( Originally Published Early 1900's )
LIVING amidst such environment and enjoying a climate which, to say the least, does not predispose to exertion, one need hardly expect to find a great deal of backbone or moral fibre among the people. Provided by nature with most of their requirements, or at least with the minimum of exertion on their part, the spur of necessity is absent and good-natured self-content results.
Naturally perhaps their thoughts are directed largely to amusement and personal adornment, and one is forced to the conclusion that there is something peculiarly fitting in the adoption of the peacock as their national emblem by a people who modestly entitle the king's throne at Mandalay "the centre of the universe." Conceit and good-nature are perhaps their two most striking characteristics. Even today, nearly twenty years after the deposition of Thebaw, it is difficult to persuade the most intelligent Burman that any power has been able to overcome the prowess of his country and remove the king from his high position. The majority seem to believe that, Thebaw will reappear one day to resume control of affairs now temporarily administered by white "thakins."
One cannot but regret the introduction of our strenuous Western life into this Arcadia, and, as a matter of fact, our occupation of Burma has practically destroyed a nation. Even after Thebaw's deposition the Burmese fought long and ably, but with the final subjugation of Upper Burma the native went to the wall. Placidly accepting the position, he appears to be quite content that we should administer the country so long as he is left in full enjoyment of his gay clothing and sporting events. Meanwhile other races, notably Chinese, Japanese, and Indian merchants, have not been slow to take advantage of the new order of things and profit by the increased trade consequent upon a more stable government. The result has been the gradual ousting of the male Burman from all employment, while his own easy-going nature limits enterprise on his own part.
The women, on the other hand, have great business capabilities, and conduct most of the internal trade of the country. Despising the indolence of the men, it has become an ever-increasing habit with them to mate with the more energetic males of other countries, and there is springing up a new race in which Burmese characteristics are fast disappearing. An example of the independent position occupied by women in Burma was afforded during a trial in the High Court of Rangoon. A woman who was giving evidence was asked by the judge what she did. "Me keep stall in bazaar." "But where is your husband?" "He stayed t'orne and minded the children."
Personal adornment, though a weakness, is happy in its results, for the Burmese crowd is perhaps the gayest in the world; and it is worth notice that the fabrics they wear are good, and, though the women are often over-bedecked with jewelry, they never wear any but good stones, paste and imitations being unknown among them.
Like their clothing, many idioms of the language are extremely poetic. Take, for example, the Burmese ideas of time : The times of day are thus described : "One crow of cock," "Two crows of cock," "Three crows of cock," "Dawn great force," "When the sun is one palm-tree high," "The hour when the hpungyis beg" (9 A.M.), etc. The evening hours are no less picturesque, as for instance, "The time when children lay down their heads," "The time when old men lay down their heads," "The time when feet become silent," "The time when young men go courting" (8 to 9 P.M.), "The return of the young lads" (10 P.M.), when, I am told, begins the courting proper!
Similarly, the names they give their daughters are generally pretty. For instance : Ma Sein (Miss Diamond), Ma San-hla (Miss Pretty Hair), Ma Pan-byu (Miss White Flower), Ma Ma-gale (Miss Little Mother), etc., etc.; while periods of time are denoted by such terms as "A betel chew," "A pot boil," or "The passing of a train."
Though not essentially a brave race, the Burman has plenty of moral courage of a sort, and apparently an indifference to pain, whether in himself or others. This story will illustrate this attitude. Two Burmans attending a pwe, instead of confining themselves to their native "toddy," procured a bottle of gin and became very drunk. With the valor of liquor upon them, they vowed to "go for" the first thing they met on the road. This happened to be a pi dog, which eluded them in the dark. "Never mind," they said, "we will take the next." The next happened to be an old woman, whom they promptly cut to bits with their dahs. On being accused they replied, "Oh yes, we did it, we said we would, so we had to," and with the most complete unconcern they submitted to the beheading which followed. A Burman will go to execution without flinching, but will often run away and leave his wife and children unprotected if attacked. Dacoits also, though occasionally showing extreme bravery, are much the same, and it is usually a question of which will run first should serious resistance be offered.
