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Marriage Customs Of Burma

( Originally Published 1897 )



In Burma there are no child-marriages, and the people seem happy in their domestic affairs. Although girls are considered to be the property of their parents, they are very seldom constrained to marry a man against their will. The young men, too, make love pretty much where their fancy leads them, obtaining first the consent of the parents, which is generally given, unless there is any doubt on the score of their character. Courtship does not now last as long as it did formerly. The period of day between eight in the evening and midnight is called courting time ; in Burmese it is " Loo-byo-lai-thee-kala," which seems somehow to have a romantic ring about it, or is it only the soothing sound of these words, so strange to our ears ? A lamp placed in the casement intimates that the young lady is " at home " and prepared to receive bachelors. It is all very correct and proper, for the mother is looking on not far off. Moreover, the damsel probably receives as many as five or six together, on the principle of safety in numbers. The Burmese mother is a great match-maker, but she uses persuasion rather than compulsion. If, however, she should try constraint, it would probably be in vain, for in that case either the girl elopes with the lover of her choice, or she goes and hangs herself. The women carry on most of the trading and shop-ping, and are excellent housekeepers, as Mr. Rudyard Kipling shows in one of his short stories of Indian life. It cannot be said that there is any true marriage ceremony, but the following account condensed from "With the Jungle Folk in Burma," a most readable and interesting book by our friend Mr. E. D. Cuming, will give the reader a good idea of how these affairs are managed :

You know the purpose of our coming ? " said the young man's father, as one who knows he is welcome.

" We are pleased to see you," said the girl's father, and his wife murmured words to the same effect, though, properly speaking, the woman should say nothing on this occasion.

Our son loves your daughter, and wishes to make her his wife."

" We are honoured — much honoured," was the reply of the girl's father, who went on to say : " I believe, good neighbour, I am sure, that your admirable son is of good blood ; that in his family, on either side, has never been any taint of slave-blood. That none of his forefathers have been king's slaves ? "

" There is no slave-blood in our family," was the reply.

" No, surely not," murmured the assembled friends and relations.

" And we are also sure that he has in his veins no taint of the Grave-digger class ? "

" Neither the ancestors of myself nor of my woman have had any strain of Grave-digger caste."

" Surely not," again murmured the friends and relations.

" He is a fine young man. We feel sure he is healthy ? "

To which his parents reply, " Our son does not suffer from leprosy, nor scrofula, nor from other evil disease that is properly held disgraceful. He is clean and healthy."

" We are sure of it."

" Well, then, good neighbour, in the presence of our friends and neighbours we consent to your excellent son's marriage with our daughter ; and we shall pray that long life, fertility, and much happiness attend their union."

It is good."

Then the headman said

" We all wish the young people freedom from accidents, diseases, and misfortunes, and very great happiness."

After this the conversation became general, and everybody agreed that the match was most suitable, and sure to be a happy one. But, of course, they all expressed surprise (as was proper), and professed not to have had any idea that such a thing was impending !

On returning home, the young man's mother said to him, " You will marry tomorrow, I expect."

" Yes, tomorrow, good mother."

Next morning, before the sun was hot, a cart with all the bridegroom's belongings arrived at the bride's house, the young man himself leading the way, returning with smiles the good wishes of the neighbours, who stood on their verandahs to see him pass, the bullock-cart squeaking and groaning behind him.

Mah Pan, the bride, wore her best tamein, a white silk jacket, and a new pink silk handkerchief about her shoulders, carefully arranged that it might not hide her necklet.

Pho Lone, the bridegroom, stepped into the house, where he was greeted by his father-in-law with the words, "The rice is ready, my son." Meanwhile, the bride's mother has set on the floor a new lacquer tray with a little boiled rice.

Pho Lone, sitting, ate a mouthful, and Mah Pan, taking her place beside him, did the same. They smiled at one another.

" It is done," said the headman ; they are man and wife."

