Tha-din-gyut in Mawgyun

October is the Burmese month of Tha-din-gyut, the seventh month of Burmese Lunar Calendar and the end of Buddhist Lent.

During the month of Tha-din-gyut we Burmese have the Festival of Lights celebrating the return of Lord Buddha from the celestial abode (Heaven) where he had spent the Lent while teaching Dama (Buddhism) to the celestial beings including his mother who was reborn as an angel in the Tar-wa-dein-tha (Another name of Burmese Heaven).

We Buddhist Burmese traditionally have a religious festival for every month of our Lunar Calendar, mostly carried out under the patronage of a temple or pagoda. During the festivals every town and village in the Delta region of lower Burma comes out alive with the burst of colors and celebrations.

A Delta Town called Mawgyun

Mawgyun Town in The Irrawaddy Delta.
I basically grew up in a small delta town called Mawgyun. It is in the southward-expanding delta of mighty Irrawaddy. Hundred of years ago British strategically established the town on a large island bounded by two tidal rivers as an administrative and commercial centre for the surrounding rice-growing village tracts.

There were Moulmein trees all over the island and so the town was officially named Moulmeingyun (The island of Moulmein trees) but everyone calls the town Mawgyun. Since the town was on the island boats and watercraft were the only mode of transport and we had no cars except a rusty old fire-engine and a broken-down steam road-roller.

But now is different as the Government had been building bridges all over the Delta and the Mawgyn town like every other Delta town is now filled with all sorts of cars and trucks and motorcycles.

British annexed Lower-Burma in 1852 and the whole Burma in 1886 after successfully waging three Anglo-Burmese Wars in 1824 and 1852 and 1886. After the opening of Suez Canal in 1869 the export of Burmese rice grew many folds.

Mawgyun's Location in the Irrawaddy Delta.
And to meet the ever-increasing demand of rice from the Continental Europe the Colonial authorities opened the uninhabited vast Delta of lower Burma to anyone willing to clear the thick forest and farm the virgin land normally roamed by many mighty herds of wild elephants.

My Mon great-grandfather a wise village chief from the seriously-crowded Blu-gyun near real Moulmein was one of the daring pioneers, who gladly took up the British offer, built a huge boat large enough for all his people, relocated the whole village to uninhabited Delta, cleared hundreds of acres of jungle land, and claimed a huge land holding from the British Colonial Administration.

He had to capture many wild elephants, tamed them, and even used them to clear and plough his vast land. And he grew rich out of his rice-growing land holding. But his only daughter my grandmother Daw Bin had lost all her inherited-land to the Communist-led peasants’ takeover as the nasty civil war broke out just after the Second World War.

Multicultural Mawgyun

Most of the town folks including my extended family were deeply religious as devout Buddhists. In 1960 the small town had three large Buddhist monasteries and I went to the National Primary School run by the monks from the largest monastery.

The town also had a sizeable population of Muslims and a large community of Christians. Most Muslims were the descendants of the Indian migrants from the subcontinent during the colonial days and the Christians were the native ethnic tribe of Karens and some Chinese traders.

The large and only mosque of the town was right across the wide street from our big house. The everlasting memories I have of the mosque and the Muslims were the annual slaughter of the cattle inside the high-walled compound of the mosque. After the ritual slaughters they always gave away raw, fresh, and still bloodied Beef to the neighboring households including ours.

A Mosque in Burma.
We Burmese do not eat beef for a religious reason and also because of the belief that we owed the cattle a lot, for they were the most crucial part of growing and harvesting our staple the rice crop.

Only time we had a beef dish in our house was when my old aunty cooked a tasty chilli-beef curry out of the raw meat distributed free by the Muslims every year during the Ramadan Festival celebrating the end of their month-long fast. 

The town used to have a few wealthy Hindus who were the descendants of the Chitty money lenders from India during the colonial days. The only Hindu Temple in the town was in a shocking state of disrepairs as most of them Hindus left the town after the Independence and the outbreak of civil war.

Mawgyun also had a few Christian churches and one of the churches, a small Baptist one, was in a narrow and tree-lined street almost at the west end of the town near the Mawgyun River. The small timber church had a big sign at the front saying something like “Grand Association of Submergence in Holy Water” in Burmese just above the line saying “Baptist Church of Mawgyun” in English.

