September 27, 2016
Fire Balloons of the North – An ancient Shan ceremony which has its roots in Burma and predates Buddhism in South East Asia
When: 10 – 14 November 2016
Where: Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu, Mae Hong Son
This Shan 4 days of festivities, called Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu Worshiping Ceremony, is partly based on the Burmese Tazaungdaing festival, (see more below) and the Thai festival of Loy Krathong, with a smattering of the Yi Peng – Lanna Festival of Light.
It is held on the full moon day of Tazaungmon, the eighth month of the Burmese calendar and is celebrated as a national holiday in that country, to mark the end of the rainy season. It also marks the end of the 30 day Kathina (Kahtein in Burmese) season, during which monks are offered new robes and alms. The Kathin is also observed across Thailand and is known as The Thord Gathin Festival or Thod Kathin (Thai: ทอดกฐิน) or Kathin Laen or simply as the Kathin Ritual.
In Thailand the three month Buddhist Lent known as Wan Khao Phansa, ends on Wan Ok Phansa Day (possibly the nation’s most important religious day of the year), which falls on the full moon of the eleventh Thai lunar month (16th October 2016) and is immediately followed with this 30-day period of merit-making. This period is a special opportunity for prayers to Buddha and for the presentation of alms to the monks; it is this 30-day span of merit making and religious giving that is referred to as Thord Pha Gathin.
The Kathin Ritual is also celebrated in the neighbouring countries, of Lao and Cambodia. It is a time for temple grounds to be transformed into venues for traditional dancers, music and food stalls. It also allows those attending the proceedings to earn merit through the offering of material for monk’s robes (Thord Gathin takes its name from the “laying down” of new robes to the monks. The offering of new, saffron robes to the monks is particularly meritorious and important), other alms will also be donated to the monk’s, and these includes goods for their every day needs such as, toiletries, writing materials, candles and food. This is also a time when Money Trees are presented to the temples, for the donated money to be used for the upkeep of the Wat.
The Back drop of the Festivities
The event is staged in the shadows of Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu, (Formerly named “Wat Plai Doi” – the oldest landmark in the city), which sits atop Kong Mu hill. It is from its vantage point you can feast your eyes, on a spectacular view of the entire valley in which Mae Hong Son is nestled. The valley is also known as The Valley of the Three Mists, while the temple itself is notable for its two large white Chedi and its typical Shan architecture.
The main event features the releasing of this cities own version of sky lanterns, namely balloons of all different colours attached to small paper cylinders, known as Loy Krathong Sawan, which are released into the nights sky. The Shan believe that the light from a lantern (or candle) represents the moving away from darkness into a brighter future and that the launching of sky lanterns is a way to dispel bad luck. Some people also attach to their sky lanterns snippets of their fingernail and hair. While not as impressive as their counterparts in other parts of the Kingdom, the night sky still comes to life when thousands of these Fire Balloons are released into the inky black night sky.
There are numerous other things going on during the festivities including firework contests, a beauty contest and an array of cultural shows which provide an insight into the local people’s rich heritage. There also a number of religious ceremonies performed during the event to celebrate Buddha and the end of the 30 days of Kathin.
The Festival in Burma
In Burma it is also known as the Festival of Lights and spelt Tazaungdine Festival. It is believed The festival’s origins predate the introduction of Buddhism to Burma, and stem from the Kattika festival, which honors the guardian planets in Hindu astrology. November (Burmese: Tazaungmon) is the month when the Krattika planet (Pleiades) accompanies the Moon, and when Mahavinayaka awakes from his long slumber. It is a time pay homage to this deity with offerings of incense, sweetmeats and lights. (Fire balloons and candles)
In Burma robe-weaving competitions, to weave special yellow monk robes called matho thingan are also held throughout the country, during these competitions, held for two consecutive nights (the night preceding and the night of the full moon), contestants work nonstop from night until dawn to weave these garments. The tradition commemorates a widely known story of the Buddha’s life. Seeing that the Buddha would soon renounce lay life, the Buddha’s mother, Maya, who had been reborn in the Tavatimsa heaven, spent the entire night weaving yellow monk robes for him. Her sister Gotami continued this tradition and offered new robes annually. A similar event is held in North East Thailand called the Chula Kathin Festival
Alms giving and charity, both religious and secular, including satuditha feasts, are also commonly undertaken during this festival, as a means of merit-making. It is a time for people to return home to pay homage to their elders (gadaw) and visit temples. Many concerts and other secular festivities, such as live performances of traditional dramas like the Yama Zatdaw, are also held between Thadingyut (the end of the Buddhist lent) and Tazaungdaing.
In pre-colonial times, the Burmese court worshiped 15 Hindu deities on the full moon day. On the eighth waning day of that month, after a procession to the king, 8 pyatthat structures made of bamboo were burned.
It is also on this night, young men celebrate a custom called “kyimano pwe” (meaning “crow doesn’t wake”), by practicing mischief on their neighbors, by stealing or playing tricks on them.
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