MYANMAR : Legend of the Golden Bird
Legend of the Golden Bird
Text and photography by Eric Pasquier
Every year in October, thousands gather to watch an enormous golden bird being towed by 1600 men in a canoe across Lake Inlay in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.
The legend behind this magnificent procession reads like a fairy tale – complete with a king, drowned golden statues and angry spirits - but for the Inthas, the story is as real as the lake itself.
Waxing moon of Thadingyut.
The ceremony of the golden bird is about to begin. Already thousands of devotees crowd the shores of Lake Inlay.
Shaded under the beautiful golden fringed umbrellas, they look on. They have come to seek the forgiveness that will take them to Nirvana.
The Pao and Shan tribes are also present, come down from their mountains to mix with the Inthas, the people who actually live on the lake who organise this celebration.
Three centuries ago, King Alaungtsihu, arriving in Intha country, wished to present the locals with a gift worthy of their power. He asked a talented craftsman to make him five representations in the strongest wood and to cover them with fine leaves of gold. And he offered the five statues to the Inthas.
Each year, when the moon waxes in the month of Thadingyut, Alaungtsihu’s descendants would show the five golden representations of Buddha to their subjects. After 250 years, the then king decided to organise a commemorative procession across the lake. The five statues were placed on a barge and shown to the faithful. Once in the middle of the lake, thunder struck, and the barge sunk and with it the five little Buddhas. Vanished, swallowed by the lake. The Inthas, often referred to as the sons of the lake, used their best divers who retrieved the precious statues from the depths of the water. But not all five; in the wrinkled hands of the divers were only four golden Buddhas.
The subjects feared the vengeance of the Nats, the guardian spirits. Upon their arrival at the main temple on the lake’s shores, the faithful discovered to their great surprise that the fifth one had miraculously found its place. Since that day, it was decided that this statue should always remain in the monastery and that only the remaining four would be taken out for the annual processions.
At the place where the sacred barge sunk, the Inthas erected a column mounted with a golden bird. Since then, in the middle of the lake, a peak of white granite carries on its summit this messenger of the Nats, the guardian spirits who, perhaps, brought back the drowned statue to the temple.
Every year, the barge, covered in gold, is towed by a long canoe. About 1600 Intha men row the boat by balancing on one leg, wrapping the second around the paddle and thus propelling the canoe along. In the canoe that tows the floating temple, 1600 men dressed in identical white shirts make the same movement at the same moment.
Behind, the royal barge dazzles in its golden radiance. At the bow, a giant golden bird opens the way to the temple that houses the Buddha statues. On the banks, the followers are in deep meditation. The whispers have ceased and have been replaced by a doleful murmur.
Every night, the Buddha statues will be housed in one of the many temples on Lake Inlay’s shores. For three weeks, the faithful villagers of the lake and the pilgrims who have come from all corners of Burma will be able to fall at the feet of these statues.
Despite more than thirty years of living with a military junta, the Burmese continue to hold on to their traditions. The Inthas, acrobatic fishermen and able farmers, devote half their catch or harvest to this festival. In the villages, each lives in anticipation of this event.
“Where you’re walking now, never has a stranger dare set foot,” warns a young man intrigued by the sight and material of the reporter. And each night, the priests and their faithful keep watch over the Buddhas. Every morning, the statues are returned to the golden barge and set off for another temple.
And each year, the ceremonies get more elaborate and ostentatious. The followers bring numerous offerings, canoe races are organized and the women of the lake dance for Buddha.
A popular celebration that neatly blends traditional spirituality with Burmese culture. Unique in the world, the procession continues along Lake Inlay as it has for centuries.
Copyright © Eric Pasquier
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