Burma’s Chin State Day Festival
By Dina Bennett
It was a hot Saturday afternoon in the mountain village of Mindat, Burma, when I first saw the stout black mithun bull, hybrid of a wild gaur and a domestic cow.
He stood placidly, ignoring the courtyard filled with revelers, a rough hemp rope looped around his lyre-like horns securing him to a scarlet hibiscus bush. A plump grey mithun kept him company and neither displayed any inclination to flee.
I balanced on a rock 15 feet away, jealously guarding a small sliver of shade, as a slow-moving circle of tribal dancers stamped and twisted to the drone of skin drums and the clang of spoons beating on tin pie pans.
A tiny, stooped crone approached me, her face patterned with the scalloping blue tattoo favored by the Chin tribe in this village. Smiling, her eyes lost to the wrinkles of age, she pressed a section of bamboo filled to the brim with khaung yay (fermented millet wine) into my hand.
She nudged my elbow so the vessel rose to my mouth, as if to say “You are our guest. Drink!” I sipped the cool, sweet-sour, cloudy liquid, hoping its mildly alcoholic benefits would act quickly, to take the edge off what was to come.
Too soon I was noticed by a chubby scion of the host family, clad in white shirt, red longyi (sarong) and feathered headdress. He tugged genially at my arm, grinning, his teeth and lips reddened by the wad of kun-ya (paan) he was chewing. Directing a stream of red saliva away from me, he clutched me firmly by the hips and we joined the dance circle.
I kicked and hopped along to the syncopated rhythm, one hand on the shoulder of the woman in front of me. But after one round I wriggled away, lifting my cup of wine to my partner in a friendly toast, and returned to my spot in the shade.
The black mithun gave a desultory kick as a shaman, who happened to be the family elder, swatted and stroked his rump with a bamboo frond while intoning prayers to one of the 37 Nats worshiped by Burmese animists.
On the circle’s edge, another son of this large, generous family loaded two bullets into his homemade, heavy-gauge rifle. My heart tried to depart my chest, thumping as loud as the insistent swelling of drums around me.
Then there was a BANG, and the black mithun crumpled, a fountain of hibiscus-colored blood spurting from a neat hole dead center in his skull. The grey bull backed the length of his rope in consternation. A young woman turned to look at me, offering a smile of empathy at the distress I was trying to wipe from my face. Her eyes twinkled with delight when a second BANG sent the grey to the ground. On this February 20th, high in the Chin Hills of western Burma, it was Chin State Day and tonight there would be a feast.
My husband and I had arrived in Mindat from Bagan the night before, after nine hours in an open-air jeep bumping along sand tracks and broken pavement, past men checking their taps in the top fronds of sugar palms, across rickety bamboo bridges replacing those washed away by last year’s floods, through arid plains and fertile green valleys, and finally upward into the pleasant coolness of the Chin Hills.
High enough in altitude to support pine forests as well as the usual bamboo, Mindat is a bustling market town that easily absorbed the hundreds of revelers arriving by foot, cart, bus and motorcycle from nearby villages. Celebrations were already underway when we pulled in.
Chin State Day
Shortly after dawn on February 20, the official date for Chin State Day since 1951, children and youth began gathering in schoolyards. By 7:30 they were headed to the fair grounds. Leaving our perfectly fried eggs to grow cold, we dashed out of the teashop where we were breakfasting when we heard the drummers.
A snaking line of children followed drum majors clad in emerald and burgundy longyis woven in the Chin’s bold stripes shot through with glittering silver threads. A chunky leather belt cinched at the waist did double duty: holding up the longyi and providing a scabbard for the Chin’s traditional broad-blade knife. The men were resplendent, a bandolier of cowrie shells criss-crossing their shoulders and around their forehead a headdress sprouting eagle feathers.
The parade ranks swelled with families as they marched through the streets, faces alight with excitement, separate groups meeting and merging below the bannered entrance to the park. Once inside, they stood in orderly lines while the elderly rested on plastic chairs set up in front of the stage.
