The Myanmar Fans

By Htin Gyi

Myanmar Perspectives

Vol: VI 1/2001

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    Although a fan is not included in the prescribed articles of donation for use of Buddhist monks, it is a necessity in a tropical country like Myanmar. It is therefore always added to the list of articles donated to the monks during the Buddhist religious activities.

    It helps to shade the bare-shaped head of the monk who goes barefooted when he goes around village or town under the hot morning sun to accept offerings of food. It also protect him if there is a drizzle.

    The fan made for monks are large and are usually made of palm leaves. Nowadays they are covered with velvet fabric have the donor's names printed on it.

    When the monk preach sermons they generally screen their faces with fans, close their eyes and concentrate on their sermons. This traditional method of giving is called "Yet-htaung taya" (preaching with the fan put right in front of the preaching monk). But there are times when the monks do not screen their faces and preach sermons face to face with the audience in sonorous voice. This style of preaching is called "Yat-hle".

    Included in the paraphernalia of the Myanmar royalty was a fan called "Daung-taung yat", made of peacock tail feathers with a long handle. Palace pages gently fanned the royals with this fan during hot seasons.

    When the British conquered Myanmar and ruled the country, they introduced ceiling fans which they brought from India. It was a large fan made of cloth, fastened to a long rod and attached to the ceiling. The rod tied to a rope was swung by an office boy. This contraption having originated in India is called "punkha" (fan) and is pulled by "a punkha wallah."

    Even when electricity became available, though not amply, office rooms crammed in a building had rooms fitted with such "punkhas" connected together with pulleys and ropes, and run by a single big electric motor. Such a network of ceiling fans was used in Yangon general Hospital until the outbreak of World War II.

    The proper fan, now in popular use, has small thin slats of bamboo pasted on both sides paper and usually trimmed to form a circular or oval shape. The paper fans were a must in those old days when electric fans were not yet imported. At weddings and religious ceremonies where attendees were crowded and when the atmosphere was very close, these "portable air conditioners" were in great demand. Distributed at the marriage ceremonies they carries the names of the brides and bridegrooms. Those given away at religious ceremonies such as noviatiates, their parents and the date of the ceremony were printed on it.

    With the introduction of electric ceiling fans and air conditioners, the custom of distributing fans on these occasions faded away.

    However, paper fans are still distributed at funerals. The name of the deceased, his or her parents names are printed on one side of the fan and the other side carries extracts from Buddhist teachings.

    The fan also doubles as an invitation card because it invites the members of the cortege to a morning reception where monks are fed in memory of the dead and then the invitees are treated to a breakfast.