Monday, July 30, 2007

Lenten Memories

Now that it is Buddhist lent, I should perhaps fill my hours with holy thoughts, as a self-respect man of my age should. Easier said than done.
Rummy( as those Wodehouse characters say ), whenever I try to think good and pure thoughts , I always go back to the days when the world was fresh and young and nothing could ever go wrong.
How can anything go wrong on a day in the Lenten season, the day that began with the tinkling of doo-wei-wei from the triangular brass gong and the rich sing-song voice announcing. “Oh, ba-wun-taw good friends, our companions, companions-in-doing-meritorious deeds, please wake up, do wake up and prepare alms food for reverend sangha, wake up, please, good friends.”
The announcement was couched in poetic prose with well known familiar pali words like ba-wun-taw (good people) thrown in for style and elegance.
A pleasant awakening

With the tinkling of the triangular brass gong in your ears, you roll, in your bed from one side to the other murmuring, ‘So, the Sabbath day has come again, oh.’ You listen to the lingering notes and pull yourself up to go down to the kitchen to prepare alms food.
It is still in semi-darkness, but not at all gloomy, for the air is filled with promise of the coming day. It is lovely to be woken up by the tinkling of the triangular brass gong and recitation in a sing-song voice. It is far more pleasant to be jerked up by the blaring of loud-speakers, that inspired only colourful epithets that would not help to go through the gates of celestial regions where you hope to go in afterlife.


How aptly are the organizers of these benevolent activities called neik-ban-saw - usher-in-to-heaven. They are the members of the communal groups called wut-thins or service groups and they play an important part in the life of the community. Such wut-thin activities, although rarely seen nowadays in cities like Yangon, are very much alive in small towns. In cities like Mandalay, where old customs and traditions are still very much in evidence, wut-thins with their paraphernalia still operate.
The member of the wut-thins wear all white suits, white jackets and white longyis. They go round collecting alms for monasteries or pagodas. Some carry silver bowls to receive coins. To receive alms food there are large three-legged lacquer trays with sets of small bowls: they are beautiful things with red domed covers. Each tray is suspended from cords attached to the yoke. With the tray hanging in the middle two men shoulder the yoke at each end. Sometimes the yoke is painted red and splashed over with gold and glass mosaic patterns.

Dawn procession – music and chantings

The procession is led by a man blowing the conch. Next comes the huge triangular brass gong suspended on a pole carried by two men, on of them striking it in tune to the chanting, a none too easy feat. The carriers of the three-legged trays follow. Sometimes, the procession is accompanied by a music troupe of drums, cymbals and flute. It is still twilight, the stars blinking even as dawn begins to steal on the horizon. The air is filled with music with intervals of singsong chanting and the tinkling of the brass gong. Light shine through the window panes and people come out with their alms, which are respectfully deposited in the lacquer bowls and receptacles.
Wut-thins also go on their rounds in the afternoon, the day before Sabbath day, in the same grand manner to collect dry goods like rice and such necessities for the monastery.
Living in Yangon, we do not see wut-thins and the ushers-in-to-heaven, at least not often. What shall I do without them? Who will usher to me into the celestial regions?

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