slopes are planted now with oranges, tea, and cheroot leaf.
A young Jamo man led the march, a battered tape player powered by a motorcycle battery slung casually over his shoulder. Curious onlookers peeked in on the parade as it slowly went by, a pair of shaven female monks in brown robes, a farmer on his journey home. Burmese pop songs accompanied us, warbling their way through the cool morning air, bittersweet reminders of cities far away. Wan Tha’s family members made up only a small part of this procession, as friends, relatives and children came too, wearing their best. But the most beautiful finery was reserved for the women, whose brilliant red longyis, bright swaths of fabric, and iridescent hats took everyone’s breath away. This was to be a day none of them would forget, a small part of history made in a place I can’t help but remember.
A Night’s Rest
The night before the ceremony was crystal clear and cold. The elders gathered in the wedding house, which had been set up for many guests. Cooking was to go on all night, in a giant pot illuminated by the light of candles and the occasional flashlight. It was the only house with enough power, from a hydroelectric source far down in the valley, to run one light bulb, plus a single black and white television broadcasting a Burmese army meeting. Some of those present had walked all day from Wan Tha's village, and the mood was happy but subdued, many of the children already asleep, despite the din. Plied with homegrown oranges, and brown sugarcane candy, their foreign guest soon felt right at home, and was not noticed any more.
Well into the evening, the silence of this village was striking. But for the crickets there was a sweet envelope of quiet that came down upon us, making blankets warmer and the dreams of scenes imagined all the more vivid. Five families shared the space of a single long room under this roof, yet not a sound disturbed the peace. Around five in the morning, Grandmother, who was at least eighty years old and as strong as any of us, got the fire going again, and in minutes had some tea ready. By the time it was light enough to see, villagers could be heard outside doing morning chores, and the shape of the nearby mountain slopes slowly became clear.
School lessons are put to music here, in order to make them more memorable, and although today was a special day, no one was allowed to skip their studies. Around the wedding house, even the sister of the bride could be heard, quietly singing out her mathematics. Most houses are raised off the ground, in order to make room for livestock beneath, and by six or so, most everyone was awake, water dripping quietly down from the bamboo floor after a morning wash, towels and toothbrushes wielded and put away. Fires were stoked, and in the smoky haze within the long house grandmother started on her weaving, loom braced between her lower back and the door, wan sunshine just starting to filter in.
All of a sudden it began, without fanfare. Voices carry here, and the commotion up the hill from our house told us things were ready. During the earliest part of morning, in a room specially prepared for the occasion, ten women had gathered. Some would help dress the bride, and the others would continue preparing the wedding house, which was next door. Excited children were everywhere outside, and most of the men good-naturedly chased them about and made jokes as they waited.
There are seven distinct tribal religions in this area, and according to Palaung tradition, if the bride is of a different belief, she will convert to the man's religion. Wan Tha, the groom, was of the Maung Thay faith, and therefore Ma Ko, who was Jamo, would hereby adopt her new husband's practices. Both seventeen, their marriage had been arranged several years ago. In a unique and compassionate arrangement, each has the right to a trial period. Should they not get along well or have other reasons to split, it is accepted by everyone that they can part friends.
In the darkness of the bride’s house there was humor, too, and a good amount of nervous activity, as the sun’s rays made great slants of light across the room. Ma Ko gave herself over to the most experienced of the mothers, and shyly kept her eyes averted and her head down whenever she could. With much patience and many onlookers, she allowed herself to be dressed in the elaborate fashion of a Palaung bride, two handmade longyis knotted together and multicolored cane rings around her waist, a green shirt and a knitted sweater covering her top.
For nearly an hour, an intricate and lovely cloth whose fabric was of beads and tassels and embroidered motifs was twisted into a turban around her head. Two women held the length of it carefully the whole time, as they wound it all round her like a queen. From her dresser, a few words of advice about the significant moments to come were whispered quietly. And with a great white smile, Ma Ko broke the spell and had a last laugh with her friends, ready at last to brave the bright sun outside.
First out the door were women, each gently carrying a plate of fruit, a pile of blankets, a small box in which branches had been laid. There was quiet for a moment, then, as they stepped gingerly down the cut-log steps, everyone waiting in the sun burst into hushed whispers. Ma Ko came out third, trying not to smile, or wave to anyone, and followed the others into the wedding house, the rest streaming in behind them.
Sitting cross-legged before the elders of the village, their mothers and their fathers, Wan Tha and Ma Ko bowed their heads for a moment with great solemnity, then put their hands together in prayer. There is no dowry custom in Palaung culture, so a ritual exchange was made between the parents, a small amount of money, a few handmade pieces of clothing, and then the ceremony began. One of the elders then stood up, and dipping flowers into a bronze bowl, he blessed the couple by sprinkling holy water onto their heads.
It became very quiet when the village chief opened his parchment book. He began to read the rules of marriage, which speak of their duty to each other, their families and to the community. For five minutes there was little sound in the packed room but his calm voice, and the occasional bird singing outside. Wan Tha listened without moving at all, looking off to the side, and Ma Ko seemed as if she was in a trance, sitting in a pool of light that made her seem otherworldly.
Suddenly then, and with a great relief, it seems everyone came forth into the morning sunlight, to smile, and cry a little, and pose for pictures. Wan Tha made all the celebrants laugh when he put his arm shyly around Ma Ko's shoulders. She shrugged it off with a smile and a show of pique, for they had hardly ever been together before that day. I was told she was sad, too, to leave her village.
The Funeral of Aung Thein Thay
It began with the construction of a raised bamboo platform, about a meter off the ground. On this, in the shade of a large tree, the body was laid out, in a simple coffin, decorated with flowers and paper cutouts, and here for two days people slowly came by, stopped for a while, and paid their respects. At first it was only women, and when the men came in the beginning they sat quietly off to the side. He was the Myinkabar village chief, and had, after an operation, died of heart trouble and was brought home from the hospital in Mandalay. Only forty-five years old, he had been well liked. The night before the burial, the men sat up the whole time, playing card games and keeping watch, and by three o'clock the next day most of the village was waiting expectantly.
The procession slowly formed, and by the end it would travel a mile or more to an open field by the temple. At the head of it, two men carried a triangular bronze bell on a pole slung between them, which they would sound in time. Next came a dignified old man, who every so often from a large silver bowl flung about handfuls of grain, and wadded-up kyats, which sent many of the attendant children scrambling about in the dust. And, under a beautiful tall white paper canopy, seven or eight volunteers lifted up the coffin, and carried it slowly along a side road, followed by perhaps a hundred mourners. A small pickup truck with loudspeakers on the roof carried the singers, whose recitations from sacred texts were broadcast with the help of microphones dangling inside the truckbed, and whose voices filled the plain that afternoon.
The monks were waiting, their offerings had been set out, and the whole group silently squatted down, the men all in front, and the women off to the side and all together. After a short time for prayers, during which only the senior monk spoke, the men gently removed the body, which had been wrapped in bright woven mats, from the coffin, and carried it about five hundred yards further to the grave. By now it was only men in attendance - the one in charge directed the lowering and correct placing of Aung Thein Thay's body, and a young boy clambered down inside to adjust the mats and place the cloths just so. Then, as if with one mind, all the men began to push, with their hands, dirt into the grave, and it quickly filled up. There was no headstone, only a large rock to hold up for a day or so the funeral flowers, and the coffin was taken back to the village, not in a wasteful manner perhaps to be used again.
Peinnebin, Burma February 2001
Humanitarian Issues and Cultural Tradition Worldwide
ALL PHOTOGRAPHS AND TEXT COPYRIGHT JAY DUNN 2008