Burma: Pa-O, the Forgotten People

The traditions and customs of the Pa-O ethnic group are little known and gradually disappearing.

Telling children that they are descendants of a father who was a weiza, a supernatural being, and a mother who was a dragon makes for a good story; but for the Pa-O it is more than a fable. Once upon a time, the dragon mother laid three eggs, the first of which gave birth to the Karen people, the second to the Pa-O, and the third to the Karenni and Padaung.

The Pa-O derive their name from the vernacular word Pa-U, which means ‘receiving help during birth’. The tale is not popular among the Karen, but for the Pa-O it is a legend that has been passed from generation to generation for centuries and forms the foundation of most or all of their customs.

In fact, the Pa-O wear their origins on their sleeve, and elsewhere. Their trademark turban, for instance, is a manifestation of this creation myth. The men drape the tail of their turban to one side, as a weiza might wear his hat, while the women fashion theirs to resemble a dragon’s head.

The Pa-O, also known as Taungthu, are found throughout eastern Burma and are the second largest ethnic group in Shan State.

Anthropologists believe the Pa-O are descendants of Tibeto-Burmese stock who settled in the Thaton region around 1000 BC. Thaton, once the spiritual centre of ‘Burmese’ Buddhism, now a major city in Mon State, derives its name from the words thite htone, which in Pa-O means ‘a place built up from sandbank and sludge’.

The earliest record of the Pa-O can be traced back to the reign of King Suriya Sandar, who ruled Thaton around 600 BC. Khun Aung Chan of the Pa-O History and Research Organization calls him the first Pa-O in documented history.

The Pa-O still celebrate their National Day on King Suriya Sandar’s birthday, which occurs during the full moon of Tabaung, the last month of the Burmese calendar, typically in March.

Throughout the centuries, the Pa-O wore colourful clothing, according to a popular local nursery rhyme. Today, however, most don black or dark indigo attire, the result of royal conquest almost a millennium ago: when King Anawrah ta of Pagan, who reigned between 1044-1077, descended on Thaton in 1057 and defeated the Mon monarch King Makuta (also known as King Manhua), he then treated his new subjects as slaves, forcing the Pa-O to forsake their multi-coloured outfits for the black dress they wear today.

After the conquest the Pa-O dispersed from Thaton, with many moving to southwestern Shan State. Nowadays, the estimated one to two million Pa-O are scattered across Mon, Karen, Karenni, and Shan states, particularly along the banks of the Salween River.

Their customs and clothing have undergone further changes. The style of dress in Thaton today hardly resembles that of a thousand years ago – the most ‘traditional’ fashions are found in Shan State. Pa-O style motifs vary from place to place, but most women wear variations of a long, loose-fitting blouse beneath a jacket with a short, stand-up collar and a longyi, or Burmese-style sarong. The men generally wear long-sleeved shirts and baggy pants.

The Pa-O engage primarily in agriculture, cultivating their staple cash crop the thanapet tree, the leaves of which are used for wrapping tobacco and herbs, to make most of the country’s cheroots. While tobacco is cultivated in the arid central plains, the thanapet leaf grows well in the hills of Shan State. The state’s capital Taunggyi, in particular, is renowned for producing the best smokes. They also cultivate mustard leaves to make pickled mustard leaf salad – a popular food during religious festivals.

One of the most important holidays on the Pa-O calendar is the Shwe Sar Yan Pagoda Festival in Thaton, which falls on the birthday of King Suriya Sandar, who founded the pagoda during the early Mon period.

The full-moon day of Tazaungmon also provides cause for celebration. It is commemorated as part of the nationwide Buddhist festival of Tazaungdaing or the festival of lights, in November, that marks the end of Buddhist lent.

The locus of the Pa-O and Shan celebrations is in Taunggyi. This is also the time for giving alms to monks and for Lu Ping, the famed hot-air balloon festival, when animal-shaped objects take flight. These events are held to help drive away evil spirits.

Perhaps the most sacred religious site for the Pa-O are the Ketku Pagodas, near Taunggyi. Pa-O and Shan labourers built the structures during the reign of King Alaung Sithu (1112-1167 AD), the third king of the Pagan Dynasty, and more than two thousand of them are still standing. The Pa-O pay respect to these structures during the Tabaung full-moon day in March.

Today, aside from religious holidays and a few other special occasions, much of the Pa-O traditional culture has faded into memory. The renowned Burmese historian Than Tun once said with regard to Burma’s history that apart from one day in a month, the past is largely in the dark. This has certainly been the case for the Pa-O, whose history has been mired in obscurity for centuries.

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