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September 23, 2019

A Glimpse into an Age-old Culture

With a sudden jerk, I was shaken a little aside. I tried to lift heavy eyelids and take a look around. Aboard, everyone seemed lost in their intermittent slumber. Out there, roadside trees were flying past the windshield likes shadows. Lime-white Cetis away at the mountaintops were at first catching up with the bus. However, they gave in a few seconds later and lagged behind afar. Inside the bus was air-conditioned. That seemed no match to the outside world. The green rubber plantations were awash in the glistening sun. Thanks God! The area remained untouched by the negative impacts of industrialization itself. It was late in the morning and the blinds I was leaning on felt hot like seared by the sunbeams. I was induced to pull the blinds sideway.
All of a sudden, our car was drawn to a screeching halt as a line of Mon Maidens clad in their traditional costume was crossing the road. Not long afterwards, our bus took off and resumed the interrupted momentum. The environment was totally green and quiet. I felt it despite being inside the bus.
We drove past the welcoming signboard and found ourselves approaching the outskirts of Thaton, an ancient city of Thudhammavati. A few minutes later, we found ourselves warmly welcomed at the gate of Naung Kala Village situated about two miles before Thaton. We were lodged at a two-story house with a large compound. The village lay quietly at the foot of the Alantaya Hill, a land of vegetarians. Finally, we set our foot on the Land of Pa-O People. Yes, Naung Kala is a Pa-O village.
I made a query about the origin and meaning of the word “Naung Kala”. U Tin Shwe (or) Khun Tin Shwe replied that it was primarily Naung Tala: in Pa-O, “Naung” stands for “natural pond or lake” and “Tala” means “eastern gooseberry” /zi: bju:/. It is generally assumed that the word “Naung Tala” had been later corrupted into today “Naung Kala” probably after the British Annexation of Myanmar in that the British had brought influx of Chattiyars from India into Myanmar. At that moment, I was struck with an idea whether there may be any connection between Naung Kala (Naung Tala) in Thaton, Mon State and Naung Tara in Pinlaung Township in Shan State. It is because Pa-O Oral History asserted that when King Anawyatha came down to occupy Thaton ruled by Manuha, the native Pa-O fled up to Shan State and established a city called Thaton (Hsa Taung in Colonial Days and Hsihseng nowadays) not very far from Pinlaung. If the story is true, it will be very likely that they would build satellite townships that would look like the environment of Lower Thaton. However, it turned out to be my questionable assumption due simply to the fact that Naung Kala was no older than 200 years, which is proved by the name itself and the buildings in the monastery.
However old as it might be, the village itself seemed a peaceful retreat cloaked in lumps of fruit-trees but the surrounding hillside was blanketed with rubber plantation. Our house got face to face with the village monastery. Its compound seemed about five acres in width. Many tall and shady trees were belting the paddy fields as windbreaks beside the monastery. The monastery compound was occupied by massive buildings of ancient and old.
We paid a homage visit to the monastery and the Sayadaw after breakfast, next morning. On the main building, we paid respect to the residing Sayadaw. We espied a treed hillside of Alantaya. A few limed Cetis were dotted along the range like a painter’s careful white-drops on the emerald velvet. Golden dappled rays were streaming their way through the tree canopy. The Sayadaw invited us to a traditional donation to be held in the afternoon.
To our surprise, we were told that all the villagers were informed of an impending donation the following day by the sound of brass gong struck in the monastery the night before. It is indeed their custom. No loud-speaker is to be used to spread the news in the village. In every case, the sound of brass gong is always the news-bearer or village-crier.
Early next morning brought us the sight of well-wishers and donors flocking towards the monastery. Many of them were in their national costume. Significantly, elderly men were found to be holding a shoot of Eugenia each in their hands. The bowl of offertory “gado.bwe” for the residing monk was not as so-called as in Yangon where a bowl of donated notes was to be seen as a gado.bwe placed in front of the Sayadaw. There in Naung Kala, the gado.bwes would be bowlful of edible oil (usually groundnut oil), biscuit boxes and some packs of exotic and savory snacks for the well-to-do whereas the wealthier would donate a variety of items in the bowls in the traditionally competitive fashion. Addition of charity money would be out of question. Suddenly, I hit upon the idea of “gado. pan:” (flower of obeisance) in Myanmar. For the Pa-O, “gado. pan:” or flower of obeisance is not only symbolized by putting up both hands like the bud of lotus flower, yet they would carry a shoot of Eugenia to epitomize it. What an adorable custom!! After listening to the Dhamma Talk delivered by the Venerable Sayadaw, we returned home.
The day was Pavarana Day (Pavarana stands for invitation). The festival is usually held at the end of the Buddhist Vassa (Buddhist Lent). According to Encyclopedia Britannica (2014), Buddhist Vassa concludes with the Pavarana ceremony, in which every monk, irrespective of rank or seniority, agrees willingly to receive instruction from any other monk in the monastery if he acts improperly during the Buddhist Lent.
In the afternoon of the same day, many private cars rolled into the monastery. Many lay people in their traditional costume rushed out to respectfully fetch the venerable Sayadaws coming from the neighborhood to the Sima where the Pavaranna Ceremony was being held. The ceremony lasted for only a few hours. Meanwhile, people were flocking into the compound of the monastery with offertories. On the side of the pathway adjoining the Dhamma Hall and the Sima, the Padetha Trees (the tree of plenty) were laid on the long benches. The bank notes threaded to each of the Padetha tree were also flapping in the breeze. A white paper with the name of the donor was also stuck on each Padetha Tree. Indeed, none of them was makeshift. Instead, each was beautifully decorated with fake flowers. Padetha tree would come in here earlier than elsewhere in Myanmar although it epitomizes the Kathina-Robe-offering ceremony that usually takes place approximately in November.
That afternoon, the scorching sun was as usual. However, the motley crowd was standing in a row along the pathway looking really exuberant for their upcoming donation. Out they came from the Sima!! The Venerable Sayadaws were serenely stepping down the stairs along the pathway and finally into the Dhamma Hall where donated items would be conferred on by drawing lots. Standing donors were huddling up against one another for a better view of the Sayadaws in order to make offering. The donation at last was brought to an end with a roar of “Sadu” (Well Done) echoed off the buildings in the monastery.
The evening was for flying of hot-air-balloons up into the skies.  Strangely enough, all the hot-air-balloons makers were of young age mostly in their early twenties. The monastery compound was full of spectators. There were a few different groups among the hot-air-balloon flyers. They competed against one other in their attempt to launch the balloon. When the first balloon soared up to the skies, a piece of thread was dangling down from it.  To the thread, items of charity in the form of pens, pencils, snacks and money were tied. The kids in each group were generously engaged in making charity. Their faces were all beaming with smiles. It was really moving even for the on-lookers like us. The last balloon was flown to the skies at about 7 pm and the activity was brought to a successful end with cheers and applauses from the crowd.
Our host, Khun Tin Shwe told that such activities have been preserved from generation to generation for scores of years. As far as I am concerned, they are indeed intangible cultural heritage. No doubt, intangible culture heritage seems much more difficult to preserve than the tangible ones. Nowadays, it is becoming a daunting task to maintain them as today globalization makes it possible for a diversity of world’s cultures to assimilate not only in the developed nations but also in the developing ones like Myanmar. In my opinion, cultural heritage and resources are the backbone of a nation. Therefore, by my visit to Naung Kala, I should say I have found a vertebra of that backbone unspoiled. I simply hope other vertebras are in good shape too.
(This article is dedicated to Khun Tin Shwe and other Pa-O friends in Naung Kala.)

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