Thanks to a very complete and vigilant police system, dacoity seems to be on the wane in Burma, though naturally isolated cases of robbery and violence occur here as in other countries. Considerable ingenuity is often applied to the conduct of a theft, an amusing instance of which came under my notice at Pyinmana. Several men armed with long poles, at the ends of which were tied the prickly leaves of the cactus, lined up alongside the rail-way and awaited the arrival of the train from Mandalay. As the train passed all shouted, the consequence being that every one in the train put out his head to see what was the matter, whereupon the thieves quickly hooked off all the silk turbans with their "fishing rods"! Shrieks of laughter from the thieves greeted the speechless indignation of the sufferers, who, with many a scratched face, were carried helplessly away in the disappearing train. Bribery also is not unknown in Burma, and I was rather tickled on one occasion in the forest when, replying to a facetious remark on my part, a native looked up and said, "If master will take I will offer."
The Burmans are fond of sport in all its branches, no business being of sufficient importance to interfere with a cock fight or a pony race, and relatively large sums are wagered on these events. So keen are they that in their bullock-gharry races partisans will mow down the grass and remove stones and other obstructions which may possibly come in the way of the wheels of the gharry they are supporting, and from infants to old men all display the wildest excitement during the progress of such events.
This predilection for sport was rather well exemplified a short time ago at Pegu. The bund broke, letting in the river which inundated the whole surrounding dictrict, only the roofs of the houses appearing above water. Cattle were swimming about and finding refuge on any eminence available, poultry and other farm stock scrambling up the roofs or drowning in the stream. One Bur-man, whose house was flooded and his wife, dry but disconsolate, seated on the roof, concerned himself little about wife or struggling live stock, but considering this a heaven-sent opportunity, was seen vigorously paddling about in a canoe, training for a coming race !
Cleanly and simple in their habits, the Burmans live almost entirely upon rice, drinking little else but water, though they chew an enormous quantity of betel nut, which is a good stomachic, but has the effect of blackening the teeth and imparting a curious vermilion tint to lips and tongue. From one day old infants are fed on rice, a small bowl of this and another of water being measured out for them at meals, the amount of each increasing as the child grows. The rice, however, is not cooked dry as in India, but the water being left with it, it is soft and glutinous, and is first chewed up by the women before being given to the infant, together with a few drops of water with which to wash it down.
Forbidden by their religion to take life, meat seldom forms part of their diet, and to such an extreme is this principle carried that they sometimes even decline to milk their cows, who become dry in consequence. Fish, how-ever, is constantly used, and in the bazaars, where meat is offered for sale by Indians and people of other religions, the Burmans do not scruple to buy and consume it.
There is no division of class in Burma. In the king's time any one might become a prince, and the office of prime minister or any other high position be attained by people of the lowest rank.
Theoretically all are equal, the holding of office alone marking a social grade. A good instance of this was given me by the captain of one of my steamers, who on one occasion, long ago, had been invited by the Lord High Admiral of the Burmese fleet to attend the ceremony cf his daughter's "ear-boring," when a large company had assembled to drink warm lemonade and smoke Burmese cheroots as from the Admiral's box they witnessed the pwe which followed. It was altogether a great festival, and attended by all the ceremony and pomp due to the position of his host, who at that time had power of life or death over every man in the navy. Some weeks later he again saw him, but in the interim he had been de-graded, and was now paddling about in a dug-out canoe, cutting and selling kaing grass to the king's elephant-keepers ! It was a descent from the palace to the hut, from robes of office to the simple loin-cloth, yet he was the same dignified gentleman he had been before, and though perhaps not so corpulent as of yore, was still smiling and apparently contented with his lot.
The Burmans have few modes of expression in Art. I am not aware of any great literary work having been produced by them, and their music is primitive if pleasing, while—owing, no doubt, to the temporary nature of their homes, due to constantly changing sites—pictorial art is practically non-existent. Such pictures as I have seen are the archaic frescoes on temple walls and vaults, and. the distemper paintings used in the embellishment of "tanyin" or kyaungs.
On the other hand, their silk fabrics are very beautiful, and their silver-work quite the finest in the world.* This art, however, is only practised in a few centres, such as Rangoon, Mandalay, and Thayetmyo, and is characterized by the exquisite modelling and extraordinarily high relief of thé figures or foliage with which they embellish bowls and vases in themselves beautiful in form.
