Thadingyut, the Month of Light Festival

By Dr. Khin Maung Nyunt (Maha Saddhamma Jotika dhaja, Sithu)


THE seventh month of the Myanmar lunar calendar is called Thadingyut which means “the end of Buddhist Lent”. It coincides with October. The period of Myanmar Buddhist Lent which covers the peak of the rainy season, July, August and September, comes to an end in October. Buddhist monks who had taken “Wa” vow (that they will stay in the monastery during the whole rainy season) in the month of Waso (July) are now free from that vow, as the Lent term is over in the month of Thadingyut. The monks are now free to go about and stay out overnight. Thadingyut is a transition period between the rainy season and cold season (winter). Though the monsoon has receded or is receding, remnants of rainclouds still hover in the sky and sometimes with the help of an unexpected storm, heavy showers come down to cause some unusual flood. Crops, especially paddy which the farmers have so laboriously planted and tendered the whole rainy period are growing upright and their ears turning heaven-ward. The countryside is just a green carpet with white paddy birds flying about, looking for fish in the field water.


Tula (Libra) is the astrolog ical name of Thadingyut and its zodiacal sign is a man holding the balance. In the night firmament the asterism “Asawani” and the moon rival in radiance. In this month five different species of the water lily or lotus bloom profusely in natural ponds and lakes. They are the white lotus (Nymphaea alba) the red lotus (Nymphaea Rubra), the blue lotus (Nymphaea Stellata), the Padoma lotus (Nelumbium speciosum) and Poun Na jei Kya (Ixora Arborea). Therefore, the lotus is traditionally regarded as the flower of this month. Lotus especially the white and padoma type is the sacred flower for the Buddhists. It is the symbol of purity as the lotus flower which is perfect in beauty, fragrance and purity stems out of the muddy water.


The archaic name for this month was “Than-to-la”. Early lithic inscriptions o1 Bagan used the name “Than-tu-la” for this month. Scholars give two different interpretations of this name. One is based upon the season. It says that “Than” is derived from the Pali word “wa-than” which means rainy season. Tula (Libra) is the astrological name of this month. So, Than-tu-la means the month ‘Tula’ which belongs to the rainy season. The other is based upon the staple crop - paddy. According to it ‘Than’ means paddy crop. ‘Tu’ means erect or upright, and ‘la’ means the month. So, Than-tu-la means the month during which the paddy plants grow upright. The earliest use of the name ‘Thidingyut’ for this month was found in the stone inscription of Bagan dated Sakarit year 574 (AD 1212) known as Tuyin Taung Saw Rahan Thein Inscription. But the spelling was different and its pronunciation was ‘Tha-tin-chut’ meaning ‘Lent is off.


The traditional festival annually held in this month is religious in origin, character and significance. On the evening of the full moon day of Waso in the Mahasakarit year 109, the Lord Gautama Buddha performed the great miracle at Savatthi. The performance took place near the white mango tree in the roy al park of King Kosala. The miracle was in the form of the emission of water and fire in pairs from the apertures of the Buddha’s head. It was performed to subdue the sectarian opponents. After the performance, the Lord Buddha ascended Tavatimsa the Celestial Kingdom where his mother Queen Maha Maya became Santussita deva. The Lord Buddha wished to return the filial debt of gratitude he owed to his mother by preaching to her his philosophy – Abhidhamma. So, the Lord Buddha observed his seventh Lent in Tavatimsa. There sitting on the brown emerald slab called ‘Pandukambala’ which was the throne of Sakka the king of devas under the shade of the Pinle Kathit or Coral tree (Erythrina indica) the Lord Buddha expounded the seven sections of Abhidham ma to a gathering of devas, and Brahmas, including his mother Santussita deva. The preaching of Abidhamma throughout the Lent came to an end on the full moon day of Thadingyut. So, this day was marked and celebrated by the Buddhists as ‘Abidhamma Day’. The Lord Buddha told Sakka that he would return to the human world. Whereupon Sakka created three stairways — one of gold on the right side for the devas, one of silver on the left side for the Brahmas and one in the middle of rubies for the Lord Buddha to descend upon. Many deities accompanied the Lord Buddha. They held several celestial regalia. Panca Thinkha deva on the right played Veluva harp in praise of the Lord Buddha. Matali deva on the left carried flowers and fragrances to honour the Lord Buddha. Suyama deva carried the yak tail flywhisk, Santussita deva held the ruby studded gold fan and Sakka blew the Vizayuttara Conch Shell to celebrate the occasion. All deities dwelling in the whole of Universe also gathered to pay homage to the Lord Buddha as best they could. The three stairways being illuminated by the lights radiated from the deities led to the gateway of the city of Sankassa on earth. When the Lord Buddha set foot upon the earth, the crowd that awaited at the city gate all paid obeisance to the Lord Buddha, and a grand ceremony was held to welcome and honour him.


