Thu Thu Aung
Research Officer, Department of Archaeology and National Museum,, Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture

In Myanmar, the ceremony of novitiation or rite of passage is important for Buddhists. Buddhist parents believe that this ceremony is a great merit for the samsara or circle of life. The festival is held in March and April during holidays for students.

Among the novitiation ceremony, poy sang long, is peculiarity festive among Tai people who inhabit a large area of Asia, including Thailand, Laos, and Eastern Myanmar. The Tai people are called Shan in Myanmar and the Shan State is located Eastern Myanmar. The Shan ethnic group has diverse customs such for pregnancy, birth, naming, novitiation, and marriage. The novitiation ceremony is important for Buddhists because all male Buddhists must go through this ceremony.

Sang long © Saw Khet Pan (Mong Kaing)

Shan people call this ceremony or festival as poy sang long in Shan Language. Poy means festival and sang long means a young boy who will become as a novice. So poy sang long is a rite of passage to initiate boys between the age of seven and fourteen years of age as Buddhist novices. The novice monk participates in monastery life for one week or a few months, and some might take up monkhood for their whole life.

Poy sang long is collective donation of the community. It is taken time to three days for the ceremony. One or two weeks before he ceremony, the boys who will be novices have to go a monastery to learn monkhood literature, so they can recite damma (monkhood literature). The pre-festival, donation pavilion is built and prepared for traditional drama.

The ceremony is undertaken by the community of the village or city. The youth leaders call for invitations and catering. During the ceremony, donors offer traditional foods to the guests. The festival is celebrated by the whole community. In the evening before festival, the boys’ hair will be shaved and will be called sang long. After shaving their hair and starting ceremony, the sang long are not allowed to touch the earth with their feet for three days unless they take their vows and follow Buddhist monastic principles. They can only touch the ground of their home and monastery or temple.

On the first day of festival, the boys are taken to a bath with golden syrup that is applied to make them shiny and they dress like princes to join in a parade. On that day, novices–to-be are brought to the shrine of the guardian spirit of the village or city to show respect of the community. While joining the parade, they are carried on the shoulders of their fathers or relatives. At the right of the boy, a person carries a decorated umbrella for shading him, and at the left, another person showers the boy with popcorn to the boy. In front of them, women who are called village belle carry a betel box and lotus blossom. Traditional music is played and all people dance. For the next three days of the festival, the boys are carried around the town accompanied by assistants. The boys are dressed three costumes for three days of ceremony. Friends and relatives are ready to greet their princely relatives, as they believe that it will bring good luck. On the second day, sang longs’ parents and relatives give respect to the elders in the village and monasteries of the nearby villages.

On the last day, the sang long will take vows of the monastery. The procession with sang long is carried on the shoulder by the father led by musicians with his mother and sisters dancing behind. When arrive at the monastery, each boy has to ask the monk for the permission to be novice. With the permission of the monk, the boys start the process of removing the elaborate costumes and change into the robes offered by their parents. The ceremony of the sons into the monkshood is a proud event for all Buddhist parents, and they believe that it will give them the highest merit.
During poy sang long, there is also ceremony for ordaining older men who went through sang long in the past.

The poy sang long ceremony is the main donation of the Shan people. After this ceremony, they believe that they can get another good life after their end. There is saying in Shan people that “Shan farmers always give 25 percent of their income with such generosity”