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May 29, 2020

Byala, a Rakhine National Emblem

The ceremony to mark the 40th anniversary Rakhine State Day and to provide the Rakhine State with electricity from the national grid line was celebrated on a grand scale in the Vesali Sports Grounds in Sittwe under the auspices of the Rakhine State Government on the 15th December. The ceremony was televised live and I was transported with rapturous joy to see the people of Rakhine State wreathed in the smiles resulting from the feeling that electricity would be available to them at the rate of 35 kyats per unit, which was many times cheaper than that they had incurred in the past. Sharing this happiness with them, I , putting aside my work, spent the whole evening enjoying the Rakhine traditional dances performed with the accompaniment of the songs sung by nation-famous and local vocalists televised.  Out of the dances, it was the Byala Dance with the accompaniment of a song composed about Byala that intrigued me most. Although Byala is one of the Rakhine emblems, little about it is today known even to Rakhine people. So no doubt it would be quite new to other ethnic peoples.
Byala, like Manusiha (man-lion), Makara (crocodile of the Ganges), Kinnari-Kinnara (fabulous male and female birds) and Bilu-pansway (friezes), is a mythical creature which embellishes  religious structures, especially in Rakhine State . It is regarded by the Rakhines as a symbol bringing good luck and auspiciousness. It is assumed that the term” Byala” is corrupted from “ Lala” through the intermediate terms “Vala and Bala”. Some scholars think that it is the derivative of the Sanskrit word”Byal”, whose English rendering is a mythical antelope. In the light of the Pali-English Dictionary written by Rhys Davids and Willian Stede, Pali word”Vala” means “ a beast of prey.” The word” Lala” written in Rakhine scripts  is found on the exterior wall of the Shittaung Temple built by King Minbagyi in 1536 A.D.
To the Rakhines, Byala assumes an air of an amusing, innocent, lovely 6-month old baby with its tongue protruded.  Besides, it connotes benevolence, faith, loving-kindness, peace, etc. Besides, as it is compared to a baby with its tongue protruded from time to time, it is also called” Sha-htoke-kay(mercy-appealing tongue-protruding baby)” in Rakhine. As it is a mythical creature made out of nine bodily parts of nine animals which are considered auspicious, it is called “Navarupa” in Pali. So far scholars have not known from which source it originates. However, according to Rakhine Pandit U Oo Tha Tun, who did research on Byala for many years, says that the practice of carving Byala figures in religious structures goes back to the time of King Dvecandra, who was the founder of Vesali City in the 4th century A.D. and that the practice survived up to the reign of King Minbagyi, a famous Mrauk U king (A.D.1531-A.D.1553). Generally, Byala figures are found on the interior and exterior walls of temples, the tops of back-drops of gate-ways, either side of the posts of the back-drops, the back-drops of the lion-thrones, the pedestals of Buddha images, etc.  Besides, the railing posts of royal time signal drums, auspicious drums, royal ceremonial drums, wedding pipes (which are smoked by the bridegroom and bride at the Rakhine traditional wedding -reception) etc are decorated with Byala figures.
The nine different bodily parts of nine animals which make up Byala are tiger’s canine, deer’s eyes, parrot’s tongue, elephant’s trunk or dragon’s crest, one horn of rhinoceros, horse’s ear or elephant’s ear, yak’s tail or pea-cock’s tail, the body of Toe (fabulous creature believed to inhabit the Himalaya). Each of the animal and bodily part has its own efficacy and meaning. Tiger’s canine can remove every poison. Tiger conveys the senses of bravery, loyalty, repelling of dangers and being sensitive to aggression. A dancing pea-cock connotes happiness and peace, a striking pea-cock military affairs and a  resting pea-cock tranquility respectively. Deer’s eyes denote innocence, foreseeing of forth-coming dangers and freedom from various forms of danger. Parrot means quickness, politeness and good morality and parrot’s tongue loveliness due to its ability to speak the human language. Elephant’s ears imply cleverness, gentleness and easy comprehensibility. The elephant trunk bears the sense of protecting dangers and the crest of dragon the sense of protection from the bites of poisonous animals. The one-horn of rhinoceros has the senses of bravery, staidness, forbidding appearance, non-oppression. Yak’s tail means sacredness and freedom from dangers, yak sacredness, concentration, good-look, pleasant-voice, curiosity, etc and pea-cock’s tail the symbol of holy seats. The body of Toe conveys the senses of peace of mind, innocence,
beauty and elegance.
Religious buildings with Byala figures are concentrated in and around Mrauk U , the last seat of ancient Rakhine kings. Some of them are the Shitthaung Temple half a mile north of the palace site of Mrauk U , the Andaw Thein Temple 68 feet north of the Shitthaung Temple, the Htukkan Thein Temple, the Kalaka -kalama-prun Pagoda at Kalaka Village, the Kay-bar Thein Pagoda near the bank of a creek west of the Phrapaw Pagoda, the Min Raja Gyi Temple on a hillock east of Pi-pun-kun Village, a Nat shrine close to the Zay Gyi Gate on the western palace wall of Mrauk U, the Nyidaw- Nawdaw Phaya about half a mile east of the palace site, the Shantaung Pagoda a mile north of the palace site, the smoking-pipe made of stone at Phayabaw Monastery and  the Tharapabbata Pagoda at the top of Tharapabbata Hill two furlongs north of Mrauk U.
In conclusion, ours is a country peopled by diverse ethnic groups. All of them have their own national emblems valued and preserved for ages. Their thoughts, ways of living, beliefs, practices, cultures and customs are embedded in their national emblems. Therefore, it is thought that interpretation of these emblems help understand the ethnic peoples well, thus strengthening the unity among them. It is suggested by the author that  as now is a time when national reconciliation is being made, elaboration on the meaning of national emblems like the Hamsa (Brahminy duck) of the Mons, the Auk-chin(Indian pied horn-bill) of the Chins, the Phar-zi(Ceremonial bronze drum ) of the Kayins, etc should be an important task in Myanmar.
Reference
U Oo Tha Tun and U Kyaw Tun Aung, Rakhine Byal, Zin-yadana-saw Publishing House, Yangon, 2014.

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