To commemorate this great event in the life of the Lord Buddha which took place on the full moon day of Thadingyut the Myanmar people hold Tawedeintha (Tavatimsa = Celestial abode) festival or Myint Mo festival because Tavatimsa is said to be on the summit of Mt. Myint Mo (Mt. Meru). A fantastic replica of Myint Mo has been constructed artistically with the three stairways, and in the evening, lights are lit on it. The event of the descent of the Lord Buddha accompanied by the deities is depicted with the statues and devotees pay reverence to the image of the Buddha in a descending posture on the middle stairway. Offertories are made at the shrines and pagodas and alms are given to the monks. Hymns are sung in praise of the Buddha and his teaching Dhamma. A reception is held where all corners are entertained with fruits, cakes and light refreshments.


Thadingyut light festival was depicted in the mural paintings of the Pagodas at Bagan and other old capitals. One particular fresco which vividly portrays the Tawedeintha Festival of the time is found on the inner wall of Myinkaba Ku Byauk Kyi Pagoda at Bagan. It is the scene of the descent of the Lord Buddha from Tavatimsa to the City of Sankassa. In other paintings are seen earthen oil lamps illuminating religious monuments. Earthen oil lamps called ‘simee gwat’ are small circular flat cups to contain some oil in which cotton wickers are soaked and lighted. Myanmar people still use them.


In the Innwa, Taungoo, and Nyaung Yan Periods of Myanmar history, the Light festival came to be called ‘Simee Myint Mo Pwe’ (Festival of illuminating Mt. Meru by oil lamps). It was organized by the kings. In the courtyard was set up a lofty replica of Mt. Meru made of bamboo and paper and artistically decorated, with three stairways coming down from its summit. The whole structure and the stairways were illuminated by oil lamps. The following is an excerpt from Lawka Byu Har Kyan (Treatise on the Court ceremonies and festivals compiled by Minister Thiri Uzana of the Innwa Period) which recounts the holding of ‘Si-mee Myint Mo Pwe’ by the royal order:


“Beginning on the 8th waxing moon of Thadingyut, the King’s officers constructed replicas of Mt. Myint Mo in the foreground of Hluttaw. The Royal Store issued oil lamps on the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th waning moon nights of Thadingyut. Soldiers built four big tents on the left side of Hluttaw foreground, and five big tents on the right side in which entertainments took place.”


On the 14th waxing moon, 1st arid 3rd waning moon nights, Shwezigon, Kutaw Thit, Man Aung Yatana, Shwe Yin Ye, Yan Aung Myin, Maha Myat Muni, Tada U Mingala Zedi, Panya Shwezigon, Tuywin Chey Paya, Sagaing Chan Tha Gyi, Shin Hpyu Shin Hla, Ponnya Zedi, Patamya Zedi and Yaza Mani Cula pagodas were illuminated. King’s men and equestrian soldiers were given for each pagoda 100 oil lamps, 100 cotton wickers and 3 visses of oil to illuminate.” Later Myanmar kings also held Thadingyut light festival annually. Even though his kingdom was beset with political disasters, King Thibaw (AD 1878-85) the last Myanmar king did not neglect his duty of holding monthly festivals according to the Court traditions. Konbaung Set Maha Yaza Wun Taw Gyi Vol.3 (The Great Royal Chronicle of Konbaung Dynasty) mentions the following account of the light festival held by King Thibaw in AD 1883:


