Sunday, July 5, 2009

Burmese Water Festival, Rensselaer, New York.

The Burmese water festival was held in Rensselaer, New York, on the eastern bank of the Hudson across from Albany. I attended, as did countless other folks, some from as far away as Utica, Staten Island and New Jersey. Perhaps equally significant is that other local Burmese were excited enough to offer me an invitation even if they themselves could not attend.

Here's a few photos of the event. Commentary comes from my friend and former WRPI DJ, the Reverend Timothy Lake, Reverend of Asatru and Leader of the Schenectady Pagan Cluster. He's also a former refugee center furniture van volunteer who put in time slogging heavy tables through mud and rain in order to do his best to see that newly arrived refugees had a place to eat their lunch. (Interestingly, the center seems to have lost his address. This was a couple months before they publicly announced a volunteer shortage, by the way.) I found his comments extremely interesting as he approached the entire matter from a completely different angle than I did.

Essentially the invitations I received were to the effect of "Come to the festival!" "It will be fun!" or even one stating that I had to at least make an appearance for a few minutes or peoples feelings would badly hurt. No one actually offered me any rationale for the event aside from stating that it was extremely important

Tim, who was once described in a quote that ran in the Daily Gazette in Schenectady as "a walking encyclopedia of mythology," decided to do a little bit of research and get to the fundamental meaning of the event. So, what I had been told would be a day to "watch people splash each other and be silly while little girls put on a folk dancing show" was actually something of greater meaning.

"The idea of the pool is to have a water purification of all acts done in the previous year and once done your name is entered into a book of deeds in the heavens. The children got very wet. The adults respectfully dribbled themselves with water over the head."
-Timothy Lake

"This man told the story of the Water Festival in Burmese about how the head of Ganesha was moved from one princess to another every year. It is said that the head will boil the waters if cast in the sea, burn the land if laid on the earth and kill all life if placed in the sky. The sharing of the head of the Brahmin Lord with the rulers of the land binds the families of the Brahmin caste to the Hindu Gods."
--Timothy Lake

Dancing girls

Much time was put in preparing for this event, including children
practicing the dances and adults sewing the costumes.

A (large) transvestite performer.

"One part of the Burmese are ruled by the Caste system which says that transgendered folks are untouchables. There is another part of the people that are not run by the caste system but rather a family/clan system which venerates the multigendered. This is considered to be the manifestation of the ganesha spirit with the princess of the year and provides a blessing of fertility and purity to the community."
--Timothy Lake

[My note: The water festival is of Hindu origin but has since been secularized and is enjoyed by virtually all Burmese including Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Muslims, all of whom were in attendance. I suspect that Tim has overstated the importance of the Hindu caste system in Burmese society today. No matter. This is not a thesis or a dissertation. It's a discussion, an attempt to work towards understanding and his statements make an interesting starting point. The transvestite performer surprised me and I doubt if it meant terribly much to those present, aside from simply being something silly. (Of course, something can both be of tremendous underlying theological significance and still be silly to the majority. For instance, think of the Easter bunny or Halloween Jack-o-lanterns and their underlying deep symbolism and importance in the European pagan traditions, for instance. What I'll also say is that in my experience on the rare occasions when the topic of homosexuality does come up with Burmese refugees of various backgrounds, transgendered people are included in the category of "Gay."]

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