Kyaukse Elephant Dance Festival

This is the second in a series of Guest Blogs. Each guest will contribute an occasional posting to MYANMORE. We thank them very much for their contributions.

Our second guest blogger is Kate Bowen from England. Kate is an artist currently residing in Yangon, where she has staged a number of successful exhibitions of her paintings.

In mid October 2015 I was lucky enough to be in a joint exhibition with Ko Ko Naing at  Ko Pyay Way’s  Nawaday Tharlar Gallery in Yaw Min Gyi Street. The artist Aung Win came to deliver this great painting of the Elephant Festival in Kyaukse – one of many that he has painted over the years. I was inspired to take a night bus to Mandalay and local bus to the Kyaukse the following week to see this special event.

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The Festival commemorates a beautiful story: It is said that King Anawrahta sent a replica of one of the Buddha’s teeth via a white Elephant who came to stop in the hills above Kyaukse and it was here that the Shwe Tha Lyaung Pagoda was built.

Every year the day before the full moon day of Thadingyut, over two days, the Elephant Donation festival fills the valley with thousands of pilgrims who come to make offerings and watch more than 50 groups of men in elephant costumes compete in front of a panel of judges for different prize categories. These include best children’s elephant, sequined elephant, traditional elephant costumes and of course best performance. Two men or children clad in ornate costumes dance through the streets accompanied by mobile Do Bat and drum set musicians.

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The panel of Judges.

I arrived early morning and the streets were lined with stalls selling everything from elephant masks and toys to street food. Processing groups with elephant figures danced to joyful playing of traditional instruments.

At the top of the town there is a beautiful setting below the Monastery and Shwe Tha Lyaung Pagoda where the competitions, prizes and offerings take place.

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The dancers prance and move with uncanny elephant like movements and with the crowds egging them on they climb up onto a dish and balance whilst being swivelled around to the delight of the audience.

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By the afternoon the dancing men in costumes I imagine were boiling – I certainly was despite sharing my umbrella with a family to shade us from the burning sun. I decided to head up the pilgrims route to the Shwe Tha Lyaung Pagoda. The crowds were amazing, I felt as squashed as I was in the 70’s at a Rolling Stones concert. The people were warm and friendly, a real family event, I felt really touched when women asked if I wanted to hold their babies whilst they took a break to eat at a stall and take selfie photos.

Next year I would like to visit on the full moon day when pilgrims climb the 275 metre hill to the Pagoda with small  paper elephants and after paying their respects they offer their donations.

On my return to Yangon I went again to look at Aung Wins’ Elephants. He has spent a lot of his life in monasteries painting murals and was keen to try a festival painting on a grand scale.  Ko Pyay bought him an 11ft x 30 ft roll of canvas, which set him free to paint long into the nights on the floor of Think Gallery in Nawaday Street this is a glimpse of the result. Aung Win was a pupil of Win Pe (one of my favourite artists) and spent time in his home and studio. He exhibited with him in 1968 at in Monsoon exhibition [see the page from the exhibition catalogue below].

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The image above is taken from a catalogue for Monsoon exhibition in 1968.  Hopefully one day his huge canvas will go into an art gallery/ museum in Myanmar!

 

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