At the outset I want you to know that for a proper understanding of this article it is important to take into account that there is a close relationship between Burma, the Burmese people and elephants and want to briefly explain why this is so. The elephant is the largest land animal (mammal) and in all countries with or without wild elephant population elephants have always been well liked and admired for their massive size, enormous strength, intelligence, cleverness and sheer grandeur. In countries such as India in which Hinduism is a dominant belief and in Asian Buddhist countries such as Burma (since 1989 also called Myanmar) the elephant is also deemed highly auspicious and is worshipped for his spiritual significance.
For those not so familiar with Hinduism and Buddhism to understand why – particularly the white – elephant is sacred and so closely associated with Hindu and Buddhist beliefs it is important to know that, for example, the religious Indian figure that is always depicted with an elephant head is the powerful Hindu god Ganesha (in Burma known as Maha Peinne) one of the globally best-known (because of the elephant head) and most worshipped deities of the Hindu heavenly abode and that the later Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, was according to legend conceived by his mother Queen Maya after a white elephant was presenting her with a lotus flower the common symbol of wisdom and purity on the eve of giving birth and after she had dreamed that a white elephant had entered her body. And what concerns the Burmese nat worshipper and the nat worshipping part of Burmese Theravada Buddhism there is the powerful guardian spirit of the elephants, Uttay Na, who is worshipped by everyone who has to do with elephants (this includes the people making the elephant figures for the dance competitions) and, last but not least, there are also the nats Ngazishin, Lord of the five white elephant as well as Aungbinle Hsinbyushin, Lord of the white elephant from Aungbinle.
Elephants have in the region that is nowadays Burma/Myanmar always played an important role in more than one way what is, among others, reflected in the fact that the white elephant is an accepted symbol of and omnipresent in Burma. White elephants are e.g. often guarding the entrances to Burmese pagodas and white elephants are also depicted on all Burmese bank notes (Burmese/Myanmar Kyat). Because of the low value of the Kyat coins do not exist otherwise there would certainly be elephants on.
In Burma, the land with the worldwide second largest population of wild Asian elephants (India has the largest) and largest number of captive Asian elephants, the elephant, in general, has been used as working or timber elephant, war elephant and the white elephant, in particular, belonged by law to the king and was used as royal mode of transportation when the king was hunting, travelling, rode into battles or took part in parades or processions; the more white elephants a king possessed the higher was his status and the more powerful he was; the elephant as royal status symbol.
Another example that perfectly demonstrates the importance the possession of white elephants was given is the names of Mon and Burmese queens and kings. For instance, the Mon queen Shin Saw Bu had the title ‘Mistress of the White Elephant’, the Burmese Kings Kyawswa I of Pinya claimed the title Ngarsishin (Lord of Five White Elephants, King Kyawswa II of Pinya claimed the title Laysishin (Lord of Four White Elephants) and King Sin Phyu Shin’s name means Lord of the White Elephant.
The latter is of course part of Burma’s history but the former (working and timber elephant) is still very much part of present-day Burma; as is the Kyaukse Elephant Dance in Burmese Kyaukse Shin Ka.
The small town Kyaukse where as the name implies the Kyaukse Elephant Dance is originated from is situated in central Burma 25 miles/40 kilometres south of Mandalay, the capital of the last Burmese kingdom and 20 miles/31 kilometres south-east of the ancient Burmese capitals Sagaing, Ava and Amarapura about halfway between Sintgaing and Suu Lay Kone at the National Highway No. 1 and the railway track connecting Rangoon/Yangon with Mandalay. The ‘town’ Kyaukse is actually one of four townships that make up the Kyaukse district. These 4 townships are Kyaukse Township, Sintgaing Township, Myittha Township and Tada-Oo Township.
When approaching Kyaukse (township) two white elephant statues welcome you and it is no accident that these elephants are standing there. However, the reason for their being placed there is like so many things in Burma’s history hidden behind a thick screen of myth and legend what, by the way, provides ample room for interpretation.
One of the various legends explaining these elephants existence has at its centre the Pagan/Bagan king Anawrahta who reigned from 1044 A.D. to his death in 1077 A.D. His death was as legend has it (another legend) caused by a wild buffalo called Cakkhupala that was actually not a buffalo but a former enemy of Anawrahta who appeared in the form of a buffalo. However, the more probable cause of his death is assassination.
According to the ‘Kyaukse Legend’, Anawrahta has returning from China from where he brought some Buddha relics made camp with his entourage someplace close to what was later to become Kyaukse. The relics – so it is said – were so valuable to him that his intention was to place them in a pagoda build especially for them at a suitable place. The question to be raised at this point in time is why he did not bring them to Pagan and find a place worthy of them there?