“In accordance with the tradition of holding ‘Simee Myint Mo’ festival and royal ceremony in the month of Thadingyut, preparations were made, such as the construction of East Myint Mo and puppet stage north of Hluttaw, West Myint Mo and puppet stage in front of the Western Samok Saung Taw, four Tazaung Buildings and puppet stage at four Royal Yards, temporary palace on the right side of Myay Nantaw and East Maze, Myint Mo and Maze on both sides of Western Somok Saung Taw, mechanically operated Parsee Theatre in front of the Southern Royal Theatre Hall, a puppet stage on the wheel in front of it, puppet stages at 16 pagodas, one life elephant fully caparisoned, four gold elephant dummies and one red elephant dummy to be made by the officers in charge of the workshops. Officers in charge of royal elephant stables were to keep in readiness the white and the red elephants and their attendants. Officers in charge of royal steeds were to keep in readiness the State Coaches. Officers in charge of the royal flotilla were to keep in readiness royal rafts, boats, ships and sampans. Officers in charge of the royal granary (were to keep themselves in readiness for distributing paddy ration to the monasteries). Chinese, Indian, Siamese, and Linzin (Laotian) Officers in charge of illumination, set up rows of lights of different colours at 16 pagodas, rows of coloured glass lanterns with candles along the road between the Palace and Maha Muni Shrine. Foreign-made festoons and paper streamers, and homemade floral umbrellas, floral flags and garlands were issued from the Royal Store to decorate the pagodas, shrines and the streets. Officers in charge of the royal treasury issued money for all expenses of advance preparations. From the 9th to the 14th waxing moon, puppet shows were performed nightly at four Royal Yards.”


“From the 1st to the 3rd waning moon, altogether three successive nights East Myint Mo, West Myint Mo, East Maze, and West Maze were illuminated. In the evening till 4 pm Siamese drama, music and dance, Myanmar drama, music and dance were performed. Somersault, climbing the greasy pole, acrobatics, rope walking, Chinese dragon dance and music were displayed and performed. From 4 pm to 2 am puppet shows were staged every night.”


“All government departments staged their respective theatrical performances every night at 16 pagodas. At 16 places of the Palace, city music was played. Over 50 drums of different sizes and kinds and over 500 dancers, singers, and instrumentalists were employed to perform by turn on the streets. They were awarded each a pusoe, a scarf, a jacket and a nightly fee of kyats 2 in silver. They strolled and performed their talent on the streets between the Palace and the Pagodas and at the stations, they stopped to report for their duty. Officers in charge of royal tea, betel and drinking water, umbrella and sword were assigned to the supervision of illuminating the streets between the Palace and Hluttaw.”


“Their Majesties made rounds at the East and West Mazes. The first marquee has displayed a variety of fruits, at the second, the third and the fourth marquees were displayed cakes, jams, sweets and creams of various kinds. At the Myint Mo marquee cigars with crackers hidden inside, cheroots, pickled tea and betel leaves and nuts were displayed.”


“At the left, Myint Mo and Maze in the first marquee tins of biscuits and bottles of perfume were displayed. In the second marquee were displayed rolls of linen, woollen cloth, velvet, and felt of multi-colours. In the third marquee were displayed paper boxes of identical size design and colour containing each different materials such as cotton scarves, and silk scarves in some, velvet in others, cotton materials in some, silk and embroidered materials in others and so on. At the fourth marquee were displayed similar boxes containing different men’s wears and women’s wears of silk, cotton, foreign-made and home-made, fine quality and poor quality – all mixed up. At the fifth marquee sacks of 1,000 kyats silver, and 1,000 copper coins, all put into the boxes of identical size and appearance. At all the marquees, sweets and refreshments were served to the guests.”


“Their Majesties visited every marquee and every reception centre. The Courtiers and their attendants were invited to take away anything and any amount of those displayed in the marquees. But they must carry them only in one round and carry themselves. Their Majesties were amused to observe the human greed and vanity when everyone tried to take as much as possible from every marquee but was unable to carry the load. Some fell under the weight. Since it was forbidden to abandon the parcels on the way, many laboured hard to carry them on the head, shoulders, and hands. When the parcels were opened in the presence of Their Majesties it was exciting and amusing to find that Ministers and men attendants received feminine clothing and paraphernalia whereas dames and ladies landed on heaps of men’s wears. But some were lucky to get the useful lots. Their Majesties were much amused and happy...”


