The last month of the Myanmar calendar falls in March. Days are getting warm and each morning the singing of the birds greets the new day. Nights are cool and pleasant especially in moonlight when gossamer wisps of mist lend an ethereal touch to the atmosphere.
Tabaung is a month of pagoda festivals. The harvest is safety home and people can look forward to leisurely days of enjoyment. Each month of the Myanmar calendar is marked by a festival and Tabaugn festival is marked by the building of sand stupas. Not content with having festivals in honour of the existing local pagodas, people have to build pagodas of their own, even if they are ephemeral ones built of sand.
The first man ever knows to have built a sand stupa was a poor labourer who lived during the time of Tanhin-gaya Buddha, one of the many Buddhas who had come and gone before the one whom we know as the Gotama Buddha. The man was feeling unhappy because he could not do any deeds of merit like building stupas. One day he saw silvery sand dunes shining in the sun. Inspired, he mixed the sand with clay and built a beautiful stupa and decorated it with flowers.
Because of this good deed the man, as he went through the innumerable lives in the cycle of rebirth, never knew what want meant. Then came the time of the Gotama Buddha, and he was born in a rich and noble family. He renounced his lay life and entered the Buddha’s Order. As a monk, he had gifts given by his lay disciples; they were more than he could use. So he gave them away to his brethren. He attained the highest stage of enlightenment and he was also gifted with the super normal powers of knowing his past lives. He told the story of how he once built a sand stupa, and the blessings that resulted from this deed of merit.
The festival of sand stupas is a communal one, everyone participating, from senior citizens to children old enough to dig the sand dunes. In twante, a town on the other side of the Yangon River, well-known for potteries, this festival is celebrated on the full moon day of Tabaung month. Twante is about three hours’ journey by motor launch from Yangon.
Shwedagon Pagoda Festival
One of the highlights of the season in Yangon is the Shwedagon Pagoda festival celebrated on the grounds around the hill where the great pagoda stands. It is impossible to miss the pagoda festival. The grounds are filled with rows of bamboo and thatch huts which are market stalls or show rooms. There are also merry-go-rounds and ferris wheels and musical shows.
Products from all over the country, from the arid plains of central Myanmar, northern hill tracts, lowlands and the delta areas of the south, are there-baskets, mats, trays and boxed made of cane or bamboo or palm leaves; cotton wool quilts, fillings for cushions and mattreses, cotton rughs, bags and handwoven textiles in colourful patterns; paper mache dolls, some of them grotesque yet attractive; glazed earthern –wares, pots, vases, ash trays; lacqurware use full as well as beautiful.
This part of the festival grounds is a wonderland where you may wander and browse for hours and come away finally laden with beautiful things, most of them useless.
Perhaps, you might like to stroll along the rows of food stalls and try varieties of Myanmar snacks, just for once, which I am afraid, would be quite enough. There is mohn-hin-gar a vermicelli dish with hot thick fish soup. But what are those ringlets floating therein? Oh, they are slices of young tender banana stems, very tasty, just try. Sprinkle the shredded green celery for special flavour.
You might try a dish of Myanmar noodles with chicken curry, the gravy of which is made with white bean flour and coconut milk (that is the milk squeezed out of finely shredded coconut kernel), very thick, rich and delicious.
As you walk through the never-ending gastronomical paradise, the air is thick with the heavy aroma of frying. Right before you is a grand carnival of crispies and pan-cakes. The most popular is the gourd crispies. Young and tender gourds are cut into fingers, coated with rice flour batter and deep fried. They are eaten with green lettuce leaves. Celery and sauce made of tamarind pulp and hot red chillies. Hot green tea serves as caster.
Ba-yar-gyaw is the kind of crispies made of lentils. Crushed into a pulp, mixed with spices, and deep fried. Other varieties are shredded onions, prawns and all kinds of beans and peas. You see crispies floating in hot steaming oil in huge iron cauldrons. Just watch the shop woman expertly fish them with a sieve-like ladle and lay them on the bamboo tray. Hot and inviting.
There are many other toothsome delicacies, which you may not know for what they are: for instance, those white tall bamboo sticks standing in threes and fours, propped like rifles. What are they really? NO, they are not lethal weapons, they are glutinous rice cylinders; for, inside the hollow of the menacing sticks are chunks of glutinous rice, which have been baked on open fire in their containers. There you have the most hygienic packing ever devised.
You can buy those bamboo sticks and take them home. When you have peeled off the bamboo strips (this calls for expert hands!) you have a lovely cylinder of glutinous rice encased in a thin film from the hollow of the bamboo…. It gives a pleasant flavour.
Glutinous rice comes in various kinds of packing : banana leaves, palm frounds, each having a special flavour, as they are steamed or baked in their packings. They also have fillings, coconut, or banana or jiggery.
There are stalls with mountains heaps of wafers made of glutinous rice flour, paper thin and light as air and very brittle. You buy them in bunches of fives or tens, strung on bamboo strips. They are crunchy and munchable. You enjoy them showeringwhite flakes on yourself and your fellow beings as you chew and jostle your way through the crowd.
You se hot steaming griddles on which flat brown pancake are being fried. They look nice with sprinklings ofsessamum seeds and peanuts. It is called mohn-see-gyaw , a favourite sweet. The main ingredients and glutinous rice flour and jiggery. There is “bracelet” crispiest glutinous rice flour kneaded and shaped into bracelets. And deep fried. They are taken with jiggery syrup.
Crispies and snacks are a –plenty on the festival grounds. Most of them are no good taking home to eat. They are best eaten right on location. With the aroma of frying (which you have to breathe in anyway), why give yourself a splitting headache by just taking in the smells? Give yourself a good time, tasting munching and chewing all the varieties. Never mind the headache and the stomach upset. After all, it is worth every spasm of pain that comes the morning after.