Inlay Lake (Hpaung Daw Oo)

     0nce the three month long Lent ends on the Full Moon day of Thadingyut, a Myanmar moon month which falls in October, the fun begins: young people in love can marry, annual festivals are celebrated at various pagodas and monks are again allowed to travel. But there is just one big pagoda festival that does not wait for the Full Moon: in fact, it begins on the first Waxing Moon day of Thadingyut and ends a couple of days after the Full Moon. This is the celebration of the Hpaung Daw Oo pagoda of Inlay Lake, which this year falls on the 7t" of October. The Full Moon of Thadingyut is on the 21St.

     Inlay Hpaung Daw Oo Pagoda Inlay Lake is itself a natural wonder, a 22 km long and 11 km wide strip of blue waters ringed with several ranges of green and blue hills. The inhabitants are uniquein the way they go about their lives. Consider for instance, how everyone rows a boat: stting down, using two hands. Everyone? Not the Intha as the lake people are known; they row standing up, perched on one leg on the stern of the boat, with one leg wrapped around an oar and one hand holding the top in a firm grasp. They live in houses built on the water. Their gardens are formed from packed silt and weeds so their veggie plots float on the water, and are pegged down with long bamboo poles. If they want to re-arrange the garden, they simply tow it away. Where else would a woman one day sit down to think how to make a special robe for her revered Abbot, and found a way to weave cloth from the silken filaments pulled from lotus stems? When you see that the filaments are as fine as spiders' webs, you realise how truly devout she was.

     Most Intha are devout Bddhists. Their most sacred shrine, also built no water is called the Hpaung Daw Oo pagoda, meaning the place where the prow of the Royal barge rested. The great King Alaungsithu of Bagan was believed to have landed here a thousand years ago. The area around the pagoda has been built up slowly so that it now forms solid land. The five images enshrined inside were first discovered over a hundred years ago in an overgrown patch of weeds. Under the patronage of a Shan prince the pagoda was built for them. Since then devotees have gilded the images so often that the thick layers of tissue-thin gold leaf have covered all features. The images are now spheres of gold.

     The festival begins when gold barge in the shape of the Karaweik bird carries four of the five images to the villages around the lake. The fifth is always left in the shrine, from the time about fifty years ago when a sudden storm capsized the barge and one was lost. Only four images out of the five were recovered. As the sorrowing pilgrims returned to the pagoda, there was the fifth already back in palce, a bit of seaweed clinging to its wet surface. From that time on no one dares suggest that it accompanies the other four on this annual tour.

     The barge is rowed by the Intha standing upright, accompanied by music and singing. Alonside are decorated boats, attened by villagers. They are all dressed in their best finery, holding a lavish offerings of fruits, flowers and food in the lacquer stands. Even these lacquer stands are different in design from those made elsewhere in the country. They are in the Kalat form, which is a round tray with legs. They are all painted red with a cresting wave design in black painted on the tray.

     There are villages on the lake and on the shores that the barge must stop at for the festivities and hospitality offered by the villagers, who are fiercely prepared to do their best to outshine others. For them, the yearly visit is a blessing on their community so that no harm will come to them, and that they stay healthy and prosperous.

     Over the mountains there are villages of the Pa O nationalities. These are hard working, dignified, honest folks who farm rich lands and produce the best garlic in the country. The lake enjoys a traveling market that makes the rounds to five big villages and the Pa O walk miles every five days, or more, to buy and trade what they produce.

     For the festival, the Pa O arrive in their thousands. the women's costume is a simple, elegant black loose blouse worn over a long skirt, and a longp sleeved coat worn over it all. A colourful turban of a fancy towel or a hand woven cotton colth is wrapped loosely around the head over aneatly coiled chignon. For those who can afford it, a hollow gold hairpin the size and shape of a spinning top is tucked into the folds. A pair of gold plugs and simple gold bangles are their usual jewelry. Although their farms make them rich, but they do not wear ostentatious jewelry or clothes other than their traditional ones.

     The men wear a black long-sleeved jacket and black trousers with wide legs that tie like a sarong. They also wear turbans. The festival is a great occasion for them, even if they have to trek for miles over rugged terrain. In spite of the long tiring walks, it is seldom that you see a Pa O looking anything but spanking clean and well turned out.

     After the barge has returned to the main shrine, the festivities go on well into the night. There will be more market stalls selling everthing from decorated horse & cattle harnesses to pickled fish, eateries of such exotic fare as Chinese or Indian cuisine, magic shows and twoheaded calves, and dance-drama theatres offering all-night entertainment. They can also get food and fashion items that they are not otherwise easily available such as; ice cream, candyfloss, eye shadow in all colours including rose, and high heels!!!!

     There will be mobile photo studios where girls can put on make-up they normally do not use, or are never allowed to use, and pose for souvenir snapshots in front of cardboard sports cars. This is the time of courting, when terrified boys attempt to talk to shy girls.

     The Intha are famous for their fine silver craft and silk weaving, as well as their main occupations of fishing or farming. However, during the festival, in fact starting from a few days before the event, all work stops. Weavers abandon the silk factories. Craftsmen disappear from their workshops. No one, not a single soul, is prepared to spend any time making money when there is the biggest event of the year looming in the near future.

     It is not only the devotion but also pride and honour that are involved as well. For example, there are boat races, with village competing against village, and losing would mean so much shame that grown men will sit in their boats and weep. To give full support to the home team, the banks of the lake would be near collapse with the weight of viewers who are jumping up and down and screaming at the top of their lungs.

     A few days after the Full Moon, the festival will be over; market stalls will pack up and go home. The pagoda platform will be silent once again. The Pa O will walk back to their remote villages. Everyone will be talking about next year, and what they plan to do then. The Hpaung Daw Oo pagoda festival takes place only once a year, but in the hearts of the people it exists all year round.

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