What we children didn’t know back then was that sign was a direct and almost misleading translation of English word Baptism into a group of closest Burmese words. And we kids really believed when the big boys told us that if we got near that church and if the fierce looking Karen Preacher got hold of us he would convert us into Christianity by dipping our little heads into the water.

A Baptist Church in Burma.
And there conveniently was a small concrete water tank right in front of the church and we already had had more than enough glimpses of their baptism ceremonies. So we were really scared even to walk past that church.

If we had to walk through that little street for some unavoidable reason we would take off our slippery rubber flip-flops and clutch them tightly in our little hands and run as fast as we could on the uneven gravel road. Even faster if the tall and paper-thin Karen preacher came out and gave us a serious stare. All the mongrel dogs in the street would noisily chase us for their amusement till we children safely reached the steep riverbank at end of the street.

Tidal Rivers and the Crocodiles of Mawgyun

Rivers were the biggest part of my life while I was growing up in Mawgyun. Being the tidal rivers they were changing all the times, even their courses over the years. When the tide is out they flow rapidly with lower and lower water levels towards the faraway sea exposing the lines of muddy sand banks right in the middle of them.

Back then in late 1950s and early 1960s Mawgyun and its rural surrounds still had plenty of wildlife and sometimes we could see the big saltwater crocodiles sunbathing on those exposed sandbanks right in the middle of the low rivers as the vast green flotillas of water hyacinth would be rushing downstream on the fast-flowing rivers.

But once the tide is coming back in, the rivers gradually flow back from the sea with higher and higher water levels till the top of the tide, re-covering the exposed sandbanks and even flowing over their steep banks. The highest water level would stay still with no visible flow for a few hours and most town folks would come down onto the riverbanks to take bath and safely swim in the rivers.

Tone-le-gyaung River in Mawgyun (June1-June1 blog).
And the rivers were the playing grounds for us children of the town. Everyday after the school we would spend hours climbing up and then sliding down the slippery muddy slopes of the riverbanks exposed during the low tides. Lying on our bellies or our bare backs or sitting on our bare bottoms.

When high tides came in and the river flowed over the bank we would climb onto the overhanging tree branches just to happily jump back down into the river below just for the fun and excitement.

The climax of our water play in the nature’s aquatic center would come often whenever a big boat motored past us. All the boys would happily scream with loud cheers and excitingly ride the waves in the wake of the boat.

Back then we were not scared of the crocodiles at all even though we knew they were in the waters and the elders frequently talked about man-eating big salties in the tributaries near the sea. There was not a single crocodile attack in the waters of our Mawgyun for some reason and the townspeople widely believed the reason was we were devout Buddhists and the crocodiles were too.

To reinforce that superstitious belief the townsfolk frequently and zealously recalled an extraordinary incident involving a huge mother crocodile and her baby during the traditional Buddhist procession on the last day of one Thadingyut festival at the Tar-wa-dein-tha Pagoda in our town when I was just five or six years old.

Tar-wa-dein-tha Pagoda & Buddha’s Slow Descent

Burmese Paper Lanterns.
Tha-din-gyut Festival or the Festival of Lights is when the townsfolk celebrate the return trip of our Lord Buddha to earth from heaven after spending the lent and giving the damah sermon there to his late mother who was reborn as an angel in heaven.

According to our belief during Lord Buddha’s descent to the earth the celestial beings were lighting the pathway of the star-ladder for Lord Buddha and so every year on the full moon day of Thadingyut we earthlings also welcome him back symbolically by brightly illuminating our homes and streets that night.

And on that very night of Tha-din-gyut’s full-moon day the townspeople of Mawgyun faithfully re-enact the mythical scene of Buddha’s descent from heaven to earth at the purpose-built pagoda called Tar-wa-dein-tha in the middle of Mawgyun. The Pagoda with a terrace temple was specially built many years ago atop a seven-storey tall concrete octagonal tower to represent the Burmese heaven high up in the sky.

Inside the temple is a gold-plated bronze Buddha statue standing almost 10 foot tall on a movable base. And there also is a long 45 degree steel-incline from the terrace at the tower top to the bottom on the ground.

Burmese Standing Buddha Statue.
As the symbolic re-enactment of Buddha’s descent from heaven to earth, in every full-moon-night of Thadingyut, the Buddha statue on the illuminated trolley is slowly brought down along the also brightly illuminated steel-incline representing the star-ladder from heaven to earth.

People dressed up as the celestial bodies and angels from the heaven also slowly accompany the statue’s descent like a pantomime play while the accompanying orchestra was playing traditional religious music. 