It is in their religious buildings, however, that we recognize the chief expression of their art sense, where, influenced by their environment and imitating the exuberance of nature, they are elaborate in design and lavish in their decoration. Their plaster-work is excellent, and teak carving almost unique. They are fond of introducing human and animal forms into their carvings, from life-sized figures of dancing men and women to the innumerable little effigies of beloos, nats, and other super-natural forms which decorate the eaves and cornices of the kyaungs. In the pagodas, guarded by griffins which have always a highly decorative feeling, a common form I noticed was that of the peacock perched upon a crocodile, no doubt emblematical of the triumph of beauty over what is vile, in which perhaps is also implied a religious parallel.
I remember that on landing at Rangoon a friend re-marked to me that I would soon "become sick of pagodas," and certainly the great number one sees on the Irrawaddy and throughout the country generally almost justifies such a remark, every point of vantage apparently being utilized by the Burman upon which to build his temple. It must be acknowledged that they add considerably to the beauty of the landscape, but apart from any pictorial value they may possess, I must say that, far from becoming tired of this continuous succession of temples, I found my interest grow rather than diminish upon fuller acquaintance.
At first sight one temple or pagoda is much like another, and it is a graceful object at that, but on comparing the various periods and styles, what a difference is notice-able ! All more or less conform to the graceful zedi form of design, yet no two are alike. The plinths are sometimes square, again octagonal or polygonal, receding in successive stages—each differently ornamented—to the base of the dome. This again is built in stages, each representing in conventional form some familiar object, such as the rice bowl, the twisted turban, a plantain bud, etc., until the finial is reached, itself almost always enriched with ornament of individual character, and. sur-mounted by the gilt "ti," which is hardly ever the same in two pagodas. A comparison between the Shwe Dagon in Rangoon, the Shwe-Tsan-Dau at Prome, and the unique bell pagoda at Bhamo will soon demonstrate this. Further, the treatment of the panels, which often lend interest to the plinth, the guardian leogryphs and votive vases, the emblematical tree rising from its architectural base, and the hundred odd architectural and artistic adjuncts which combine in forming any given pagoda are all as distinctive as are the different types of humanity. Moreover, each is beautiful, and far from being "sick of pagodas," my only regret is that I had not sufficient time at my disposal more fully to study and analyze the undoubted charm each possesses. When to all this is added the effect of gilding in one case, and the subduing influence of age and weather in another, combined with an infinite variety of environment, the pagoda can never become monotonous, particularly when seen as principal object in a landscape of tropical richness, whose beauties are reflected in one of the noblest rivers in the world, and bathed in an atmosphere which lends an enchantment to the whole.
The number and richness of these pagodas suggest another thought, that the religion of the Burman is active and living, and though many of these buildings are the tangible expression of the piety of past generations, new pagodas and kyaungs are constantly springing up, while many existing shrines are annually being added to and enriched by devotees of the present day. Indeed, herein lies a danger. In the Shwe Dagon pagoda in Ran-goon the religious enthusiasm of the pious has led to structural additions which have seriously impaired the beauty of the building, and the same thing is occurring in other places. It seems to me a pity that such acts of vandalism are not controlled, and I would very much like to see the institution in Burma of a department for the preservation of native monuments such as exists in Egypt, in whose hands would rest the restoration and protection of the best examples of native art, and whose duty it would be to guide the enthusiasm of present-day devotees into channels of usefulness, and prevent the addition of incongruous excrescences to buildings which are not only historic but architecturally complete.
It is not only in the building of pagodas or kyaungs that the Burman expresses his religious instinct. Every male Burman passes at least a small period of his life as an inmate of a monastery, and the practice of and belief in his faith is universal and evidently sincere; and there can be no doubt, I think, that to the influence of Buddhism is due much that is lovable in the character of the people, as well as the creation of an art at once beautiful and distinctive.
They are affectionate to their offspring, and show unbounded respect to their parents, while the unfettered freedom enjoyed by their women places the Burmese far above the generality of Eastern races. And even if the Burman is somewhat indolent and conceited, his indolence is largely that of the gentleman of leisure, while so much of grace and beauty envelops the conceit that we readily forgive it.
All in all, the Burmese are a people infinitely attractive, and when today so large a proportion of mankind is given up to ideas altogether material and utilitarian, it is surely something for which to be thankful that in Burma we can still find a country which is a garden of wonderful beauty, and inhabited by a race entirely in harmony with its surroundings, and who understand what is meant by the "joy of living."