Myanmar is famous for having more than 130 tribes of very distinct cultures and traditions. The existence of these tribes only adds to a vibrant and enthusiastic Myanmar experience for the traveller to Asia. Customs and everyday living bring forth scenes and wonders that is truly awe-inspiring. One such place and people are the Pa’O people of Shan state and their way of life around the Kakku Pagoda Complex.
It’s certainly a sight that will bewilder the mind; hundreds of stupas dotting the horizon, all paying homage to the temple located smack in the middle. The stupas of the Kakku Pagoda Complex were created by Buddhist missionaries of King Asoka, Indian emperor of the Maurya Dynasty, who converted to Buddhism. The Kakku Pagoda is a cluster of more than 3,000 pagodas, said to be from Bagan period. They differ slightly as they are in the Yun Shan style.
The stupa itself is a symbol of the Buddha, and more accurately, of his enlightened mind and presence. The mound is said to represent the form of the seated Buddha, meditating and striving towards enlightenment, and the spire symbolises enlightenment, the apex of Buddhist practise.
The stupas of Kakku are ornate and bewildering with a variety of stucco carvings inspired by various traditions. The creations of the Shan people are majestic in their simplicity, where else the creations from the Indian influence are more ornate, carrying symbolic elements full of details and intricacies and wall arts depicting the life of Buddha; the styling similarities of the Indian influence to Hindu temples around the world is certainly recognisable. This combination is breathtaking – especially if one imagines hundreds of craftsmen sitting under the blazing sun, sweat pouring down their backs, moulding these stupas and carving the motifs, strong in their belief of worship and the afterlife.
The Pa-O tribe of Shan State celebrate a harvest festival in March at this ancient pagoda complex, giving thanks for a successful and bountiful harvest. This starts at dawn on the full moon of Tabaung (in March) so do check with guides for the exact date and time. The harvest brought to the festival is sold and the money earned donated as a form of homage. Dressed in traditional wear, the Pa-O tribe celebrate in front of the many stupas and images of Buddha, all part of the religious elements of the tribe.
The festival is indeed a fascinating sight, with vendors pulling ox-drawn carts filled with produce and merchandise for the consumption of participants and visitors alike. The festival adds another layer of wonder to the Kakku Pagoda Complex as the interaction between mortal and supernatural is accentuated; it is a glimpse into the faith at work, of how faith is layered in daily life. The festival ends with pilgrims making their offerings to more than 1,000 monks – a sight certainly to behold!
The drive to the Kakku Pagoda Complex is roughly an hour and a half from the Nyaung Shwe (the town on the edge of Inle Lake). Passing through the villages you will find the villages of the Pa’O people. The Pa’O people, dressed in their traditional headwear are a proud and ancient people of the Shan state. They keep their traditions very much alive in everyday activities like agriculture, where they grow the state’s vegetables of garlic, beans and peanuts, as well as corn and tea. The land is rich and fertile, and the tribe lives in wooden structures, meticulously kept surroundings, in villages located at lower altitudes.
The Pa-O traditional outfit is distinct from the women wearing black or dark purple with narrow blue or red trim. Their headgear is brightly coloured, mostly in orange and red. Visitors to the Kakku Pagoda Complex can themselves experience wearing the colourful turban, assisted by the young, beautiful women of the tribe, picking from an array of traditionally-weaved material.
Census says there are roughly 850,000 Pa’O people in Southeast Asia, with the majority inhabiting this area, the south-western part of Shan State in Myanmar. They are locally known as Taungthu by the Burmese, which means ‘hill people’. Because of their liking of dark coloured clothes the nickname Black Karen was created by the colonists and is still sometimes referred to in this day and age. Their language has roots to the great Karen groups of Myanmar and Thailand, which makes up some 20 language groups spread over a five million population. They are mostly animists and Buddhist, and just like the rest of the tribes of the great nation of Myanmar consider ordination as a novice a great merit for young boys.
The Pa’O people have kept their traditions and customs alive despite the rush of modernisation and technology, and it is the passing on of knowledge and beliefs over the generations, staying proud of who they are and where they came from that makes the story of this tribe an interesting and motivating one.