Prayers for the deceased
on Pleasant Island, Mrauk U, Myanmar (Burma)

by SPNH-founding member Jens Parkitny

When arriving in Yangon on April 13, the first thing I received was a splash of water. Happy New Buddhist year! The second thing I did after drying my shirt was to ask my local friends to help me organise a Buddhist ceremony to pray and honour those who left this plane of reality recently: My father, Günter Johannes, my friend Wolf-Dieter and SPNH member Jamie D. Saul, who I had the pleasure to meet in Nagaland not so long ago.

During Thingyan, the Water Festival preceding the Buddhist New Year, everything comes to hold in Myanmar as all people care for is to splash water on each other. With no other focus than that, it did not make much sense to hold a ceremony immediately and therefore we waited until the water frenzy was over, not only in Yangon but also in Mrauk U, a small town in Rhakine State, my final destination.

Mrauk U used to be the capital of the kingdom of Arakan and the impressive black sandstone temples to be found there are reminders of a glorious past. Apart from being one of the most interesting archaeological sites beside Bagan, Mrauk U is the gateway to the fascinating tribal world of Rhakine State.

As a matter of fact, I came to portrait tribal women with traditional facial tattoos for a photo book for which I liked Jamie to write an introduction for on the fairly widespread ancient practise among tribes in South East Asia to tattoo faces.

Since the devil always fools with the best laid plan, here I was, back in Mrauk U for the 4th time, camping on the (small-) hotel construction site of my friend Hla Kyaw, thinking about the dead. It was Tuesday, April 18. Water Festival in Rhakine state ended the day before and workers came back to the small Island in the Mrauk U River, once called "Pleasant Island”, to bring up the sandstone and brick walls of the hotel-to-be.

Among the workers, I spotted three girls in their early twenties – Phu Myo, Shu Mye and Shaw Shaw – carrying brick stones and making cement. After a hard days work in the hot sun, my friend Hla Kyaw asked them if they could come back at night to help preparing meals for the monks who were scheduled to come the next morning to hold the ceremony.

At around 8 o’clock that night, the worker girls came back indeed, neatly dressed, Tanaka paste in their face, to help cleaning and cooking rice, chopping vegetables and stewing the freshly slaughtered chicken in garlic, chillies and potatoes. The cooking for the monks – a ceremony of its own right – continued until 2 am in the morning. When I got the wake up call at 5 am, the monks had already arrived: 5 of them.

I wrapped myself into a longyi, put my father’s favourite black shirt on and headed to the construction site where one of the unfinished hotel rooms had transformed into a prayer site over night. What a scene: stone walls and the sky instead of a roof, wooden window frames but no glass to stop the breeze and hand made sleeping mats on top of the gravel which one day would be covered by the room’s solid floor panels. The monks were seated on 5 chairs which were covered with white linen. It looked so serene.

In front of them, about knees high, a round table full of bowls with steaming rice, meat and vegetables. I was not told before where the ceremony was to be held and if told could not have imagined having it held in a room under construction. But looking at the scene I felt deeply touched and the emotion pierced my heart without warning and my eyes filled with tears. Who am I to have pre-determined thoughts about what the perfect place for a prayer has to look like? The place and the moment in time were perfect. And so were the people around me.

The monks grouped around the table, said a prayer, and started eating with their hands, while Phu Myo, Shu Mye and Shaw Shaw kept bringing in more bowls, kneeling down in front of the monks offering the food with a bow of their heads each. After the meal, the monks moved back to their chairs, and the head monk, a 35 year old man, asked for the name of the deceased. He than started to chant and the other monks fell in with their sing-sang. Though I did not understood a word I felt that the repeating of a certain mantra was meant to clear the passage for the souls to enter into their new forms of existence. I then had to pour water from a glass very, very slowly - drop-by-drop so to speak - into a silver metal bowl while the monks kept saying a prayer in chorus. Since I was kneeling in front of the head-monk in an awkward position it took not long and my legs felt limp. But there was still more than half a glass to go…”Slowly”, my friends kept saying, "pour the water more slowly…”.

At the end of the ceremony the water from the bowl was sprinkled over a very big bowl full of green banana, coconuts and beetle nuts, offerings destined for the altar in the monastery. Each monk received an envelope with money from me and I thanked them for their coming. I received big smiles and one-by-one they stood up, arranged their red robes and walked in one line behind the head monk, holding up high their red fans in front of them. A white Toyota Salon car was waiting for them at the other end of the wooden bridge to bring them back to their spiritual refuge. I stood their watching the scene, crying, as a lot of tension released itself. It was 7 o’ clock in the morning.

That day, no stone was carried or set on the walls; no cement was made on Pleasant Island...