Sunday, July 26, 2009

Villager Encampment

With hundreds of families attending the Ananda Festival, there is no way the local guest houses could accommodate them (even if those families could afford it). Instead, the visiting villagers set up camps around the temple and a makeshift town springs up on the plain of Bagan. The camps are typically arranged by putting the ox carts in a circle and stretching tarps over the center if there are no trees to provide shade from the blistering sun.

With a population this size, personal needs can be somewhat difficult to manage. There are numerous latrines around the temple grounds. Laundry is typically hauled to the nearby river for washing. There is also at least one station where the villagers can bathe. The men do so in the open, wearing their longyis for modesty.

Cooking takes place on open fires burning whatever scrap wood they can find, or using charcoal purchased at the market.

Water for cooking and washing must be hauled to the camps in a familiar way.

One group of villagers set up camp outside the north wall of the temple. This provided some shade and enabled them to use the wall for part of their temporary homes. The framework of the huts consist of bamboo poles tied together with bamboo cord. The walls consist of woven bamboo while reed matting covered the floor space (and sometimes the walls as well).

One morning, as I wandered through the makeshift village, I saw a group of women preparing tanaka.

When they saw me eavesdropping, they invited me to enter the area inside the circle of carts to sit on the woven mat. Through gestures, I had them demonstrate how they went about preparing the wood. They wet a special grinding stone then rubbed the pale tanaka stick against it before carefully applying the resulting paste to their faces with the aid of a small mirror.

Laughingly, they offered to apply the makeup to me as well, but I graciously declined. I was well aware that tanaka is worn almost exclusively by women and children. I suspected, by their grins, that they wanted to pull a trick on the strange visitor.

One of the women called for snacks and a girl brought out a bowel of some type of crisp bean cracker. A few moments later another of the girls brought a small basket of peanuts. While I did my best to pantomime conversation with everyone there, the girls cracked the nuts, blew off the skins and handed them to me a few at a time.

By the time they had completed their preparations, most of the kids had joined in and a few of the men drifted by to see what was happening. Outside the cart circle, neighbors had also peeked in. Before I left I took a group photo. Looking at the two lovely girls in the center, I'm struck by how they think that tanaka makes them more appealing. A western mind-set can be be both a foundation and a wall.

That afternoon, I went back to pay a visit to the family. I wanted to return that morning's hospitality with gifts of my own. I had brought with me some pink nail color and lip gloss for just this purpose. I knew such items would be a total luxury item for them and presented my gifts with no ceremony. My offerings were met with astonished delight. It took me a few moments, however, to convince them I was giving them the cosmetics, not just letting them have a look. I realized soon after that they thought I was giving the gifts to each specific person as a few of them looked rather disappointed. I did my best to make it clear that the cosmetics were for all of them to share.

I also brought along some bars of scented soap. I'd planned to use them myself, but knew they'd be a big hit. Besides, I didn't want to make the men feel left out. The senior-most male had a good sniff of the soap and proclaimed his approval.

As the girls tried the nail color and lip gloss, I struggled for some way to get the communication lines open. I figured the one thing that would work was music. I experimented with a couple of tunes, hoping that my lack of musical ability would be overlooked. Each song was met with polite smiles. One of the older women tried to convince some of the kids to sing, but everyone was overcome by shyness.

I stayed a bit longer, politely nibbling on the proffered bean crackers before begging my leave.

It only occurred to me later that I should have hired one of the numerous English speakers in the town to act as informal interpreter for me. Next time.

See the full size images here.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Ananda Festival Morning

Five days of celebration around the Ananda Temple culminates on the morning of the full moon. The villagers leave their encampments bearing gift baskets for the monks. These are arranged on a great table in the South Eastern courtyard of the temple to be distributed to the monks after sunrise.

The offerings range from a humble bowel of rice or peanuts in a woven basket to complete care packages in monk's begging bowel with snacks, soap and toothpaste or maybe an elaborately contrived money trees using the colorful local currency.

In the North Eastern temple courtyard, the monks have gathered. Many of them had spent the night inside or huddled together for warmth beneath the trees. By sunrise, most of them had already paid their respects to the Buddhas inside and were waiting patiently for the ceremony.