The same question is – by the by – to be asked with respect to the history of the – as many people say – ‘5 Buddha images’ (which is not true because they are 1 or 2 Buddha statues and 3 or 4 disciples) now housed in the Phaung-Daw-Oo pagoda at Inlay lake. These Buddha statues were – again as legend has it – left behind hidden in a cave nearby the lake by the Pagan king Alaungsithu (who reigned from 1112 A.D. to 1167 A.D.) when he came back from a journey to the Malayan peninsula. Why did he not bring them to Pagan but hid them in a cave at the Inlay Lake? But now I am off topic.
Back to Kyaukse and the elephants where instead of waiting till his return to Pagan king Anawratha put the relics on his favourite white elephant’s Thanmyinzwa back in order to have the elephant lead him to a place where to build the pagoda for the relics.
As one of several slightly different versions of this legend has it the elephant wasting no time led Anawrahta to a hillside situated east of what is nowadays Kyaukse where he first knelt down at the Tha Lyaung Hill and then continued to the Pyat Khar Shwe Hill where he knelt down the second time. The question was now where to build the pagoda, at the place of the elephant’s first or second and last stop? Anawrahta’s answer to this question was to build a temple at the Kha Yway Hill and a pagoda at the Shwe Tha Lyaung hill. However, this part of the legend is not tally with the reality. There is indeed a temple in Kyaukse – the Tamote Shinpin Shwegugyi Temple – that was originally a one storey structure built by Anawrahta in Pagan style (a second storey was added by the Pagan king Narapatisithu) but this temple is not located at the Kha Yway Hill but some but 8 miles/13 kilometres north of Kyaukse (township) in Tada Oo township not very far from Mandalay International Airport. Also, the distance of 8 miles which is quite a lot sets me thinking. From this inconsistencies follows that there is some confusion regarding the names and locations of the temple or pagoda.
Be that as it may, the Shwe-Tha-Lyaung (the reclining Buddha) pagoda is ever since its completion the venue for the annual Shin-pwe, the Elephant Festival with the elephant dances that takes place in commemoration of the pagoda’s construction and also – although to a much lesser extent – the elephant nat Uttay Na.
The elephant dance festival is celebrated on the day before the full moon of Thadingyut, the Light Festival in October.
Since long real elephants are replaced by artfully crafted artificial elephant figures or costumes. Inside these figures are 2 men performing the elephant’s movements.
The basic elephant comprises two skeletons (one for the body and one for the head) made of bamboo and a skin made of paper mâché and pieces of black or white cotton cloth and textile such as, velvet and satin. The paper mâché parts get after being properly dried a final coating with black or white paint what also serves the purpose of surface protection. Although the white elephant is the royal variety are for practical reasons most of these elephants black.
Once the two pieces that make up the basic elephant are ready they are richly and colourful decorated ‘royal-elephant-style’ with e.g. glass gems, artificial pearls, gold foil, sequin and embroidery. Elephants decorated mainly with sequin (what takes longer to do and is more expensive) are judged in a separate competition.
In order to make the skeleton that gives the body the shape and stability needed fresh green bamboo stripes that have for reasons of higher pliancy been soaked in water are used. Because the hindpart of the body must provide sufficient space for two dancers and their movements its form is bulky, of simple shape, made in open-belly style and has a hole for the head that is worn and operated by the front-dancer. Imitations of the elephant’s legs are textile tubes worn by the dancers ‘trouser style’. The head with tusks is a real piece of art and modelled lifelike of paper mâché. Attached to the head are the ears of cardboard covered with textile and a trunk made of bamboo rings sewn into a textile tube. As a finishing touch the name of the elephant dance team is put on the sides of the elephant’s body. This is done either by painting it directly on the elephant figure’s surface (skin) or by way of e.g. attaching an embroidered piece of fabric.
Making these 2-piece elephant costumes requires a high level of craftsmanship and is done by family businesses in Kyaukse that are specialising in this craft and are famous for their skills all over Burma. They do not only make the elephant figures for the elephant dance and dance competition but also, for example, models and statues by customer specification and all kinds of small and medium sized multi-purpose paper mâché figures such as elephants, Happy Owls’, horses and so on. They can be used for decoration purposes, as children toys, for offerings, can be sold as souvenir to tourists, etc. The knowledge and skills needed for this art and craft are handed down from generation to generation. Each business has their own tricks, which belong to the strictly guarded family secrets.
The schedule and procedure of the building of an elephant figure is taking place based on religious considerations. According to these it is in order to guarantee greatest possible success important to, firstly, choose an auspicious date and day for the beginning of the work. Once this is decided upon it is equally important to make prior to the beginning of the work on the elephant figure flower and candle light offerings and say prayers. Work on the elephant must not start after noon (12:00) because this is believed to be inauspicious. Building an elephant figure can easily take months from start to finish.
