Oo Tha Ma was only 54 when he had a stroke last summer. By December he was ailing badly and in a Yangon hospital a brain tumour was diagnosed. There was nothing for it but him, by now unaware of anything going on around him, to be taken back to his monastery in a village outside Paungde, south of Pyay, and to die.Which he did a couple of weeks ago.
Oo Tha Ma was my friend Ashin’s teacher when he was a novice monk and they left their home town together twenty years ago to move to Paungde.
Oo Tha Ma eventually became the abbot in the village of Ne O. It fell to Ashin to oversee his care during these final months and to organise and lead much of his funeral. He invited me to attend so I took the train out of Yangon and travelled seven hours north for the weekend.
When a monk dies, if you believe this kind of thing, he does not pass immediately to the next life but hangs around in a saffron-limbo for a hundred years or so and a monk’s funeral, particularly that of an abbot, is a significant and drawn-out affair.
When I arrived at the monastery Oo Tha Ma’s body had been lying at rest for a week already in a glass coffin-case on a heavily decorated four-poster bed on the ground floor.
We went straight upstairs where a hundred or so villagers were hanging around chatting and drinking tea. I was offered a meal, the first of many I would enjoy here, and took a seat on the floor in the kitchen at a small table on which a plate of rice and a couple of curries were already laid out for me. I’d not taken more than a few spoonfuls before a small crowd of twenty or so younger villagers were siting around me watching me, initially – but not for long – in silence.
An older woman passing the kitchen shouted, “Leave him alone, he’s eating” and a young man replied, “We only get to see a foreigner every ten or twenty years here, don’t think we’re not going to have a good look at him”. I was well off the tourist-beaten-track and would remain an object of some fascination throughout the weekend.
After dinner we went downstairs for a look at Oo Tha Ma in his glass box. On each side was written his name, age and the number of years – 34 – that he had been a monk. One of the kitchen women made a sign to me that made it clear she thought he was starting to whiff a bit. He was.
Forty or so people slept on the monastery floor that first night, burping and farting themselves to sleep.
The next morning I looked out to see the monastery garden, and beyond the village of Ne O, shrouded in a heavy mist and set out for a look around. I bumped into Ashin with my shoes in my hand, a giveaway that I was planning on heading outside, and he immediately dropped into the standard Myanmar mode of concern and responsibility for a guest’s welfare and safety.
What could he be worried about? “Dogs maybe”.
Ne O is a very rural place, sizeable wooden houses surrounded by flat, flat paddy fields stretching to a flat horizon. Most houses had a couple of cows or oxen and a Constable’s hay-wain style two-wheeled cart standing outside. I’d not gone so far before I was invited into someone’s house to meet his wife, kids and grandchildren and to take coffee.
Then we went for a look at his fields, took a fifteen-minute motorbike ride out to the local pagoda and retired to the edge-of-village sky-beer bar. Sky beer is made from the fruit of palm trees on a daily basis and gets stronger as the day goes on. It was not even 10am when I tried this local brew so it was not too strong and – unlike some that I tried in Hpa An – was very palatable.
I was just finishing my first bottle when a motorcycle came by with Ashin on the back. He’d come looking for me and I was caught in the act, his real concerns about what I might get up to in the village realised. Word spread fast about my early morning drinking session and almost everyone I met all weekend made a thumb-to-the-mouth drinking sign reference to it. I think it gave me a certain credibility with the local men, perhaps less so with their wives.
In the monastery garden a whole pig was being cut up and cooked alongside huge vats of rice. Donations towards the costs of the funeral (about $3000 in all, the pig cost $250) were being collected and recorded. Each farmer gives according to his acreage; I gave about $25, as if I had 17 acres.
The first formal funeral ceremony took place after a curry lunch of the fattiest bits of the pig which was enjoyed by maybe 400 people, villagers mostly outside, other guests upstairs in the monastery. I dined with a man whose parents had been Oo Tha Ma’s most important donors from his time as a novice and during his life as a monk earning him the privilege of carrying a gold umbrella.
Everyone gathered in the downstairs hall for a service, complete with on-cue crying and wailing from the women present. Oo Tha Ma, still in his glass box, was then lifted onto the shoulders of monks and then villagers and carried outside to a stage on which a well-tinsled cradle had been prepared. For the next twenty-four hours the body would remain their swinging and being swung.
By now the band had arrived and unloaded their old truck, building their stage from the wooden boxes that contained their instruments. This full size Myanmar orchestra with traditional and modern instruments had been set up behind the stage and the show had begun. For 14 more hours that day the band would play, sometimes alone, at other times accompanying the dance and theatre troupe who would act out traditional stories of life and death and mourning. I’ve heard these orchestras before and they can be a caterwauling pain-in-the-ear but this one was good (it was a$1000 dollar gig) and very enjoyable. I think my friend Sophie would have had a whale of a time playing with them.
It’s another tradition that loud explosions accompany a funeral and throughout my stay, from the first night until the last, there would regularly arise a series of bangs generated by men putting a small amount of petrol into a long, strong bamboo and lighting the vapour with a taper. A neat trick.
