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Kengtung drummer ensures New Year isn’t a bummer

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On the surface, the Thingyan water festival in Kengtung, Shan State, appears similar to celebrations helds throughout Myanmar in mid-April: Temporary stages are set up around Naung Tung Lake in the middle of town, and locals spend a few days driving around and around, reveling in the opportunity to splash and get splashed.

But Kengtung also has its own unique way of marking the festival that dates back to 1410, a year during which the area around Kengtung suffered from extreme drought and brushfires that decimated crops and livelihoods.

According to legend, the crisis prompted the region’s saophwa (Shan leader) to approach a famous astrologer named Oak Ta Ra in search of a remedy.

Oak Ta Ra calculated that Kengtung was, according to Myanmar astrology, a “Monday” region and was therefore aligned with the moon.

The town’s ethnic Yun rulers, on the other hand, were under the influence of Rahu, the mythical planet associated with the second half of Wednesday. The conflict between these two celestial bodies, the astrologer said, was the cause of the drought.

To solve the problem, Oak Ta Ra suggested that 24 ethnic Tai Loi from Moung Yang village be summoned to Kengtung, where they were dressed in red and white robes.

At 1pm on the second day of the water festival leading up to the new year, the Tai Loi were told to place a sacred instrument called the Nanda Bay Ri Heavenly Drum at the Sao Loang Kart nat (spirit) shrine at the centre of town and play it for 24 hours straight.

The astrologer further instructed that a clay sculpture of a frog (representing Rahu) with a crescent moon in its mouth be created at Long Kope near Nam Khun Creek in northeastern Kengtung. A stupa made of sand was also built at the site.

After the drum had been played nonstop for 24 hours, it was taken from its place at the nat shrine and carried by procession to Long Kope, where the town elders recited the Mingalar Sutra and paid respects to the frog and the stupa.

After the villagers followed the astrologer’s instructions, steady rain fell throughout the region, reviving crops and restoring the farmers’ livelihoods. The saophwa therefore ordered that the ceremony be repeated every year.

To this day the water festival in Kengtung begins with a ritual at the Sao Loang Kart shrine. The special Mingalar Conch is blown, and speeches are delivered by local authorities and the chair of the festival committee.

This is followed by a series of songs and dance performances by representatives of local schools, religious organizations and ethnic groups, including the Tai Loi who centuries ago had been charged with playing the sacred drum.

The next day the crowds reconvene at the Sao Loang Kart shrine, where at 1pm sharp the Nanda Bay Ri Heavenly Drum is placed on the stand where it will be played for the next 24 hours to expel evil spirits and welcome the auspicious New Year.

Once the drum is in place, a township official sprinkles it with scented water and strikes it seven times. Each beat is accompanied by an invocation, given in the following order:

May the authorities of the nation be blessed with grace and prosperity

May the authorities and the citizens be joyful and prosperous

May the nation be victorious and unharmed

May the nation be wealthy and commercially successful

May there be development and mutual understanding within the nation

May all be blessed eternally

May the sound of the drum echo throughout the universe

The drum is then handed over to a leader of the Tai Loi community for continuous playing until 1pm the following day. At that point it is removed from its stand and carried in a procession along the Loimwe-Mong Yang Road to Long Kope, where each year the clay frog sculpture and sand stupa are created anew for the festival.

The Tai Loi musicians continue beating the drum along the way, while others in the procession carry colorful flags. Bystanders sprinkle scented water on the walkers for good luck as they make their way to the ceremonial grounds, where respects are paid to the frog and sand pagoda sculptures.

At the end of the festival, the drum is taken to Mahamuni Pagoda in Kengtung.

Once there, four monks from Wat Som Kham Monastery – located near a banyan tree believed to house the guardian spirit of Kengtung – sprinkle the instrument with scented water and recite an incantation, after which the drum is then sent to its storage place at Wat Kengzan Monastery until next year’s festival.




Written by latefornowhere

April 13, 2014 at 12:49 am