The peak of Myanmar cold Season is Pyatho (January). So cold, chilled to the bone due to the icy wind of the North that you have to keep ash for your warmth. “Pya” means “ash”. “Tho” means “keep”. Astrologically named Makara [Capricorn]. Pyatho’s zodiacal symbol is makan. “Makan” is a mythical sea monster resembling a crocodile with a prehensile snout. Tazin [orchid], Gamone [aromatic herbal plant] and Kwa Nyo [Clematis Crabiana] bloom profusely in this month. Kwa Nyo is traditionally designated as the flower of Pyatho month. Kwa Nyo is a creeper, native to Popa area but grow wild or grown across Upper Myanmar and hilly regions. Thick fleshy leaves and bunches of bluish petals with yellow centres come out from its graceful creepers, producing very soothing fragrance. Nocturnal deep azure firmament is sprayed with myriads of constellations. The moon and “Hpou Sha” constellation rival in beauty and glory.
In such a pleasant cold month as Pyatho, equestrian tournament was held in the courtyards of Myanmar King’s Palace. Equestrian Tourney Festival was a sort of military parade of land forces, including horses, elephants, chariots, food soldiers, archers, swords men, spearmen lancers, shields and so on. About 15th century, guns and cannons were introduced to Myanmar Land forces.
The earliest mention of equestrian festival in Myanmar history was found in the literature of Pinya Period [1298-1364 A.D]. A kyo song composed by an unknown composer in the region of King Thihathu [1298-1324 A.D], described a love-forsaken court lady longing for her lover who was an officer of some military rank, seen riding his white horse to Equestrian Tourney at Naypyitaw.
Traditional Equestrian Tourney Festival had three programmes – display, contest and recruit. In display and contest 37 different modes of horsemanship and 37 different ways of playing and throwing lances were demonstrated and contested by select equestrian soldiers. Men of letters of Myanmar historical periods had described them in verses of different forms. Also in Myanmar performing arts- classical music, song and dance equestrian Tourney and festival were vividly portrayed.
Maha Dhamma Thingyan, royal adviser to King Bagyidaw [1819-1837 A.D], composed 37 Luta verses and 37 songs on 37 modes of horsemanship and 37 modes of lance playing and throwing and submitted it to the King. He also rhymed them in Than Bauk couplets.
At the tournament, 17 ways of horse-riding used in war, and Myanmar traditional martial arts were contested such as equestrian combat, combat or elephants’ back, horses’ back horse riding, horse race, lance throwing. Myanmar people in the past called equestrian Tourney as “Set Thwin Pwe” or “Set Hto Pwe” because equestrians contested in lance-throwing to hit the circular targets on the poles. The King or Chief Queen awarded the winners with scarves woven with gold or silver threads and a bunch of Thazin or Kwa Nyo.
King Thibaw [1878-1885 A.D], the last Myanmar King held Equestrian Tourney Festival in 1878. It was the last festival of its kind. In the Chronicle of Konbaung Set Maha Yazawun Taw Gyi Vol.3 it was graphically recorded as follows: –
“In that year [1240 Myanmar Era] second waning moon of Pyatho [January] to make preparation for holding of equestrian tourney and festival, in accordance with the traditional display of cavalry, elephantry, chariotry, archery and demonstration of princely martial arts is staged by the precious kings of the past, circular target posts were set up in a strait line in the courtyard on the left side of Myey Nan Palace Building. The heights of circular target posts ranged from 5 cubits, 20 cubits, 25 cubits, 30 to 50 cubits. In the north side of the royal Thet Kadan staircase a royal pavilion was built. It was decorated with royal emblems and was ready for the events.”
On the third waning moon of Pyatho, Princes, Ministers, Minister of the Interior, commander of Palace Guard, Knights, Commanders and army officers dressed in their military uniform robe caparisoned steeds. Each with 10 lances participated in the contest. Riding the horse at high speed each by turn, threw a lance at a time at the circular targets on the posts, until all ten had been thrown. Princes dressed in the army uniform of their rank “also contested. His Majesty wearing priceless military uniform and gem studded helmet and Chief Queen and the court came out to the royal Pavilion from where he watched the equestrian tourney. His Majesty and the Chief Queen awarded the winners, each a scarf woven with gold or silver threads, and a bunch of Thazin flower for every lance that hit the centre of the circular target on the post. When the tournament of the equestrian lancers was over, officers of Cassay Horse [Manipuri Regiment] and Akabat Horce [Assamese Regiment] of cavalry and their equerries gave demonstration of their skill in weaponary and horse-man ship such as cutting banana stems, coconut, lime fruit and water pot with swords, spears etc while riding at high speed and also different techniques of horse riding. After seeing them their Majesties and the court entered the Palace…..”
Gu Lee was a princely sport always connected with Equestrian Tourney and Festival. It is called Polo in our time. In Myanmar history and literature the word “Gu Lee” has been spelt and pronounced different. “Gu-Lee”, “Pa-Lee” etc. This game was one of the favorite games Myanmar royalty, nobility, and aristocracy played any time of the year. But being an equestrian game which required skill in horse riding, it was included in the programmes of Equestrian Tourney. All countries with horse tradition claim the origin of this game, Mongolia, China, Persia, Tibet and most central Asiatic countries deserve such claim because they all have Gu-Lee game. How and when Gu Lee came to Myanmar no one can tell. One can only surmise from what anthropologists and historians say. Ethnically Myanmars are of Mongoloid Stock; they still have physical and cultural traits not dissimilar to those of the Mongolians. The time when their ancestors migrated gradually from Central Asia riding horses and driving caravans in quest of new pastures in Myanmar their Mongoloid tradition and custom including equestrian game like Gu-lee game were introduced into Myanmar. But historians say that Gu Lee game appeared in Myanmar chronicles and literature only in the 15th century. One of the 37 nat-spirits in Myanmar Pantheon was Shwe Nawrahta, a high-ranking military officer at the court of King Shwe Nan Kyaw Shin of Inwa Peirod. He was an excellent gu lee player. Legend has it that when he became nat spirit after his violent death, songs were sung praising his mastery of gu-lee game. His idols are made with a long handled mallet for driving a wooden ball. Also in the ditty of Nat Pakhan U Min Kyaw there are lines describing U Min Kyaw playing Pato [Gu-Lee] as he drank and rode his horse.
(To be continued)