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Kyaukse Celebrates Elephant Dance Festival, Despite Bomb Concerns

Zarni Mann The Irrawaddy

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KYAUKSE, Mandalay Division — As communities across Burma marked the end of Buddhist Lent on Friday, inhabitants of Kyaukse town in Mandalay Division celebrate the event by holding the centuries-old Elephant Dance Festival.

About two dozen life-size elephants, made by townspeople from a bamboo frame, papier-mâché and fine black satin decorated with intricate, colorful embroidery, compete for the prize of best elephant dance and nicest-decorated elephant.

Buddhist Lent is celebrated at full moon day at the end of the rainy season, ending a period of contemplation and meditation for the monks. In Kyaukse, the festival is tied to a local legend that goes back to the 6th century when Burmese King Anawratha wanted to enshrine a tooth relic said to belong to the Buddha.

The king decided to let his royal elephants choose the most auspicious location for the relic. When the pachyderms stopped near two mountains, named Thar Lyaung and Kha Yway, the monarch ordered the construction of pagodas on each summit and enshrined the relic at Shwe Thar Lyaung Pagoda. To honor the royal elephants a festival is held every year at the foot of Thar Lyaung Mountain.

On Friday, the festival drew hundreds of revelers and pilgrims, and the site was bustling while the sound of loud drum playing filled the air. Because of the recent spate of bomb blasts across Burma, security was tight at the town, located some 40 kilometer (25 miles) south of Mandalay.

Resident Min Aung said townspeople were worried about the incidents, adding that his family decided to attend regardless as the festival held spiritual significance for local communities.

“We were told not to go to the festival for there were bomb blasts in many towns and people are worried about their safety,” he said. “However, this does not frighten us. We’ve celebrated this festival every year no matter what difficulties we are facing. We believe that if we do not pay homage, crops production and the economy of the region will suffer that year.”

The tradition of creating elephant costumes for the Elephant Dance competition was started in the early 20th century in the town and has grown very popular with local families.

Two men inside the elephant costumes dance wildly while a number of drummers and other musicians play songs. A jury of town elders judges the competition. The event, in which 26 elephants participated this year, comprises three categories: traditional costume style, elaborate decoration and youth participants.

U Po, a jury member, said the competition was becoming increasingly popular with local families. “Every year, the competition groups increase. This year, there are 25 elephant dance troops while there were only 10 to 12 troops in the last few years,” he said.

On Saturday, the local community will walk up the pagoda mountain to hold a Buddhist ceremony at the tooth relic temple.

The festival has also grown in popularity among the growing number of foreign tourists visiting Burma. Judg Jougg, a Frenchman, said he was such an admirer of the traditional festival that he was visiting it for the third year in a row.

“This is the third time I came to the Elephant Festival. It is so fascinating,” he said. “I have concerns for our security, but I just love to see this next year too. I believe this tradition will be maintained and I want to tell Burmese people to conserve this tradition and to love the tradition.”