Monks of Myanmar

Monk on the U Bein teak bridge

I’d read that Buddhist monks are held with great reverence in Myanmar. Their moral power was enhanced when they involved themselves in protests against the military government. I’d also read that since then some of them have remained embroiled in politics. Unfortunately their politics has, reportedly, become communal; a small number of monks have lent their weight to campaigns against religious minorities in the country. My first sight of a monk in Myanmar was of this gentleman negotiating the crowds at U Bein’s teak bridge. He had the harried air of a middle-level bureaucrat trying to get home after a long and tiresome day in office. I quickly got out of the way of his somewhat aggressive umbrella. He did notice me taking the photo, and didn’t seem to like it any more than he seemed to like the crowd around him.

A serene monk on the U Bein teak bridge

The very next monk I met was altogether more serene. He stood on the bridge over the Irrawaddy river and seemed to enjoy the sunset and the cool breeze. He stood there long enough for me to get his photo with the temple behind him. I told myself that monks are also people, they have different personalities. This man was happy and unmindful of the crowd around him. The great schism in Buddhism is between Theravada (practised in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and other countries of South East Asia) and Mahayana (largely confined to the Himalayas). Theravada belief is more austere.

Novice monks in Bagaya monastery convert chores to play

In the Bagaya monastery I saw monks at different stages of their training and life. Monasteries come with their chores. I met a group of novice monks, children, who had converted their job of collecting trash into a game. I learnt later that many children spend a few years in a monastery, learning to read and write, and only a few of them go on to a monk’s life. Among the many others I saw, I was intrigued by one who sat in his upstairs room reading a book (featured image) even as his contemporaries spent time outdoors, chatting in groups or walking alone. Older monks looked at us as we walked around with our cameras, and occasionally asked us where we came from.

Monks' robes drying in the Bagaya monastery

There’s quite a lot of discussion about the colour of the robes that monks wear. When I saw robes drying in the Bagaya monastery (photo above) I realized that there is quite a lot of variety in the colours. Since I’d seen senior monks as well as novices wearing the same maroon robes, it seemed that there is no rule about colours. The drying robes range from maroon to orange, the latter is probably the industrial equivalent of saffron.

Group of monks in the botanical garden in Pyin Oo Lwin

Having settled this question one evening, it was quite unsettling the next afternoon when we came across a group of bhikshu in pink and saffron. We realized later that nuns always wear pink and saffron. This group of nuns walked through the garden in a single file. When the leader stopped to take a photo, the whole file behind her came to a halt. It was funny in a way.

Group of monks begging in Mandalay

It is customary for monks in Myanmar to walk amongst people twice a day and beg for food. In Sanskrit begging and alms are called bhiksha, and the monks who seek alms are called bhikshu. Late in the afternoon we saw a long line of very young girls out seeking alms. The photo above is of part of this file of children. It is considered highly meritorious to give alms of this kind. Although we did not see alms being given, everyone we asked assured us that no child nun would go hungry.

Gracious nun poses for a photo in the market in Mandalay

While walking through a market in Mandalay, I saw a nun hurrying through the narrow lanes. As I tried to take a photo, she noticed me, and gracefully stopped for a moment to give me this wonderful shot. There was no communication needed except for that graceful smile. We travel through the world, looking for differences and novelty and meet a common humanity everywhere.

People of Amarapura

We visited Amarapura to see two things, the Bagaya monastery and U Bein’s teak bridge across the Irrawady. Then, inevitably, we were told about the ancient tradition of weaving in the town, and suddenly found ourselves in a weaver’s workshop. India is full of such looms, so this wasn’t new to us. We did not want to buy any of the silk here, so we took this opportunity as to watch people and lives in this town. In the late 18th century CE it was a capital of Myanmar, and remained so until, almost a century later, the capital moved to nearby Mandalay. Now it is a small suburb of Mandalay. The weavers were hard at work (see the featured photo) an hour after sunset, when we stole away.

Tailor's shop in the evening in Amarapura, Myanmar

There was a tailor’s shop next door. I peeped in to see old foot-operated sewing machines. They were common in India a generation ago. Myanmar was under military dictatorship for two generations, and have a lot of catching up to do. At this time of the day there was no customer, so the tailor was reading a newspaper while his daughter sat with her school books in the far corner. Seeing this peaceful and universal piece of domesticity, I stole away with my camera.

Flower seller on the street of Amarapura, Myanmar

A little further down the road a lady was doing brisk business selling strings of flowers by the roadside. Her shop was illuminated by an LED lantern. It was a lovely mixture of traditional and modern. Both the flowers and the lantern are common all over Asia. What was particularly local was the thanaka on her face. I’ve written about it earlier.

A shop in Amarapura in Myanmar

I crossed the road and walked back. On this side of the road there was a little restaurant. It was quite empty. A young girl sat waiting for customers inside. There was a little kiosk at the entrance which sold cigarettes and paan (betel leaf). This was being minded by a boy, perhaps the brother. The family which owned this shop probably lived at the back. I began to regret the fact that I spoke no Burmese. It would have been nice to speak with people I was taking photos of.

Buses in Amarapura in Myanmar

The road was quite full of traffic. Most of it was motorbikes, zipping past at speed. There were few cars. I saw a kind of a bus (see above). I learnt later that they belong to private operators. The profit motive makes them take on more passengers than can fit comfortably into the vehicle, as you can see in the photo above. There are designated stops, as I realized when I saw this. They are not marked, but you see a cluster of people waiting where they are supposed to stop.

The Family was waiting for me at our vehicle. I got on, and we left Amarapura.