After the ceremony we retired to the monastery for tea and cake and a rest, the band still playing away, before another huge meal and an evening of entertainment and conversation. Apart from Ashin, who was too busy to be spending too much time with me, no-one spoke any English and my Burmese came on in leaps. Everyone wanted to talk to me, to know if I had a wife or kids or cows. Many people wanted to have their photograph taken; an official crew was filming the event but only Ashin and I had cameras of our own it seemed.
There was little time for sleep that night what with the band finishing at 3am and the tape-recorded monk-chanting belting out across the village from 4am.
The next morning I took up an invitation to visit a villager’s house for breakfast of Mohinga, the totally traditional fish broth Myanmar day-starter, but declined the offer to return to the sky-beer shop, that having got me into enough trouble already. Back at the monastery there were even more people gathering, many more visitors having arrived. Some from very far afield.
The monk-count had gone up dramatically
All weekend there had been more of a party atmosphere than you might expect at such an event but it was no surprise that, as there were about a thousand potential customers there by now, the ice-cream, egg, corn, betel, balloon, orange and other hawkers were there in some number.
Three small kids asked if I had a present for them so I offered them an ice-cream. In the time it took to by three, five more kids had spotted the opportunity to my cost. But then eight lollies for 30 pence is hardly a bank-breaker.
After another big lunch, this time curries of fish and the meaty parts of the pig (I got the sense that we were eating it from the outside in), multi-coloured commemorative plastic fans were handed around and the second ceremony got underway, MC’d again by Ashin.
There were recitals and prayers with many women and children sitting on the dusty garden floor spread with mats while many fewer men sat on a raised platform off to one side or stood around the edges of the garden (of which more in a post to come).
Just half a dozen monks – all like Ashin, apart form a local big-no-wig, former students of Oo Tha Ma and from the same town, sat on the stage in front of the now stilled coffin-cradle. The rest held well back from joining the crowd.
As the ceremony ended there was more turn-on-the-tears-tap crying as Oo Tha Ma was lifted again onto shoulders and hurried out to the field where a pyre, complete with a so-as-not-to-be-hit-by-bird-shit canopy – was waiting ready for him. Very quickly, without further ceremony, the body was placed on a grille above a pit full of long-and-hot-burning wood from a particular type of tree, garlanded with flowers and set alight, the searing heat soon out-doing even the burning afternoon sun. Later a wide range of items that Oo Tha Ma might find useful en-route to his next life, including a lot of medicines, were added to the fire.
A few hundred people had followed Oo Tha Ma out to the field and for just a few moments the party atmosphere fell away and some sense of what was actually going on seemed to hit home. Until then I had only come across a single moment of real sorrow. Oo Tha Ma’s sister had seemed subdued but his brother, also a monk, was all smiles and having a whale of a time. It was one of the young monastery-working girls who I found sitting on the stairs, looking out to where the fire would be made of her friend, who had true tears on her cheeks.
I thought it appropriate to take a moment myself to spare a thought for Oo Tha Ma and how it was his untimely death that had given me an opportunity to be at an event that I felt honoured and privileged to have attended but my moment was quickly interrupted by the umpteenth kid of the weekend telling me how he was Manchester-crazy and just how much he thinks of Wayne Rooney.
Then two guys appeared with a load of old bicycle tyres slung on a bamboo pole they shoulder-carried between them. To me at least there seemed a little lack of dignity involved in throwing old rubber onto a venerable monk’s pyre, but a body-burning is no simple business to get right I’m told and good fuel needs to be used as it is found.
As the filthy black smoke from the tyres filled the air with foul fumes I turned and walked back to monastery. Most everyone was gone, the stage was being dismantled, the band were loading up their lovely truck.
There was just time for a few goodbyes and Oo Tha Ma’s goodbye party was over.
And that’s almost how it all happened.
Except that about 2am on the first night I was woken by Ashin being woken by one of the villagers. A decision had been made that Oo Tha Ma’s body was smelling too much and that something needed to be done about it. The half-dozen monks amongst us roused themselves and donned their ooh-it’s-a-bit-chilly, head-covered robe combination which I always think gives them the look of jihadis (which I guess they kind of are) and headed downstairs. They told me that there was ‘nothing to see, go back to sleep’ but I gave them a few minutes and then went to sit on the stairs where I could see why they were up to without being seen.
The plan was to remove the body from the glass box and replace it with a body-double that they made from a bamboo mat wrapped in monk’s robes. After a couple of unconvincing attempts it looked a pretty good substitute. A pity then that they had not measured the mat against the box; it was too long, would not fit and they had to start again and cut it down to size.
When the coffin was opened by the monks, by now having added surgical masks and latex gloves to their get-up, the extent to which a week in a glass box in dry heat can accelerate decomposition became clear and the monastery filled with the stench of death.
Rolled up in plastic and wrapped again in saffron Oo Tha Ma was taken out to the rice field and placed, this time in a gold wrapping-papered coffin-box, on the pyre where two days later he would be burned. Throughout the weekend the funeral proceedings proceeded with a bamboo mat, rather than a dead monk as the focus of attention. All went well, no-one seemed to notice the lack of smell. But out in the field when the body-double and body were in the same place at the same time there was nothing for it but to quickly throw the one on top of the other as the fire was lit and hope no-one would notice.
Somewhere in that there is surely a funny story looking for a decent writer.
Carry on Reincarnating?