Monday, August 27, 2012
Like most people everywhere, the Burmese strive for success in business, friendship, love, and life in general. Many of them seek good luck in these and other endeavors from spirits called nats. This is accomplished by making offerings and erecting shrines for them, and consulting with a colorfully costumed character called a nat kadaw (spirit medium) in a special music and dance event called a nat pwe (spirit show). Small nat pwes take place all over Myanmar every day, but the largest event of the year occurs every August when thousands of Burmese invade a small village called Taungbyone about 12 miles North of Mandalay in the central part of the country.
Equal parts street fair, carnival, concert and religious ceremony, the Taungbyone festival is an ultra-intense blast furnace of vivid, colorful, chaotic sights and sounds. In a tradition that dates back over 900 years, an orchestra consisting of saing waing and kyi waing (drums and gongs arranged in circular enclosures), hand drums, cymbals, a wood block, let ko (bamboo clapper) and a heavily reverbed vocalist provide the blaring, clangorous rhythm for the faithful as they give offerings of food, alcohol, flowers and money to the nat kadaw in exchange for good luck blessings from the actual nat itself, which enters the body of the kadaw during a frenzy of dance and music.
After crunching down a plate of vegetable tempura at Min Min, I walked out into the incredibly punishing sun, down past the clocktower to the corner where the trucks bound for Taungbyone gather. I saw one that looked pretty packed and went to check if shotgun was available, but a Buddhist monk was sitting there. So, the driver had some people move around in the back and squeezed me in on the left side right up by the cab. He waited around for another 10 or 15 minutes just to let us bake as long as possible. Oh, and also to cram on a couple of more people. At least he hung up a curtain on our side so the sun wouldn’t scald us alive. One nice lady loaned me a fan so I could at least cool down my face for a few minutes.
On the way up, the truck stopped on the road where some kids stood shaking big metal bowls up and down, and some of our passengers threw in donations. I think it may have been for a temple. I really wanted to get a video clip of that, but I couldn’t turn around because space was too tight. After a left turn onto a bumpy road divided by a concrete stream, we passed a bunch of more beggars, but the driver didn’t even slow down for them. Finally, after two or three miles, my fillings started to come loose as we finally pulled up into the chaos of the Nat Pwe drop-off area. We’re talking about lots of shouting, super loud horns blasting, dust floating everywhere, people stacked up on trucks pulling in, voices blaring through loudspeakers, garbage strewn about, people flitting to and afro, getting in each others’ way.
As I made my way down through the seething human river that cut through the market section of the festival, I passed myriad stalls selling everything from the usual food, clothing and knick-knacks to tools and hardware. Some human oddities were also on display, including a few guys missing an arm and / or a leg dragging themselves through the dirt, and one guy with no arms or legs propped up right in the middle of the lane, like a rock in s stream, smoking a cigarette with a donation bowl underneath him. When I walked around all of the bamboo huts containing the Nat Pwe orchestra instruments, I noticed they hadn’t been unpacked yet. Then a guy explained that the music down here doesn’t start until tomorrow night.
So, I headed up toward the big Buddhist temple, where I knew the music and dancing usually starts a few days early. Sure enough, the orchestra was playing and people were going nuts dancing just outside the main cage, where a Nat Kadaw (spirit medium) drank, danced and held court over the proceedings. As I stepped up into the temple, I felt the temperature rise another 10 or 15 degrees from all of the body heat. I could only take it for a short while until I had to step back down outside before I passed out. On the way, I videoed some nat worshippers paying their respects to a statue of a tiger. Then I sat down on the temple steps to rest for a few minutes and people-watch. It’s funny how more people ended up watching me.
Finally, as dusk arrived, I had enough and walked out into the exit area, where I climbed into a truck headed back to Mandalay. Since I was the only passenger, I was surprised that the driver took off so soon. I guess he was going to pick up more passengers in Mandalay who were headed for Taungbyone. Once we arrived down by Mandalay Palace, he pulled over and stopped about a mile away from my room, though, so instead of hiring a motorcycle, I just walked down to V’s Cafe and ended the night with a veggie burger and fries. On the way, I noticed the funny phenomenon of people selling little water bottles full of gasoline for motorcycles. I like the way they backlit the bottles with small battery-powered lights. Each one of these kiosks looks like a little beacon in the night.
Roll over photos for captions.
Words and photos ©2012 Arcane Candy.