In favor of umbrellas in Myanmar

Why Burmese give umbrellas for favors.

On a hot day in the beginning of the rainy season, temperatures in Myanmar can go up to 37 degrees Celsius (98.6 Fahrenheit). Baking in the midday heat in Mandalay, at the Buddhist University, waiting for the monks to walk to lunch from classes, it feels like I should have brought the umbrella that is in my luggage, back at the hotel.

Umbrellas are everywhere in Myanmar. Monks carry brown ones. On Inle Lake, the tourist boats carry an umbrella for each passenger; it’s not uncommon to pass a boatload of tourists in colorful life vests, clutching umbrellas, pasty white with sunblock lotion.

But visit Myanmar even for a few days, and you notice the little umbrellas, meticulously folded with ribs, symmetrical and small, stuck near a Buddha statue or near a nat, the helpful spirits recruited into Burma’s Theravada Buddhism to convert the animists into the religion in the 12th Century.

Small umbrellas hanging from a flower sill, Yangon.

It’s my third time around in Myanmar, and I notice the umbrellas more than usual. In Yangon, I ask my friend Su Mon about them at Sule Paya. “The umbrellas are offered to ask for shelter from the sun—in life, the sun can be like suffering we experience,” she offers.  

Of course we had to go to a workshop. The paper umbrellas in Myanmar are a popular tourist souvenir. In Pindaya, Ko Zaw takes me to a workshop at the foot of the hill near Shew Oo Min Cave with its thousands of Buddha statues left there by pilgrims. The family works out of a simple concrete building. Scrawled all over the walls are messages from tourists who have been here, a graffiti of well wishes in the languages of the 13,000 tourists, mostly backpackers, who troop into Pindaya every year.

Gluing flower petals to umbrellas, Pindaya.

The woman and her daughter demonstrate how they make paper from mulberry bark. Mulberry trees scatter around the area; they strip the bark off branches and soak it in a pool outside. When the bark is soft enough, they pound it into pulpy bits with a heavy mallet. Then the pulp is soaked again, this time until it clings to a mesh frame inside the pond. Dried on the mesh, the paper forms and is peeled off. The woman shows me how she made designs on the paper with bougainvilla petals; a ubiquitous bush that grows even when uncared for, in Asia.

A boy makes the umbrella frame. He shows me how the spring in the bamboo is also made from bamboo, cleverly cut so it forms a natural, one piece spring to open the umbrella and close it. He wants to give me the cross section of the spring, but I smile and decline, saying, “kye zu ba be,” thank you in Burmese.

Umbrella painting in Bagan.

I watch the two women work in their dim room, surrounded by thin bamboo from Pathein, shavings on the floor, and hundreds of umbrellas formed and semi-formed. The umbrella shade is made of paper, cut to the circumference of the frame. They glue on the paper using natural glues, like resin, and dry it under the sun to stretch the paper over the frame. In some factories, like Bagan’s Schwe Pathein, they use cotton instead of paper. Whether the umbrellas are made of paper or cotton they are painted over with diesel to make them waterproof.

Outside, a rain begins to fall.  I take out my plastic umbrella made in China. The woman turns away, and I imagine her smile fading as she returns her attention to the work of making an umbrella that someone else will buy.

I see the little umbrella at Ku Bauk Gyi. It’s midday, and the concrete stings the soles of my bare feet. In the cool shelter of the pagoda with the jataka paintings, paintings of stories from Buddha’s life, I ask Tin Win about the single golden paper umbrella that some pilgrim has stuck in front of the Buddha.

Small golden umbrella near Buddha at Ku Bauk Gyi.

Nara Pedi Sitthu, a King of Bagan in the 12th Century, had five sons. At the end of his life, the legend goes, he wanted to devote his time to meditation. So he pondered over how to choose an heir; tradition dictated that the eldest son inherits the throne. But Nara Pedi Sitthu did not think his eldest son was suitable to rule the kingdom. “You know what he did?” Tin Win asked me, smiling.

I haphazard a bad guess. “He had the other sons assassinated?” I tried, although I should have just kept quiet. I was at the time on page 39 of Justin Wintle’s portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi “Perfect Hostage,” and was reading last night that kings who rose to power without a bloodline would assassinate entire families of the previous reign, to prevent a contest for the throne.

“No,” Tin Win laughs, “he used democracy.”

He said it so loud. At that time, I thought this was a dirty word in Myanmar. My eyebrows must have gone up in a question, because Tin Win continued his story to explain.

The king thought of a plan to leave the choice of his successor to the gods. He had his sons sit in a circle in the center of which he stood, holding an umbrella. He prayed, then threw the umbrella in the air. It would point to the rightful heir when it fell, as mandated by the gods.

The umbrella pointed to the youngest, who happened to be the one the king himself had wanted to ascend the throne.

The son who became king of Bagan later built a pagoda and named it Htinlo Minlo, meaning “favored by the king and favored by the umbrella.”

“That’s a great story, thank you,” I tell Tin Win.

He smiles showing his perfect white teeth, pleased. “You’re welcome. Now you know why we offer umbrellas to receive favors.”

When I return to Yangon, I walk with Su Mon at Inya Lake near University Avenue. Under umbrellas, although it is not raining nor sunny, young couples giggle and kiss.

Briefly I think how wonderful, how exquisitely wonderful it must be to have your whole world under the 60 or 70 centimeters circumference of an umbrella. Under it, each is favored, where, staring into his or her lover’s eyes, they see themselves mirrored back in unconditionally positive light.

“Let’s go back,” Su Mon says, gesturing for me to keep apace with her. We make our way toward the car, sidestepping the puddles which have begun to reflect the storm clouds forming over Yangon. In an hour, it will rain, but we will be safe and dry in a dinner show this my last night in Myanmar, eating and making comments about the dancer’s beautiful skirt, the special skirt or tamein that has a ‘tail’ that she flips away with her feet.

And I will leave Myanmar again, thinking about the word democracy and favor that comes with random chance.

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