About Myanmar > Culture and Customs
As with all countries, Myanmar has its own set of unique cultural traditions and idiosyncrasies which combine to make a nation that is as warm and welcoming as any in the world.
Myanmar culture is closely intertwined with religion and royalty in Burma history. Temples, pagodas and palaces displayed the artistic skills of painters, wood carvers and sculptures. Over 85% of the Myanmar population is Theravada Buddhist and Buddhism is at the heart of Myanmar culture. It permeates in to both private and public life. Most young people spend time in monastic education, and monks and nuns hold a revered place in society.
Myanmar Art and architecture, which relied on royal support, faded when the last royal kingdom collapsed. Although court Myanmar culture has been extinguished, popular street-level Myanmar culture is vibrant and thriving. Myanmar Drama is the mainstay of this culture, and just about any celebration is a good excuse for a Myanmar culture pwe (show). Myanmar performances may recount Buddhist legends, or be more light-hearted entertainments involving slapstick comedy, dance, ensemble singing or giant puppets. Burma cultural music is an integral part of a pwe; it originates from Siam and emphasizes rhythm and melody. Myanmar culture instruments are predominantly percussive and include drums, boat-shaped harps, gongs and bamboo flutes. Myanmar also have festivals all around the year, at least one in each month of the year. The most famous festival of Myanmar is the Thingyan Water Festival, which is held from 13 April to 16 April every year.
The Myanmar people pride themselves on proper etiquette. Public displays of excessive emotion, whether prompted by anger or by love, are frowned on. Elders and others of a higher status, such as monks, should be addressed and treated with courtesy. It is considered rude, for instance, to pass things over the heads of seated elders. To show respect to grandparents, parents, and teachers on formal occasions, the Myanmar kneel prey to pay their respects. When passing a pagoda or meeting a monk, they put their palms together in a gesture of reverence. Myanmar people are also very sensitive about imposing on, or inconveniencing, other people.
Myanmar households often consist of three generations. If family members do no live in the same house, they usually live near each other and visit often. Children learn to share and to participate in family life at an early age. All children are expected to respect and obey not only their parents but all their elders. They are also expected to take care of their aged parents.
Novitiation ceremony is the unique characteristic in Myanmar. This ceremony usually celebrates during the school holidays, mostly in summer holidays at March & April before the water festival. In the Myanmar tradition the boys are compulsory to enter the Buddhist order for a week or more.
In the Myanmar Buddhist tradition it is compulsory that every boys over eight years old to twenty have to enter the Buddhist Order for a week or more as a novice and over twenty they have to enter the Order again as Ordained Monk. At least twice in his life he becomes a member of the Order and sometimes even more. They stay at a monastery is not considered a hardship because it is a blessing for the whole family as well as for the boys themselves. Monks or novices can stay as long as they wish.
A formal Novitiation ceremony involves a parade around the pagodas on the first day with the boys all dressed up as princes. In the afternoon their heads will be shaven and they will enter the Order. On the same day or the next there will be a feast for monks and invited guests. If sisters of the Novices have their ears pierced at the same time, they also are the important participants in the celebrations.
At the ceremony the line of a dozen cars drive orderly with musical troop follow an a roofless truck car playing music and songs loudly for dancer who take place on the roof top with funny dance to amuse people. To pay homage to the Buddha they go to a famous pagoda at their town, parade clockwise to the pagoda, the parents take place at the front, the fathers carry the Alms bowl and fan and the mothers carry the casket contain robes. Next to them are Monks-to-be and Novices-to-be with their attended holding Gold umbrella over them and a group of girls carry decorated offertories follow them in line. Musical troop and their merry making dancer make all the funs and tease the girls. After the pagoda they have to visit a nat (sprit) shrine for homage. Then finally go to the monastery shave the hair and ask permission from the Abbot to be novice. As a novice he has to observe eight precepts and learn the Buddha teachings from his preceptor.
Novitiation is the obligation for every parent, rich or poor, since it is believe to be a great meritorious deed which could prevent them to be at the evil realm.
Puppetry is the most popular show in Myanmar arts and culture. The puppets are backed by expert manipulators who conversed, joked and relative humorous stories through their puppets to the delight of the audience. At least four manipulators took charge of a character using handling rods and strings at the back of the curtain and give voice to the puppets. Puppets are beautifully dressed in lavish embellishment with gilded materials and semi precious gems, depends on their characters.
Puppet shows usually take place at pagoda festivals, which are like country fairs. Marionette theatre is now mostly confined to tourist venues in Yangon, Mandalay and Bagan.
Thanaka is a natural cosmetic paste used by women and children but also men in Myanmar. Its practical use is as a suncream to protect themselves from the strong sun rays. A thinner paste can be used for the skin all over the body but the women also make a thicker paste to apply to their faces. Sometimes in creative patterns and is a form of local of make-up. Thanaka is truly an organic medication for a skin condition and multipurpose. It emits a fragrant aroma, cools the skin; control oiliness by tightens pores and thus prevents pimples, as well as being a most effective sun block.
Its use originated with the women when transplanting rice seedlings in the paddy fields on the month of July, August under the strong tropical sun. To protect them self the women would wear a thick layer of Thanaka on their arms and faces.
Thanaka is made by rubbing ground bark with a sprinkle of water and is made on a daily basis taking a few minutes. Thanaka trees are very hardly thrive well on non-fertile soil of Upper Myanmar arid region where there has a little rainfall. Thanaka trees are perennials and the age must be 35 years old to be mature enough to yield good quality cuttings.
Lacquerware are objects, such as boxes, bowls and buttons, which are covered in the substance lacquer. The thinner, more flexible objects tend to be made out of horse hair with the more sturdy objects being made out of bamboo leaves. These frames are then covered in a layer of lacquer and left a few days to dry and then covered again. Some drying periods will be for a month and therefore it can take months to create one finished product in local workshops. After the final layer of lacquer has dried, skilled craftsmen (and women) will carve a pattern, such as birds, elephants or a scene, onto the top layer before covering the object in dye to leave a coloured pattern. Pieces of gold leaf are often laid over the carved design to create a shinning gold pattern.
When in a local rural Myanmar village, you won’t have to look far to see the signs of local legends and myths. A large part of local legend are the Nats, spirits of nature who act as guardians in return for offerings. Nat shrines are present all around Myanmar includinga at Mount Popa near Bagan. The Myanmar people worship Nats of land, for example a river or hills, or people, for example alcohol. The Yaksha and the Naga are also part of Myanmar folklore. The Yaksha are keepers of treasure and believed to be distant relatives of the elves and dwarves. The Naga however are thought to be a variety of creatures which are not adversed to humans, such as multi-headed snakes which live in wet areas such as rivers.
It is a local custom in Myanmar to chew betel nut like someone in the west would chew chewing gum. Within the local markets you may come across a betel nut stalls and on which you would find green betel vine leaves, broken pieces of the nut, a pot of lime paste an a variety of fillings, mainly consitsting of herbs. The leaf is then covered in the lime paste, and then other fillings are then inserted. The leaf is then folded and users will put it in their mouths and suck. You can tell when you meet a Myanmar local whether or not they are addicted to betel nut by the colour of their teeth, which would be a black and reddish colour.
Cheerot is a local produced low cost cigar of roughly 3.5 to 6.5 inches in length which may last up to half an hour. Cheerot can be made with a selection of different flavoured tobacco. It is thought that due to the cheerot’s aroma, the scent covers the smell of sweat and therefore reduces the likelihood of attracting mosquitos and subsequently the chances of getting bitten.