At night, the young bachelors came and silently threw stones thick and fast upon the thatch, just to prove their envy.

Irish " wakes," we know, are far from dismal affairs, but no one ever heard of their being turned into occasions for courtship and love-making in a public manner, and by a considerable number of young people. Collective courtship, however, appears to be the distinguishing characteristic of funerals among the Karens. These are a people who live, for the most part, among the mountains of Burma, though some of them have come down to the plains. Under ordinary circumstances they are a quiet and peaceable people, but one branch of them, the Red Karens, are the most brutal savages, committing every atrocity except cannibalism.

When one of the Karens dies, the probability is that his relations are too much engrossed in other matters to conduct the funeral rites and ceremonies. Perhaps the harvest has not been gathered in, or the weather is too cold or too wet, in which case the girls would not think of turning out in their finery, as they are wont to do on these occasions, that they may be wooed collectively by the village swains. To the western mind this might seem rather an awkward dilemma, but the Karens have solved the difficulty in a delightfully simple manner. The man is buried temporarily, to be dug up again and " waked" at some more convenient season ! Therefore, when a Karen dies, he is promptly stowed away in a hole in the ground, and the spot marked by stakes or a fence of cactus. If a rich man, his body is burned —a safer plan, because the dogs cannot then get at it. The final ceremony may take place within six months, if there are a large number of young women waiting to be married ; but otherwise there may be a delay of two or three years, or even more !

When the time has at last arrived, a platform of bamboo is erected in front of the house where the deceased lived, and his bones are dug out of their temporary grave. On this platform, or stage, barbarously adorned with pieces of cloth, a linen sheet is placed, on which the remains are laid.

People from neighbouring villages come in large numbers ; but, although certain funeral rites are performed, these are postponed till the young men and maidens have done their courting and chosen their partners for life. And so the occasion partakes more of the nature of a public courting than of a funeral. The proceedings are somewhat after this fashion. The young men and the girls separate into two choirs and seat themselves on opposite sides of the remains. Family jewels are displayed in great profusion. The young men begin with a chorus celebrating the beauties of the Karen maidens, their charm of movement, and modest demeanour. To this the girls respond in a falsetto of the usual drawling character, accepting the eulogy of their graces. These overtures are usually set pieces, handed down from antiquity, or rendered into the Karen tongue from some popular Burmese play. Then the young bachelors begin, each in turn, and sing love-stricken solos, calling on the name of some particular damsel. Among an Eastern and poetic people, flowery language is only what might be expected on such an occasion ; so we need not be surprised to learn that the girl is compared to a star, a flower, or a ruby. No painter could possibly do justice to her charms ; she would ruin the peace of mind of a hermit ! When rejected, the suitor becomes plaintive—perhaps in the belief that " pity is akin to love "—saying that he can neither eat nor drink, and will assuredly die before the morning ! Far from feeling embarassed, the Karen maidens appear to be pleased at such expressions of devotion. Their answers are usually of a somewhat stereotyped character. The girl will declare that it is a shameful thing not to be married, but that to be divorced afterwards is much worse—" to be like a dress that has been washed." Another will declare that she is not going to give herself away too cheaply. She lets the suitor know that she is not like a day dim with the heat-haze, nor like a diamond that has lost the foil below to set it off, nor like a peacock's tail draggled in the wet. All this means that the wrong man has applied, and the lucky swain will be a great fool if her eyes do not let him know that, when his turn comes, the answer will be favourable. A girl seldom says " No " outright ; they prefer a more indirect and less crushing mode of refusal, expressed in some such terms as Come to me when the full moon appears on the first day of the month," or " Eat your rice before it is cooked and come before daylight." But these cases are exceptional ; for, as a rule, the girl has made up her mind which young man she will accept, and the others will look elsewhere. The young people have met before, and so matters are considerably simplified. When all the courting is over, they retire and are married forthwith. Then the elders go on with the funeral rites !



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