Myanmar swaps surnames for an 8th weekday
We’re not usually one to dabble with mysticism, the occult or superstition. We have had to deal with quite a fair share of “yeah man, don’t worry, your bus will arrive at around mid day” prompting a 4 hour wait at the side of the road. But on the whole, we like to know that the bus we booked does actually exist. “Jah will provide” doesn’t work well when you’re running a business and Jah has obviously never heard of a functioning internet connection. However, there was something about our recent trip to Myanmar that tickled our fancy. Not that it applied to us any more than our very Chinese “lucky match” in our company name (in fact, it did less so), but by the way Myanmar’s 8-day week completely and utterly dominates people’s lives. If you’re not that into star signs, then see this as a quirky piece of anthropology. If you are into star signs, well, then put down that Heat Magazine, sister, ‘cause in Myanmar it gets really interesting.
Whilst around 90% of people in Myanmar follow Theravada Buddhism, that believes karma is the main source of influence in a person’s life, most Burmese Buddhists are strong believers of the Hindi Brahman idea that astrology determines your fate in life, love, business, school, travel and knitting competitions. They divide the week into 8 days (yes, 8! we’ll explain…) and each day is assigned a planet, a direction, an animal sign and interestingly the first letter of a name (more on that later). This all seems relatively straightforward until we look at our schedule. Where does this extra day come from? Well, our wonderful guide Kay explained in the car as we sped through busy Yangon: “Wednesday afternoon is it’s own day called Yarhu. It’s not considered as a significant day of week and not printed in calendars.” It seems the sun doesn’t take that much notice either. No spontaneous mid-day setting and rising going on here. And as if that wasn’t complicated enough, traditional western zodiac applies as well as 27 lunar stages (one for each day of the lunar month, which is 27.3 days long). Cosmo, eat your heart out.
Rat & Dragon. If you’ve read our first ever blog post, you’ll know where we got the inspiration for our name. Luckily for us, the Chinese Zodiac combination of our birth years is one of the strongest out there. We don’t mind either way, but the positive vibe our combination emits has been quite an asset when we’ve been doing projects in Asia. Now we find out that we have yet another animal to add to the mix. Our Dragon, being born on a Sunday, is now also a garuda (a mythical bird-man creature) and our Saturday’s Rat, well, ironically, she’s also a dragon. If you’re Monday, you’re a tiger, Tuesday’s a lion (possibility of ligers here, Napoleon), Wednesday morning a tusked elephant, Wednesday afternoon a tuskless elephant, Thursday’s a rat and Friday’s… well…. Friday’s a guinea pig.
For good measure, there’s also an animal called a Ketu, that’s made up of the antlers of a deer, the tusks and trunk of an elephant, the mane of a lion, the body of a naga serpent/dragon and the tail of a fish. It sits and watches over all the other animals, but has no astronomical necessity. It does happen to fit quite nicely in the middle of this handy diagram, as well as be aligned with the animist ‘Ceremony of the nine Gods’, that is usually held in Myanmar when someone in your household is ill or doesn’t want to go to gym class. Complete coincidence we’re sure.
A handy diagram
Then there are the directions. When you look closely at Burmese Pagodas, you’ll find each one has 8 cardinal points. Look up your direction, find it and light some incense. You may (as many Burmese) have recently visited an astrologer, fortune-teller or Buddhist monk in preparation for your upcoming major life event of buying a car, or deciding what colour to paint your house. The astrologer/hippy/monk may have determined you are under the evil influence of another sign that must first be appeased. Go light some incense at that sign too. The planetary posts of Saturn (Saturday’s dragon) and Rahu (Wednesday afternoon’s tuskless elephant) are usually more crowded, as they are notoriously mischievous planets and greatly feared.
Compared by some to a westerner’s trip to a councillor, your mental well-being will be nourished as you do good deeds like meditating, offering flowers and incense, donating money and striking the big bells around the pagoda to share the merit you have gained by living with your fellow creatures great and small on the thirty-one planes of existence. We’d love to go into these planes, but one blog post can only be so long. Secondly, as you’re meditating away, you are wooing your birth-day’s corresponding guardian spirit, or appeasing the spirit dominating you with bad luck. Pour some cups of water (equivalent to your age, if you are systematically inclined), on the planetary post concerned. After these rituals, Kay assures us, we feel better and go home in a happier frame of mind. Burmese people work very hard, many live in poverty and some in appalling conditions. In this case, not having the western outlook of blaming yourself for your circumstances, but knowing you’ll be looked after if you perform very simple and set rituals is a way of keeping going in the face of adversity. It’s way cheaper than Harley Street Shrinks Ltd. and there’s practical things you can do to improve your Karma, like being nice to strangers. In addition, there’s the very Burmese concept of ‘Cetana’, being nice for the sake of being nice, for which the only acceptable payment is gratitude. Maybe this is why we were so enchanted with this country.
Apart from various vague characteristics attributed to birth-days (Monday = jealous, Tuesday = honest, Wednesday morning = short tempered but soon calm again, Wednesday afternoon = the same but more intense, Thursday = mild, Friday = talkative, Saturday = hot tempered, Sunday = miserly), which we couldn’t confirm personally (we are all of these, any days of the week), there was a final massive influence of this belief system on Burmese people. When a child is born, an astrologer will create a Zar Tar, an inscribed palm leaf book, declaring the child’s astrological calculations of the location of stars and the sun, as well as the date and time of birth and, most importantly, the fresh-baked sprog’s name. And this is the really cool part. Not only is the day of your birth vitally important when working out your love life, your possible success in a maths test and the luck you’ll have with your new scooter. But how do you find out if you and your partner’s astrological pre-determination are compatible? Is your first question on a date not “so what do you do?” but “so what day did you pop into this world”? Luckily, there’s a quick way to tell, as the week-day you were born on determines your name.
Unlike pretty much most parts of the rest of the world, Burmese don’t have surnames. Nope. None. Nada. Niete. Nasdarovie. Burmese naming is done via, you guessed it, astrology. Monday’s names start with K, HK, G and Ng (such as Khin or Khine). Tuesdays with Sa and Za (San or Zaw), Wednesday’s with Ya, Ra, La and Wa (Yamin or Rarzar), Thursday’s with Pa, Hpa, Ba and Ma (Myo, Poe or Ba), Friday’s with Tha and Ha (Thiha, Thura or Han), Saturday’s with T, Ht, D and Na (Tun, Htoo, Dwae or Nandar) and Sundays with vowels (such as Aye, Ei or Oo). Our guide Kay was a Monday child. Our nice receptionist Thet Wai was born on Friday. Going by this system, our Dragon and Rat should have been born on a Tuesday.
This makes it way easier to determine a good match, providing your love isn’t lying to you on Myanmarlove.com. The unusual naming system means that children have names that can bear no relation to their parent’s names. They are usually made up of one, two, three or even four syllables, with one syllable names (Ba, Mya, Hla) found in some older people but generally outdated and impractical in a nation of 53 million inhabitants. Middle aged people generally hold two syllable names (Zaw Moe, K