Friday, November 13, 2015

Myanmar's Festival of Lights

A woman lights small oil lamps during Thadingyut at Botahtaung Pagoda in Yangon. 

(Note: Thadingyut was Oct 28. I am posting this now because I was in Myanmar for the holiday and had internet access issues.) 

One of the most popular and beautiful Buddhist holy days in Myanmar is Thadingyut, the Festival of Lights. Myanmar's Buddhists (about 85% of the country is Buddhist) make pilgrimages to pagodas and temples to pray and make merit. 

It is celebrated on the full moon night of the Myanmar month of Thadingyut to mark the end of Vassa, or "rains' retreat," what's called "Buddhist Lent" in the west. Houses and government buildings are lit up with lantern, candles, or electric bulbs. Young people show their respect for elders by formally presenting them with gifts of food or longyi. This festival observes the event when the Buddha came down to the earth after the end of Lent.
People pray amidst a sea of candles and oil lamps at Botahtaung. 

It's also a time when many of Myanmar's Buddhists visit temples in the countryside. I went to a couple of temples outside of Yangon and had to cut the day short because roads were so jammed they were practically impassible. The driver I was working with kept taking progressively more "rustic" shortcuts that were stretches of road so potholed I had to walk ahead of him to guide him around the potholes and gullies. 

We still made better time than the busses on the highways though. The highways were completely gridlocked. (And "highway" in Myanmar doesn't mean the same thing that it does in Thailand or the US. Highways in Myanmar would be two lane country roads in Thailand. They're paved, in parts, but barely wide enough for two oncoming busses to safely pass each other.) 
A woman prays in Botahtaung. 

I had intended to visit Kyaik Khauk Pagoda, an ancient pagoda on an island in the river about 90 minutes from Yangon. It took us almost three hours to get to the pagoda and when we got there it was a mob scene. People were clamoring to get onto small boats that shuttled back and forth from the mainland to the island. 
People trying to get on a boat to go to Kyaik Khauk Pagoda. 

I photographed the mob scene at the river for about 15 minutes while I considered my options. It took twice as long as I expected it would to get out to the pagoda, the pagoda itself was a swamped with devotees and I was afraid it would take twice as long to get back to Yangon. So I made an executive decision to skip going out to the actual island pagoda and instead returned directly to Yangon. 
People waiting for boats to take them to the island pagoda. 

It turned out to be the right decision. The roads going back to Yangon were every bit as jammed as the roads leaving Yangon and it took us nearly three hours to go back. 
A Buddhist monk meditates at a temple in Thanlynn, a town in the Myanmar beyond Yangon. I stopped there for a few minutes on the way back to Yangon. 

I wanted to be in Yangon in time for the twilight lighting of the oil lamps and candles, and twilight comes early in Myanmar, it's dark in Yangon by 5.30PM. We got back to Yangon about 4.45PM, just in time to get to Botahtaung Pagoda for their celebrations of Thadingyut. 
The Festival of Lights at Botahtaung Pagoda.

There are more photos of Thadingyut in my archive or available from ZUMA Press
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