In Bagan’s ‘Pagoda Slaves,’ a Devout and Discriminatory Legacy Lives On

By Nobel Zaw 1 May 2015

BAGAN, Mandalay Division — At dawn, the elderly woman prepares to go to work. Hers has been a lifelong career, but she wishes it wasn’t so.

At the Shwezigon Pagoda in Nyaung-U, the main tourist town for visitors to the temples of Bagan, there are many old women like Khin May, sat around the sacred site to pray—and ask visitors for money.

Khin May looks older than her 67 years, the many wrinkles etched into her face, and clothes faded to a color that would best be described as “dull,” betraying a hardscrabble life.

“I started doing this job when I was a child,” she says. “I started doing this with my grandmother, so I can’t remember when I started.”

Khin May is a so-called paya kyun (“pagoda slave”), a sizeable but shrinking population that inhabits a village of some 100 households near the Shwezigone Pagoda. Some, but not all, of the villagers depend on other people’s generosity to sustain their existence as keepers of the thousands of pagodas that dot the arid plain of Bagan.

At the height of the Pagan Empire, Bagan is said to have boasted up to 10,000 pagodas and temples, most built between the 11th and 13th centuries. Today more than 2,000 remain, as does a surviving contingent of paya kyun, who carry on a tradition born nearly a millennium ago.

Bound by a sense of duty and the deeply held Buddhist belief in karma, generations of paya kyun have served as the custodians of Bagan’s temples. A day’s work includes cleaning the faces of the Buddha statues housed in the shrines, sweeping the floors and setting out foodstuffs and water as offerings to the Buddha. With little compensation for their efforts, many are forced to beg for a living.

“Beggar,” however, is not how they prefer to be viewed.

“We are su taung sar, not thu taung sar,” Khin May says proudly, the latter being the Burmese word for “beggar” and the former meaning a person who prays for someone else and is given alms in return.

“We do this career because it is our tradition and also because we have financial problems.”

The story of Bagan’s paya kyun spans centuries, with popular perception and their societal station having seen ups and downs. Changing local attitudes in recent years and growing opportunities resulting from a tourism boom appear to leave a brighter future for the paya kyun of Bagan, but with the changes could come an end, for better or worse, to the tradition itself.

Whence the Paya Kyun?

Paya kyun first appeared when the elite classes of the Pagan Empire, such as kings, their relatives and other high officials of ancient Burmese kingdoms, built pagodas and also donated paya kyun to maintain the shrines, according to stone inscriptions etched on many of Bagan’s pagodas.

One engraving on the Temple of Four Faces, dated the year 585 in the Burmese calendar or circa 1223 AD in the Roman equivalent, states that the donor’s objective in supplying the shrine with paya kyun was so the servants could “do good deeds in my stead, such as chores, sweeping and serving monks.”

In those days, society did not view paya kyun as inferior to the average layperson. There is even evidence that some donors who built pagodas had then committed themselves to the task of maintaining the structure.

A stone inscription dated 541 (circa 1179 AD) at the Chaut Pagoda east of Bagan town reads: “I, A Bi Nanda Thu, donated myself, my wife, my older daughter, my younger daughter and my mistresses [to serve as servants of the pagoda].”

The well-known historian Than Htun writes in the book “Ancient Burmese History” that the pre-colonial meaning of “slave” in the Burmese language did not carry the negative connotation of its post-colonial and modern iterations. This is borne out by the modern day Burmese words for “I” (kyun-no for a man and kyun-ma for a woman), which closely resemble the word “slave” (kyun) and in the modern Burmese language are meant to convey humility when referencing oneself.

Toe Hla, a retired history professor, tells The Irrawaddy that at the advent of the paya kyun tradition, Burma’s devout Buddhist laypeople saw no shame in being a “slave” to the Buddha, thus the paya kyun’s equal stature in the society of the times.

In those days, paya kyun did not beg, but rather farmed as a means of livelihood, often on land given to them for such a purpose by the same donor who commissioned them to serve as paya kyun.