Around 7am, senior monks from the temple started organizing the few hundred monks who had gathered in the courtyard. Everyone left their resting places and took care of that most important duty: wrapping themselves in their robes properly. This included winding an edge of the fabric into a tight coil and folding everything properly. The old men were most meticulous in their robes while the young boys were as young boys are. I often saw their masters instructing them on how to rearrange their robes.

The monks started to form a single line, but it was soon divided into two lines. It was not clear how it was organized, but it's safe to assume that individual monasteries stayed together. Plastic instruction cards were handed out to all the monks.

They were jammed together really tight. I don't know if was eagerness to receive their alms or an attempt to help combat the morning chill.

The monks tended to cluster in groups of their own age.

However, the most interesting photos were the young monks squeezed between their older brothers.

The line-up of monks was an amazing opportunity for interesting photographs. While the older monks remained serene throughout, the young monks were quite curious over the attention and fascinated by the foreign photographers happily snapping away.

Of course the long wait also meant that plenty of them got bored.

The rising sun was most cooperative with a clear bright sky and the perfect "golden hour" light.

With such terrific photographic conditions, I'm always amazed at how few tourists attend the event. In 2009 there were perhaps a score of photographers dashing about. Many were from Myanmar, but the majority were from Europe. I watched one particular professional spend the entire morning focused on a small group of monks off to one side. He seemed to be focusing on small details. A Japanese photographer earned my admiration by having a group of young monks stand around him for a photo. While I could not bring myself to steal his excellent idea, I did manage to grab a unique photo myself!

You would think this was a very solemn occasion, but it's really a celebration. While the older men waited patiently, the young monks were happy to fool around and enjoy the morning as best they could.

After a couple of hours, most of the monks had made their way from the North courtyard to the South. In single file, they received their basket from one of the numerous lay people distributing the gifts.

As they walked past the table, some people were providing additional offerings to the monks by stacking a few more items on top of their load. Some received so many additional items, the stack was threatening to topple over.

Once the monks had passed through, they were on their own to enjoy their gift basket. Most were happily munching on peanuts, bananas and oranges or examining the non-perishable items in their collection.

Many of the villagers were interacting with the monks, most likely family members. Eventually, people started wandering back to the market, making their way to their encampment or paying their respects to the temple Buddhas. While the market would remain for a few more days, many of the villagers packed up their ox carts and headed home that morning.

See lots more photos here!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Ananda Temple

A jewel among dusty pebbles, the Ananda temple rises above the plain of Bagan. Its white wedding cake terraces are crowned by a golden spire rising fifty meters above the surrounding land.

The nine hundred year old temple is a square with gates facing the cardinal points of the compass. Long whitewashed corridors with ornately carved porticos and gigantic teak doors lead to the center.

Facing each entrance stands a twelve meter tall gilded Buddha figure. Each figure is different, representing the four enlightened ones. Two of the great teak statues are originals; I was unable to find out what happened to the other two, but their modern replacements look every bit as authentic as their ancient brethren. Individuals and groups of villagers gather at their feet to seek enlightenment and provide offerings.

A corridor running around the interior houses numerous other Buddha figures in gilt niches.

Even the Indian- style spire has niches with Buddha images. Everywhere you look, Buddhas.

I spent three days between the market and the temple, watching barefoot worshipers and tourists come and go, and admiring the historic architecture.

Hundreds of monks arrived for the Ananda festival. They took turns leading followers in prayer and chanting into a public address system. this required some organization, of course.

One of the things that struck me about the design of two of the statues was the shape of the mouth. It is very peculiar looking. I remember seeing a small Buddha statue as a child and wondered why it looked so odd. Now I know. It's a sort of optical illusion that only works for extra-large statues. Imagine walking into the chamber and seeing the Buddha from the corridor. Note the serene smile as he looks down at the people sitting before him.

As you walk closer and sit at his feet, he has a remarkably different look. The smile become a look of contemplation. Very clever.

See plenty more photos in my new Smugmug gallery!