When an opportunity to see a major cultural event came our way, we jumped at the chance. We were at the right place at the right time, to witness an important rite of passage, the Buddhist Novitiation Ceremony in Myanmar.
The Shinbyu, or Novitiation ceremony, is a coming of age ceremony as in other religions, for boys under 20 years old. The Novitiate ceremony is when boys do their service to Buddhism and are entered into the order of the monks for a week or longer.
The novitiate period is between March and April before the water festival. This ceremony of this size only happens every five to ten years. Over 3000 people from communities all across Kalaw attended this weekend long event for 145 boys entering into the order.
This incredible event turned out to be the highlight of our entire trip to this incredible country.
We had planned a trekking trip from the quaint town of Kalaw, ready to hike up the rolling hills on our way to Inle Lake the following day. We stopped into Sam’s trekking to finalize our booking for the hike. Sam, the owner hesitated, and then firmly responded. “You cannot leave Myanmar without seeing this most important event.” He explained. He went on to share with us the Buddhist celebration happening in the neighboring village.
After that introduction from Sam, it was all too easy to postpone our hike one more day to attend this special event.With two local trekking guides and four other travelers, we made our way by songtaew (covered truck) to the small village of Tongla about 2 hours drive and an additional 30-minute hike from Kalaw.
The Novitiate Programme for the day
1)Blessings in the homes
The festivities of the day started with visiting some of the young boys’ family homes. We paid respect and offered blessings and donations to the father and mother of the household. Novitiation is the obligation of every parent and the most important gift to their sons. It is believed that this deed will prevent the parents from having an evil afterlife in Buddhist tradition.
The boys started getting dressed for the occasion. Earlier in the day their heads are shaven. Then elaborate green, yellow, blue and pink satin costumes with colourful make up of the same colors filled the village. These intricate costumes are symbolic of the look of a royal prince.
2) The Procession
Early on in the day, a procession of the over 20year old monks begins, a ceremony that enters these boys into full monkhood. It starts with a short alms offering of money to the men. These men have now become fully ordained monks, to fulfill more years in the monastery if they so desire.
Next, the procession started toward the monastery. It was a spirited, happy spectacle. As far across the fields as we could see, colourful families paraded to the village joining the long colourful train.
The decorated Pandal or bamboo chairs, were hoisted over the shoulders of the men of the family while the boys were ceremoniously carried above their heads, shaded with gold umbrellas. In larger cities, and depending on stature, boys may be riding horses, oxes or elephants. Here the Pandal was painted to resemble a horse.
To pay respect to the Buddha, the parade circles clockwise around the monastery. Following the boys are the fathers, mothers and sisters are given the duties of carrying the Alms bowl, the monk robes and ceremonial lotus flowers. We saw a beautiful array of the traditional tribes and the finest colourful formal wear, particularly from the Danu and the Pa-O tribe communities.
An enthusiastic group of musicians on chimes, drums and bamboo sticks followed the procession as many joined in with dancing and singing. Wow! What a spectacular event!
3) The Feast
No celebration is complete without a satisfying feast. Hundreds of low round tables set on fine bamboo mats and rugs set the stage for the welcoming traditional feast of soup, curried salted fish, vegetables, rice, fermented green mango and bean sprouts.
4) The Monastery Ceremony
Once the procession was over, the families were brought into the monastery. Boys were stripped down of their colourful costumes and left in their white undergarments. After the senior monks perform alms and prayers, they are transformed, by receiving their maroon robes. The residing monks help them into the robes showing them how they are to be worn.
We felt such gratitude witnessing the Novitiation ceremony, and couldn’t help admire the sense of community and strong Buddhist traditions. Head to Myanmar during March-April and you are very likely to witness at least a portion of this incredible Buddhist tradition.