As wars, invasions and leadership shortcomings brought about the decline of the Pagan Empire, prisoners of war, convicts and other undesirables gradually began to fill the ranks of Bagan’s paya kyun. By the dawn of Burma’s last dynasty, the Konbaung kings who ruled from the mid-18th century to 1885, paya kyun had come to be seen as a societal blight, and many began begging to survive, according to the historian Toe Hla.

Asked whether she remembers a time when her family worked the land to make a living, 72-year-old Mya Thaung demurs.

“When we were young there was no work for us. So we depended for a living on money we got from burying coffins at the cemetery,” says May Thaung, adding that the income was supplemented by what they were able to earn from begging.

Her family lived inside the Tharabha Gate until the 1960s, when the government, seeking to market Bagan as a tourist destination, forced them to move to the village near Shwezigone Pagoda.

It is only in the last two decades or so that wider society’s views on the paya kyun have begun to soften. Discrimination since the colonial period had previously prevented paya kyun from getting jobs, and friendships between an average layperson and a paya kyun were rare and discouraged.

One might assume that generations of such treatment would lead some to leave the pagoda behind and lead a more conventional life, if not in Bagan than elsewhere in Burma. But a long-held belief leads many to remain paya kyun: that to renounce one’s paya kyun heritage is to invite leprosy upon oneself.

While there is no reference to such a fate in the historical record—and no scientific basis for the belief—the fear persists, perhaps fed by the history of the paya kyun village itself. Until the government moved them elsewhere more than 50 years ago, leprosy patients were rife in the village the paya kyun inhabit today, though there are not believed to be any present-day cases.

Min Naung, the 30-year-old president of the Bagan Lovers Association, tells The Irrawaddy of one woman who appears to have clung to the leprosy myth.

“Twenty years ago, I became friends with one woman, very close with her. She was like my aunty,” he says. “She was very rich and owned many gold canes, but she sometimes went to beg, disguising herself so that friends wouldn’t recognize her face.”

Gradually, however, this belief may be losing currency.

“Now I don’t have that kind of superstition and we only beg because we have financial problems. Some of my rich relatives don’t beg anymore,” says Mya Thaung.

There have been efforts to rehabilitate the image of the paya kyun, including a speech in 1948 by the first president of Burma, Sao Shwe Thaike.

“From today, I repeal the orders of ancient kings that designated some people as deserving of beggardom,” he said. “They have the right to choose the work that they like. According to the Constitution of Burma, citizens must have equal rights.”

And in 1955, Social Welfare Minister U Ba Saw led a conference that aimed to liberate the paya kyun and address their widespread poverty through various means, including dispensation of loans and compassion payments, and trainings to provide the skills for alternative means of livelihoods.

But due to bureaucratic red tape and poor management of the programs, the plans were largely ineffective.

“I had the chance to attend that conference,” says Khin May, the Shwezigone Pagoda paya kyun who was a primary school dropout and laments that the outcomes of the conference did little to help her get ahead.

Today, there is perhaps new hope for a turnaround in the lives of Bagan’s paya kyun. With Burma’s opening to the Western world and a surge in foreign tourists, a growing number of jobs in the hotel, construction and restaurant industries are offering a chance at a new life.

It may be too late for 76-year-old Daw Kywe to make the change, but not for her grandchildren. “Now my older grandson works in construction and my younger grandson is attending school,” she tells The Irrawaddy.

“The young people want to work and if you want to dispel the begging and rumors that we are a cursed generation, you need only to create more jobs,” Daw Kywe says.

Yan Naing Tun, a 40-year-old self-employed owner of a car-hire service who was born and lives in Nyaung-U, says the village is no longer home exclusively to paya kyun, with other laypeople buying up property and moving into the neighborhood. It is a sign, he says, of a growing but not yet total tolerance for the once ostracized community of pagoda caretakers.

“They are no longer seriously discriminated against as in the past,” says Yan Naing Tun. “They can get jobs, but the local people still don’t want to marry the paya kyun generation.”