Inside the elephant outfit two men are dancing to the often especially composed tunes of dobat and bon shay (long drums). This is no easy task as to gain and maintain the necessary synchronisation and elegance of movements to perform the different occasionally downright artistic figures of the elephant dance well requires precise timing and rhythm of the two dancers. What concerns the dancing part the dancer in the back plays the main role whereas the movements of the head are performed by the front dancer. The dancers practise up to one year (with the old elephant costume) to perform the physically very demanding traditional Burmese elephant dance steps and movements perfectly because much is at stake in terms of fame, glory, popularity and money.
Competitions are held in four disciplines, which are ‘Traditional elephant dancing competition’, ‘Child elephant dancing competition’ (under ten), ‘Best traditional elephant figure’ and ‘Best sequin elephant figure’.
The money prizes awarded to the victors and 2 runners-up in the respective discipline are ranging at the time of this writing between Burmese Kyat 200.000 (app. US Dollar 200) to Burmese Kyat 1.000.000 (app. US Dollar 1.000). This is for the people of Kyaukse and the Kyaukse district who in their majority do not always find it easy to make ends meet a lot of very welcome money; a windfall, as it were. But this is not all. The victorious teams will during the year of their victories be invited to other events and get the opportunities to show off their skills and bask in the glory of being champions. Their first show after the victory will be to dance the next day – the full moon day – at the pagoda on the hill’s top what is a great honour. And, last but not least, they will go down in the ‘Kyaukse Elephant Dance’ history.
The ‘Kyaukse Elephant Dance Competitions’ begin in the early morning of the day before the Full Moon Day of Thadingyut on the market place of Kyaukse situated at the foot of the Shwe Tha Lyaung hill, which the ‘elephants’ have to surround three times. This for two reasons; firstly, to equal the ‘Three Jewels’ in Theravada Buddhism; the Buddha (The Enlightened), the Dharma (Buddha’s teachings) and the Sangha (Buddhist monk community) and, secondly, in order to give the jury and the spectators sufficient opportunity to closely inspect the elephant figures and make photos if they so wish; e.g. family members of the contestants, tourists and journalists certainly do.
There are usually more than 50 teams from different towns and villages that are competing for the championship title. Virtually all of these teams have very beautiful elephant figures that easily survive the dance competitions undamaged and dancers who are performing their dances perfectly so that it must be really difficult for the judges of the juries that are made up of pagoda trustees, Kyaukse town and township officials as well as other dignitaries to decide on who are the winners, who are the runner-up and who does not even make it into the group of the ‘Top-Three’.
Main criteria for the performance appraisal are e.g. general appearance, quality of the elephant figures in terms of craftsmanship, quality of the decoration, quality of the dance performance, the quality of the music and singing that accompanies the dance performance and the quality of the teamwork (dancers, ‘mahout’, musicians and singer).
For those teams that do not make it into the top groups the disappointment is certainly deep; after all the sweat shed during numerous exhausting training hours and the lots of money spent for the elephant outfit. But there are next year’s competitions to look forward to; this year it did not work out well but next year it surely will.
The festive award ceremonies take place in the evening and all participants and spectators go home to prepare for the next day when the pagoda festival takes place.
Before continuing with the following, the full moon day I would like to draw your attention to the many elephant dance teams that are not taking part in the competitions but do instead – led by their ‘mahout’ – dance from house to house and shop to shop in the town to entertain the people and ask for donations. Well, actually it is the ‘elephant’ that is asking and not the dancers what as you can imagine has a very positive effect on the peoples readiness to donate. Not to mention these elephant dance teams would be grossly unjust because they are integral part of the festival and are much liked by the people of Kyaukse and visitors from other places. I like to say that when the ‘professionals’ who are taking place in the traditional elephant dance competitions are ‘playing opera’ the ‘amateurs’ who are dancing through the streets much to the delight of the people are ‘playing musical’. One of my favourite pieces is ‘The Drunken Elephant’. For these elephant dance teams it is more about fun, enjoying the peoples’ being happy with their performance and the (sometimes not so) small money they get from them in exchange for the pleasure they are giving.
The next morning at ‘Full Moon Day’ the winner teams of the elephant dance competitions and literally thousands of devotees are setting off to circumambulate the pagoda clockwise three times, make their offerings comprising food, water, incense sticks, candles, small white paper umbrellas and small paper mâché elephants and watch the elephant dance performances.
Donations are also made at the nat house of Uttay Na, the guardian patron of the elephants.
One final remark; elephant dances are performed throughout the country and occasionally both elephant and dancers are great but none of these matches the grandeur of what is shown on the occasion of the Kyaukse Shin Ka Pwe (Kyaukse Elephant Dance Festival). If you happen to be in Mandalay about this time you must not miss this unique and most entertaining event. I suggest you spend one night in Kyaukse. Please book your room early enough. It will be one of the trips you will never forget; 100% guaranteed.