And then, it was time for the real festivities to begin. A village elder selected a handful of well-dressed children to stand with the ranks of honorees under the festival banner.
Old women and young joined them, their necks near-buried by strands of olive-size agate beads and necklaces dense with curved yellowing muntjac teeth, those unusual backward-curving cuspids found only in barking deer.
A short, but serious speech ensued, though many in the crowd were already too antsy –or maybe too tipsy–to stand around listening. A moment of silence and then helium balloons, pink, purple, blue, yellow, were swept up into the sunshine and away over the valley.
Keep the Kulture
As with any good festival, more speeches were needed. Ten gentlemen strode on stage to intone about pride in Chin State, the continuance of Chin culture, education and health improvements the current Chin State administration planned to implement. The famous tattooed Chin women flowed around, quietly acknowledging their own notoriety when asked to stand for a photo. Tribesmen peered down gun barrels, comparing rifle qualities.
Savory clouds of smoke from cooking braziers tempted others to leave the speech area for a cup of sweet tea, a flash-fried doughnut stick or a crisp samosa packed with potatoes and caramelized onions. On the far side of the park a game of guard-the-goal got underway, luring more men away from the speeches to place bets, drink and splotch the ground with more red spittle.
We wandered the grounds until we noticed a group of tattooed women and elderly men next to some spiky white posts. “Just symbol. In every village Chin make animal sacrifice in front of posts,” our guide Saw said. “To Nat.
For good year. Also for health.” Soon the group was shuffling forward with a hop, skip, twist and kick, doing the traditional Chin circle dance of sacrifice and renewal. A woman waved me in. I shook my head, too shy to join. “Yes,” she nodded at me, grabbing my hand to indicate, “You must dance with us.” And I did.
As soon as I was part of the circle, a section of bamboo filled to the brim with khaung yay was put in my hand. Another Chin woman approached carrying a plate heaped with shredded chicken laced with fresh ginger, red onions, garlic and chilies. She lifted a heaping forkful to my mouth, feeding me and the women around me as we stomped forward.
The dish was so savory that I furtively tried to push the circle faster so we would get back to her area before she ran out. I need not have worried. There was as much chicken salad as there was khaung yay with which to wash it down. A fast learner, it took me only one cup to learn that any day becomes a better day for a cup of that pleasantly tangy beverage.
By late morning we needed a break from the continuous millet wine and circle dancing in the fair grounds. Saw grabbed a local friend and we went for a wander through the nearby farming village of Paun Au, built on the steep hillside below Mindat.
Narrow footpaths led us between bamboo-mat huts where chickens scratched and families sat in the porch shade sorting beans or repairing tools. Passing small plots of maize, here and there a banana, mango or papaya tree, we stopped at the village cemetery. Each plot was defined by a low stone shrine made of three slate legs supporting a slate slab roof, all of them pushed up against each other.
They resembled squat, thick-legged stools and at first I thought we were in an unusually cramped park full of tiny stone benches. Then I noticed the ash-filled, clay cremation pots sheltered under each. In Chin culture, it takes three animal sacrifices, one for each supporting slate leg, before a family can create a burial plot for their deceased. Rich families sacrifice a mithun, poor ones, a chicken. Given the lack of everything that is life for Burma’s rural poor, even accumulating enough chicken sacrifices can take years.
On the way back to Mindat, I sought refuge from the heat inside a noisy Paun Au teahouse. Stepping inside, I stood for a minute, relishing the cool air drying my sweaty face. A radio twanged somewhere out back. My eyes had barely adjusted to the darkness before I was surrounded by drunk revelers.
They fluttered around me like moths, beaming at me with teeth and lips glistening with red kun-ya saliva. I was a fresh excuse to take a swig or ten from the plentiful wine jugs stacked on every flat surface. One man, a gracious if tottering host, shoved a bottle at my face. When I smilingly shook my head he grabbed me for a quick whirl to the back room music, tripping over the passed out bodies prostrate on the floor.