Outside the capital and in the countryside the light festival of Thadingyut takes the local character. In towns and villages along the rivers, illuminations are made on the water. When darkness falls, people row out into the middle of the stream and light up the little oil lamps, placed them on floats made of banana stems, bamboos or reeds and let the floats adrift in the water. The scene is spectacular. The rising full moon sending out its silvery rays through the foliage of swaying palm, cocoa nut, banana and mango trees create artistic black and white designs on the water surface, while the flickering flames of oil lamps on the floats cast shimmering reflections in the ripples. In places like Shan State, fire balloons are let loose, or in the Pa-O villages locally made fire rockets are shot into the sky. The idea is to pay homage to the Sulamani Pagoda in the Celestial Kingdom in which were enshrined the hair of Prince Siddhattha and the sacred tooth relic of the Lord Gautama Buddha.


Two serious ceremonies of Thadingyut are Pawa rana and Puja. The former is the ceremony performed by the monks. It is held at the end of the Buddhist Lent where a monk has to ask other monks to reprimand him for any sin he may have committed. This ceremony takes place every year on the full moon day of Thadingyut in the ordination hall of the monastery precincts. Before the ceremony takes place, the junior monks sweep the floor, clean the place, and fill the pots with drinking water. They also prepare seats for the monks to sit on. Then the monks led by the most senior monk assemble to perform the ceremony.


The origin of Pava rana dates back to the lifetime of the Lord Buddha. While the Lord Buddha was residing in Jetavana vihara at Savatthi, some monks observed their lent at a village in Kosala. These monks believed that unity and happiness among them could be achieved by not talking to one another because talking could cause arguments and disputes. So, they kept mum throughout the lent period. When Lent was over they visited the Lord Buddha and paid homage to him. The Lord Buddha greeted them, by asking after their health, happiness and unity during Lent. The monks exclaimed how they kept silent so as to gain unity and happiness.


The Lord Buddha objected to their method, saying that keeping mum was like a dumb and that kind of behaviour was disrespectable to the donors and supporters of Sangha. The monk who behaves like a dumb is sinful. The best way to achieve unity and happiness among monks was by means of Pava rana – by inviting the monks to assemble and letting each monk by turn ask other monks to point out if he has been seen, heard or suspected of committing any sin, and if so, letting other monks reprimand the sinful monk. By so doing the sinful monk will be repented and pardoned and the monks will live in harmony, unity and happiness.


The latter ceremony is performed by the laymen. “Puja” means worship or making a devotional offering. According to Buddhism, there are five infinite debts of gratitude, the gratitude owed to the Buddha, the gratitude owed to the Dhamma (his teaching), the gratitude owed to the Sangha (the monks), the gratitude owed to the teachers, the gratitude owed to the parents. It is a religious obligation to worship and make a devotional offering to them. In addition, those who are senior in age, rank, and position, and those who have helped you while you are in difficulty should be respected, worshipped and given due Puja. The full moon day of Thadingyut is an auspicious occasion for Myanmar Buddhists to visit the aged, the seniors, the teachers and true friends to pay them reverence and give them devotional gifts. In return, they receive blessings and loving kindness from them. To the minors, some pocket money may be given by the aged for their enjoyment of the Thadingyut festival. The procedure of Puja is simple. The performer reverently sits in front of the aged or superiors and clasps his or her hands together in the form of a lotus bud and he or she bows three times, asking forgiveness for any offence he or she may have committed physically, verbally, or mentally. The aged or the superiors give him or her pardon and some words of advice on good behaviour, the good way of living as expounded in the Mingala Sutta or the Discourse on the Way to Auspiciousness preached by the Lord Buddha.


The festival of light in Thadingyut is an occasion for rejoicing and merry-making, but in essence, it is an auspicious occasion for spiritual delight and merit-making.