Offering of Thin-bok Swoon a Rakhine Buddhist Festival
Myanmar is a land of festivals which are usually connected with Buddhism, but although they are religious occasions there is also colourful dancing, lively music and songs. Often there are processions where the local people dress up in all their finest clothes and go to a pagoda to make offerings.
Not only the Bama (Burmese) people but other ethnic groups like Mons and Shans and also Rakhines (Arakanese) who are really of the main Bama stock speaking a different dialect, all have festivals, some being purely local and only seen at specific places.
On a recent tour of the Rakhine State by the Editors of the Myanmar Perspectives magazine, I was given an account of the Thin-bok Swoon Offering Festival which is held only by the Rakhine people, a month after the end of the Buddhist Lent which mark also the termination of the south-west monsoon, the rainy season.
This festival is held every year on the Full Moon Day of Tazaungmone which usually falls in November. Last year it was held on 3rd November 1998.
In Sittway, the capital of the Rakhine State the Thin-bok Swoon offering ceremony commenced at 7:30 a.m. in the morning and ended at 9:30 a.m. It was organized by the students of Sittway University under the supervision of Registrar (2). About two hundred young men and women took part, all dressed in full Rakhine traditional costume, wearing the putsoe for men and htamein nether garments for women with the predominant uniform colours of yellow, blue and red. The ladies were dressed in the court costume of the Rakhine princesses, these costumes being now worn only for ceremonial occasions like festivals and weddings. Each of the beautiful Rakhine ladies had in their hands a lacquer swoon-ok receptacle for holding swoon or cooked rice offerings for the Buddha images. The young men and women walked from the campus of Sittway University to the Atula Marazein, Pyi Lon Chan Tha Pagoda situated right in the centre of Sittway town about a mile away. The young men carried offerings of bananas and green coconut fruits, all walking in a stately manner to the accompamment of the tradition two-sided Rakhine sidaw royal drums.
On reaching the Phaya-gyi, the Great Pagoda in the town centre, offerings were made of swoon rice, si-mee lights in open oil lamps and flowers to the Buddha images in the main shrine, white the sidaw royal drums continued their regular beats.
The thin-bok offerings were followed by the offerings of uncooked rice and other uncooked food and various necessary utilities for monks in a Soon-hsan Sein Laung Pwe organized by the Western Command of the Myanmar Tatmadaw in which about 1700 monks took part to receive the offerings. Led by the Commander himself this ceremony was attended by the town folk all dressed in their finery and donating lavishly to the monks. It also took place on the platform of the Phaya-gyi and lasted from about 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. on the same morning.
The origins of the thin-bok swoon offering festival is supposed to date back to the time of the Buddha. During the reign of King Sanda Thuriya (from Pali Suriya meaning the sun), the Buddha is supposed to have come to Rakhine, by means of an aerial journey, to sojourn on the Salagiri Hill in Dhanyawaddy. This was in 554 B.C., and at the request of the Rakhine king an exact likeness of the Buddha was cast in bronze. This image is none other than the Maha Muni image which was carried off to Amarapura in 1785 and is now venerated in Mandalay.
Thin-bok is a Myanmar word derived from Pali and means "food offered to the Buddha". The offering of the thin-bok swoon, according to the legendary account recorded in the palm-leaf manuscript book Sappa-dana-pakaran, started from the first swoon offered to the Buddha image at the Maha Muni Shrine situated six miles east of Kyauktaw town.
The thin-bok swoon is offered to Buddha images in the form of hta-min htaung, a specially prepared rice cooked from the rice of the new harvest and shaped like miniature pointed topes or tiny hillocks by means of moulding the rice in funnels made out of banyan leaves. The little rice mounds are then coloured into multi-hues so that they have an attractive appearance. The banyan tree or the Bo Tree (Ficus religiosa) is sacred to Buddhists as it was under this tree that Gautama Buddha attained Enlightenment.
There is much fun and gaiety on the day preceding, i.e. the Eve of the Festival. The young men go in search of Bo Tree leaves while the girls pick both wild and cultivated flowers. Some have to venture with boats on ponds to pluck the lovely lotus flowers of many varied hues. The elderly women go from door to door of the community asking for a few cups of uncooked rice (from the new harvest) at each house. They also ask for some fresh fruits which are in season, all for offering at the Buddha Shrine the next day.
After the newly harvested rice had been collected it is taken to a specially prepared place, the same evening, where it is ceremonially washed, cleaned and cooked to the accompaniment of traditional Rakhine music. The hta-min htaung is then prepared for offering.
Apart from the rice many flowers and fruits, oil lamps, pop-corn rolled and shaped into small flower-like offerings are also carried to the pagoda on the Full Moon Day in small wooden or lacquered trays shaped like inverted and spreading lotus flowers. The procession is led by men hitting the Kyei-si, (small, triangular brass gongs), followed immediately behind by musicians beating drums and blowing the traditional nhe' oboe and other wind musical instruments. Men and women going to keep the Sabbath, dressed in dark brown nether garments, follow behind the musicians. Only after these people come the gaily dressed young ladies carrying the thin-bok swoon rice offering. The general public follow the procession to the pagoda.
This ceremony or festival probably originated as a harvest festival, a time of prayer and of offering the newly harvested rice to the pagoda. Legend relates that it started during the life-time of Gautama Buddha, and there are accounts of this festival during the Vesali Period (AD 327-776) and the later Mrauk-U Period (AD 1430-1784) when the thin-bok swoon offering ceremonies were led by the Rakhine kings and royalty. Old Rakhine poems like those composed by Okkar-pyan (AD 1558-1618) also mention this festival.
The rice offerings to the Buddha images are made each year with the intention of bringing peace and prosperity to the whole country, for an abundant harvest, adequate food and for the health and happiness of all our people. This tradition, started over two thousand years ago, is still well-preserved and will certainly continue into the next millenium as a part of our cultural heritage.
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