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Twante rocks to Shan drum beat

By Nyein Ei Ei Htwe
(Volume 26, No. 522)

A Shan dancing group performs at Shwesandaw Pagoda in Twante township on April 17. Pic: Aung Tun Win

THE beat of the Shan traditional drums mixes with the noise of the crowd of people that have gathered at Shwesandaw Pagoda, in Yangon Division’s Twante township, since the early hours of the morning.

Young or old, they wear eye-catching Shan traditional outfits and despite travelling from their villages in bullock carts, on bicycles or by foot they still look fresh and happy.

A group of drummers is circling the crowd performing a beat dedicated to the sand stupa – a pagoda made from sand decorated with flowers and glittering paper. This traditional festival is celebrated on April 17 – Myanmar New Year’s Day – every year. This year is the 445th time it has been marked, says U Kyaw Myint, vice president of the pagoda’s board of trustees.

“In the past they built the sand pagoda throughout the whole day and then in the evening celebrated the pagoda festival. But, for the past 15 years, we have held both the festival and pagoda building starting from 6am because the old people can’t stand the hot sun,” U Kyaw Myint says.

The sand stupa building team is organised by four villages – Shan Su Gyi, Naung Tagar, Nga Khone Ma Sann and Muu La Man – of Twante township that are primarily made up of Shan people.

The four villages each have to take responsibility for one part of making the sand stupa on an annual rotating basis. One group has to build the hti, or umbrella that sits atop the stupa; another, the bell or central structure; another group builds the foundation; and the remaining village group builds the lattice fence. The sand stupa is built to a height of 15 feet and four inches (4.65 metres).

“This year, my village had to donate the umbrella so we need to honour the pagoda with Shan traditional dancing first. As all villagers want to participate in our traditional dancing and drum group, there are more than 50 members,” says U Aung Mae, the leader of the dancing group.

Next year, their village will take over responsibility for building the lattice fence, he said.

After the festival, Shan Su Gyi village will have to maintain the sand stupa until the onset of the rainy season, which causes it to collapse. The sand is then used to maintain Shwesandaw Pagoda.

“I am so please to participate in this pagoda festival as we can express our Shan tradition. And we can encourage the young people to be more respectful of our traditions as well,” said U Tin Hla, a member of the pagoda’s board of trustees from Shan Su Gyi village.

In the past, the villagers have to carry sand for the pagoda from the river or stream but today there is a rule that each village must donate a truckload of sand, at a cost of K16,000. And they do not accept donations from just one person, because it is important for all people in the village to share the merit, says U Tin Hla.

Later in the day the pagoda compound is crowded with people, both young and old, waiting at the religious hall to hear the preaching of monks.

“Though we played at the water festival, we try to participate in our traditional festival on New Year’s Day. Because it is our Shan custom, which needs to be respected by everyone,” says Hein Zayar Linn, 23, from Shan Su Gyi village.