Friday, April 3, 2015

Thongran and Rakhine Culture

Thongran and Rakhine Culture By Saw Tun Oo

Each year with the Sun’s entrance into the zodiacal sign of the Aries (Mesha), Rakhine New Year commences at about mid-April. New foliage freshen up the trees. Our world smiles with the blossoms of yellow ‘padauk’, bright-red peacock’s pride, and the perched thirsty soil craves for a sprinkle from the heaven.

With it the spirit of our cultural renews. What we lost in the past, what we are losing today in our culture, tradition, literature, or the like – once again we realize that we are to remain content with our small aspirations, and yet smaller needs. Another annual get-together with our near and dear ones bringing smiles to our smile-less day-to-day existence.

Rakhines of Bangladesh – those living in Cox’s Bazar, Patuakhali, Baraguna, Bardarban and Khagrachari districts – who bear testimony to a stormy period of the southern part of Bangladesh under the Arakanese rule extending from the fifth to the seventeenth centuries AD, have up to now preserved the cultural, linguistic and traditional inheritance of our forefathers. So the tradition of Thongran is an inheritance of the customs of Arakan before 1784, in which year the capital Mrauk-U fell. The fall being caused not for the superiority of the muscle of the invading Burmans, but because the House of Mrauk-U[1] had been rendered confused under internal strife politically for over a century. At the lat hour a member of the Arakanese royal household sought help from Bodawpaya, the Burman King, to get back the throne of Mrauk-U from Maha Thamada, the people-elected king. On victory the Burmans turned into traitors, staging a whole genocide of the Arakanese people. Following this sad event countless Rakhine patriots made way into the neighbouring districts of British India, and augmented the population of Rakhines living there.

The census of 1981 puts the number of Rakhines to nearly three lakhs including that of undivided Chittagong Hill Tracts. Many of the Rakhines of Bandarban call themselves Marmas – a term first appearing in the Myasedi inscription made by Prince Raza Kumar of Pagan in AD 1084. The ‘Marma’ or ‘Myanmar’ as pronounced by Burmese denotes a ‘citizen’ of Burma – be he a Shan, Karen, Rakhine, or Mon living there. In a like manner the term of ‘Rakhine’ more suitably indicates a national of a succeeding generation of Arakanese. Therefore, however smaller differences we may have, in spirit we all share a common history, tradition, culture, religion, literature, language and way of life.

This wealth of our cultural heritage is best reflected in the Thongran festival – in celebrating merrymaking and feasting with songs, drama, and danas we all share in common. Thongran comes in the month of Tagu (Transit) when for a about a week merrymaking and merit-earning seem to be the order of the day. Old people go to monasteries to keep the Sabbath (Uposatha), to offer food and join sessions of mediation. On the first day Thongran the Buddha images and monasteries of pagodas are given a ceremonial washing with scented water. The village elders are offered a ceremonial bath by young people who in return are blessed. In the evenings, people of all ages, with females occupying the majority, throng into the monasteries to listen to sermons of the village monk. In many places where city life have invaded with the all-powerful video machines, punk fashion, disco-music and breakdance the traditional customs are quickly dying away.

Yet the most colourful part of the festivals, the Ri-taung-pwe, is fullblown and is going to stay. For this a mandatt or pavilion is usually erected by the main road. Decorations of coconut leaves, padauk flowers, ri-chann-uo (holy water pot, mangala ghat), paper flowers brighten up the pavilion. A boat filled to the brim with water is placed inside the mandatt, while girls at a row sit, with their backs to the observers, in wait for the boys. Boys come in groups to splash or ‘to play’ water, by asking permission from two elderly ladies in charge called ‘ouk-thing-thu’. Thongran etiquette strictly demands the maintenance of friendly bahaviour, free of malice, rough play or the like. The numbers of boys are to be kept the same as the girls. Special care should be taken not to splash water at someone other than one’s own partner. A girl cannot join a different mandatt which she did not select from the beginning. Only boys, happy with strong drinks, go from one mandatt to another playing water, cutting jokes and singing out thaingyatt.singing out thaingyatt. [2] A slip-off of one’s water-pot is dealt with a fine, and if any participant wipes his or her face – it is considered embarrassing or disgraceful. As a round comes to an end, the participants courteously take leave from each other, asking forgiveness for any misconduct done.

The thaingyatt verses, though traditional, are extemporized very often by modern additions. As example is:

“Here comes the Thongran eve:
Let’s make fun with water,
O Maree-shay,[3],  take no offence
Since once a year comes the Thongran;
Let’s play and be merry –
There, my Big Brothers
Told me to play water with you.
Oh my! How could I miss
Splashing water on my beautiful
Maree-shay, my Maree-shay
Let’s be kind to each other.”

To an untrained eye, the formal and informal feasting might seem connected with ‘approaching’ a girl for matrimonial relations. In fact the celebrations of Thongran, though they may not have religious significances, bring closer social and spiritual closeness of all who are Rakhines. The odds of the old year pass by, and the New One brings rays of hope, love and national feelings. Long after the cymbals, drums and bamboo flutes of the Rakhine Thongran cease to echo, a heartfelt melody that reflect the spirit of Thongran seems to work into our inner self throughout the remaining days of the years.

[1] The House of Mrauk-U: Mrauk-U Palace, as the seat of administration of Arakanese Kingdom.
[2] Thaingyatt: This verse, often traditional, is sung by a leading voice and joined by a chorus; musical instruments are used as accompaniments and the boys rhythmically dance to the tune.
[3] Maree-shay: Literally it means a female cousin of a man or boy with whom one may have teasing relationship, as socially permitted. But in this instance, this term is used courteously to accost a girl only; the word may not be used of a mandatt.

This article was first printed in a magazine ''Voice of Rakhine Vol-II'' published by Rakhine Students' Organisation of Bangladesh (RSOB) in the year 1989 edited by (then) Maung Than Aye (at present Ven. U Bodhinyana).
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