Though for a moment I longed only for sunlight and the dusty road back to the park, I couldn’t help catching Chin State Day fever from the dazed and happy group of drinkers in the hut.
Which is why I was already slightly anesthetized when we ambled into the shaman’s courtyard, and were welcomed by his extended family to what turned out to be the pre-eminent sacrifice of the day. Through the afternoon, families arrived with bowls of vegetables to add to the upcoming feast. Late into the night the hosts continued to receive all comers, ladling a bubbling ragu of mithun chunks swimming in a sauce thick with tomatoes and onions, into every bowl presented at the stew pot.
Drinking with the Shaman
While some spent the evening hours eating and drinking with the shaman, back at the park, groups of traditional dancers took the stage to present their variations on Chin-style dances. Singers crooned ballads, and tapes blared out Burmese pop and rock for the young people, whose traditional interests were reduced to the next sip of khaung-yay.
Eventually, reluctantly, dancers, singers and audience dispersed or collapsed right there to sleep on the ground, drifting into the tea shops after sunrise to sip coffee, nurse hangovers, spit red streams of kun-ya, and make plans to meet again in February 20, 2013.
IF YOU WANT TO GO:
When: Unlike many of Burma’s tribes, the Chin celebrate their national day on a fixed date, rather than according to moon cycles. It is always on February 20. At present the Burmese government requires foreigners to hold a permit and be accompanied by a guide to enter Chin State.
However, many guides do not wish to go there, because they don’t speak the language, so plan your trip well in advance. You’ll want a guide who’s comfortable in the area, likes the people, knows locals who can bring you into the side villages and who will manage the paperwork to get your permit before you arrive.
How: I can personally recommend two independent guides for this trip. Travel agencies in Bagan and Yangon also can arrange the trip. However, I urge travelers to go with a private guide if possible, not only for the more personalized service, but because doing so puts money on the ground, with the local people, rather than with an agency that possibly has government ties.
Saw is based in Yangon and speaks English well. Also reliable, energetic, with good command of English: Mr. Kyi Soe. Email: [email protected] Kyi Soe (pronounced Chee-So) is based in Nyaung U, next to Bagan, which is the standard departure point for trips into the Chin Hills.
Where to stay: Mindat has four lodging options: Victoria Guesthouse and Nawarat Guesthouse are both good, clean examples of the simple Burmese hostel, with basic rooms offering two cots with a pillow and blanket. The
ground floor holds a communal squat toilet and wash room. Khawnu Guesthouse, related to the government, does not do as good as job as Victoria and Nawarat in keeping clean premises. A room in any of these three will run you about $20 a night.
The nicest lodging in Mindat is a couple miles from town, at Mountain Oasis Resort. This new offering has three lovely, spacious cottages with verandas and attached bathrooms, set in a quiet pine forest off the main road into town. They do not serve any food and rooms are $80 a night. While each place does have a phone on the premises, none speak anything other than Chin or Burmese; your guide will call on your behalf to reserve a room.
Where to eat: All Burmese villages offer several restaurants. The best one in Mindat by virtue of its cleanliness, is Myoma. You might also try Shwetaungtan restaurant, located on a hill above the market. Both serve breakfast, lunch and dinner, while at teashops you can sample a traditional Chin breakfast of rice noodles with pieces of mithun and chunks of tomato.
Getting there: Buses ply the long, dusty, broken pavement between Nyaung U and Mindat. However, your guide can arrange a car and driver if you prefer.
This is a great option which allows you to stop wherever you spy something interesting. Consider making a four-night excursion, including Chin State Day in Mindat, continuing on to Kanpetlet for the tail end of their version of the festivities, a side trek from there up Mt. Victoria, ending in Bagan where you started. Expect to pay $800-$1,100 for the tour, including guide, accommodation and transportation.
Dina Bennett is a travel writer who lives in Walden, Colorado. Recently profiled in the Wall Street Journal Second Acts, she records dispatches from her journeys and the Colorado ranching life on her website www.dinabennett.com.
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