The night-long slow descent of the Buddha statue accompanied by the colorfully-dressed celestial beings along the long incline brightly illuminated as the stairway-from-heaven while the surrounding environ was kept in total darkness was the central theme for the main night of the festival.

The whole town and the masses from all the villages of the township gather at the pagoda’s ground and watch the painfully-slow descent of illuminated Buddha Statue while all the houses in the town are brightly illuminated with strings of multicolor paper-lanterns. And we children threw noisy firecrackers and whirled the sparklers all over the town.

Procession in the Town

A Temple Procession in Burma.
The slow descent of Buddha Statue normally finishes at just before dawn and most townsfolk and the villagers go home to sleep. But the festival is not really over yet as the traditional procession led by the heavenly-king, Tha-gyar-min, and his celestial beings pulling the trolley with Buddha statue on it follows next day.

Around midday the procession with all the fanfare starts from the Pagoda ground and then circles the town thrice and finally finishes back at the Pagoda. After that the Buddha statue is brought back up to the terrace temple and kept there for normal worship till next year Thadingyut Festival.

Normally the processions had completed without any untoward incident every year except the year when I was five or six years old. That year a huge mother crocodile and her baby came out of the Mawgyun River and joined the procession and scared the hell out of people and thus their story has been etched on the collective memories of the people of Mawgyun Town.

I do not really remember what happened exactly back then since I was just a little boy but I think I saw some of it as the events unfolded and many years later when I became a teenager the elders told me the extraordinary story of a Buddhist crocodile of Mawgyun.

Mother Crocodile and Her Baby

According to my old grandaunt the mother crocodile and her baby came out of the river and stood still on the muddy bank as if they were waiting for the procession circling the town to arrive that particular location of the riverbank now crowded with the people eagerly waiting for the procession too.

It was a high tide and once the crocodile mother and baby were seen at the water edge just below the roadway the police were called. But that was Thadingyut and Burmese are traditionally hesitant to kill in that holy month, so the armed-policemen just watched the crocs out of the water.

Also crocodiles were considered an integral part of the town-scene and poor policemen didn’t think the crocs would dare coming into the town in bright daylight even though there were frequently-recalled stories of crocodiles wandering into the town in recent past. They were horribly wrong!

To everyone’s surprise once the noisy and long procession went past that location the mother croc crawled onto the main road and started following the procession with her baby in tow. I saw them right in front of our house as we young children were standing by the wide road watching the procession.

The mother croc was basically walking tall on her four legs, not crawling at all, and the baby was lying quietly on her back. It was a strangely impossible scene one could never forget even after more than 50 years had passed.

One of my distant uncles was the sub-inspector of Mawgyun Police and he and his men had to follow the crocodiles closely as the procession had finally ended at the Pagoda as usual. As soon as the procession was over the trolley with Buddha statue on it was placed back on the rails of steel-incline to bring it back up to the top terrace.

But they couldn’t do that, for the big croc had approached and laid her huge head on the first step and stayed there motionless with the baby on her back. The statue had to be back in the temple by that night but as long as the big croc was there no one dared to do anything.
The standstill had lasted the whole evening and the night as the croc mother and baby appeared determined to stay there. Finally the town elders had decided to kill the crocs for public safety and the horrid task was assigned to my uncle the police sub-inspector. Later many people said he used one of police .303 Lee-Enfield British rifles to shoot through the brains of both crocs at point blank.

Later they stuffed the dead mother croc and displayed her at the same exact spot she was killed. After many years outdoor in the monsoonal Mawgyun the croc display had eventually deteriorated and finally the townsfolk collected enough money from town and built a concrete replica to commemorate that sad and strange occasion.

Last time I was in Mawgyun was in 1984 and I am now hoping the Croc Memorial is still there  even though the crocodiles of Magyun were long gone since the late 1970s. 

And so my advice to the dear readers is if you ever plan to go Burma you should visit our little town Mawgyun the most remote riverine town in the Irrawaddy delta, so that you can see with your own eyes the beautiful Tar-wa-dein-tha Pagoda, and listen or read its decades-long history of Thadingyut festivals especially the memorable story of a mother crocodile and her baby.

Do not be surprised if the people of Mawgyun tell you that both crocs are believed to be now residing in the heaven as angels, for they died venerating the statue of our Lord Buddha in a Thadingyut festival!