Phongyi – Pyan (Cremation of a Monk)

The incumbent of a Kyaung (monastery) dies the body is embalmed, so as to allow the devotion of several months to the preparations for the funeral. The corpse is swathed like a mummy and laid in a solid dug-out coffin of hard wood. (much less pomp is displayed at the funeral of a sojourner).

Then the coffin is covered with the decorative stately bier called Thanlyin. It is made of velvet and richly embroidered with silver and gold threads. Sequins and coloured semiprecious stones are also used to portray attractive designs and princely figures. Thanlyin inter woven entirely with gold threads was also once been in vogue. Mercury is poured in at the mouth and honey is applied externally. A support for the coffin is made in the form of a naga, with its head raised and portruding fiery tongue to guard its trust. Upon the coffin rests an effigy of the deceased. Beneath the naga is a throne, decorated with gilded and colourful decorations. Sometimes the whole structure is of glass mosaic (thayo), and subsequently forms part of the catafalque. Such elaborate tala are not burned, but brought back to the kyaung, where they are kept, but not used again. Over all this, is a royal canopy of corresponding magnificence, with the tibyu or royal ensign at the four corners. Thus the coffin lies in state in the kyaung, or in a special building, may be during the whole season of the rains, while the kyaungtaga ( the lay patron) is occupied with the preparations for the grand funeral ceremony, which is called phongyi-pyan. The expenses are frequently shared and public contributions flow in. The catafalque is of the same design as the ordinary tala, but of greater dimensions .. fifty to sixty feet high to the ti of the pyatthat. It is solidly constructed and braced and strengthened in every direction. Nowadays, the catafalque is mostly erected on a stout platform on wheels. Long cables proceed from each end of the carriage for drawing it and to enable it to be controlled where the road descends. It is difficult to manoeuvre at the corners of streets and under telegraph wires, even though these wires are raised on special posts where they cross the approaches to cemeteries. The pyatthat often fails to reach its destination in its original perfection; nevertheless it stands out brilliantly in the grand display in which it is frequently preceded and followed by subsidiary pyatthat erected over carriages which bear the largest offerings to the kyaungs. The Myimmo Daung with its denizens is built up on another carriage, others are bright with nats and thagya, immense paper models of boats, ships, and steamers, and similar freaks of the Thadindyut carnival. Life-size models of white elephants, caparisoned with red and tinsel, move in the procession.

Uniform costumes are specially made and scores of young men are drilled for their parts in the cortege. The day is fixed long beforehand, and people throng in from all the neighbouring villages in their finest clothes. The streets are lined with gay booths, pwe (entertainments, such as dance, drama etc.) are staged and bands are play. At noon the great catafalque begins its progress to the cemetery, drawn by the people, preceded and followed by regiments of masqueraders, endless lines of women carrying offerings, and sight-seers. If the idea be to conjure up the greatest possible contrast to the life of the man who is being honoured, the object could not be more completely attained. When the bier has reached the cemetery, the coffin is not set on a pyre like that of the layman, but is burned in the catafalque, for which purpose the latter has been filled with combustibles. The fire is not lighted in the common way; it is kindled from a distance by means of rockets. These are contributed by different villages or wards of the town. Each of them root for the honour of starting the fire with their rocket. In the lowland areas of Myanmar the great rockets are sent through the air, guided by rattans to the catafalque. But it is one thing to reach and another to kindle. The paoe rockets, with the trunks of hard trees, hooped with iron, for barrels, and mounted on stout carriages, are merely aimed at the catafalque. It frequently happens that none of them hits the mark; then the fire is kindled by hand. But the rocket that manages to get the nearest wins the day; great sums of money change hands, and as they return home, some people’s spirits are higher than ever, while everybody else puts the best face upon it. De phongyi-byan kaung-de-it was a glorious phongyi-pyan, and the kyaungtaga will be congratulated upon it as long as he lives.