Burma’s Strange Customs and Beliefs


Burma is known as the Golden Land but the attraction, the mystique is more than just the breath taking pagodas scattered in its rich land. The real essence of Burma lies in its people. Its unique culture and tradition have largely been preserved from the influences of the outside world. Some of these traditions are superstitions that have survived centuries and are still widely practiced. In the heart of every Burmese man or woman, regardless of social strata and attainment, lies that ingrained belief in the spirits, ghosts, omen and witches.


The number 9, is revered in Burma. It is believed to be bestowed with mystical influence.  The numeral 9 in Burmese language is termed as ko, which means “to seek shelter from God”. It is noteworthy that in 1987, the famous general who was in power as authorized new coinage of 45 and 90 kyat, incidentally both can be divided by 9.  Significant government and official events are planned for days of the month that would add up to the numeral 9.


Omens of both good and evil surround Burmese life. Almost everyday things are given importance from the waning and waxing of the moon, the wood that their houses are built, the facets of the sun to the chirping of the birds to the howling of the dogs. The sudden involuntary movement of one’s own body also has meanings.


For instance, if the sun rises with an unusual brilliance, it is said that there will be war. It is also considered unlucky if one gets married on months when the planet Venus is not visible in the sky. When any of the planetary objects approach the disc of moon, or if any would pass over it, the Burmese people believe it is an omen of destruction of countries.


The natives also have a way of divining lawsuit results. Burmese locals would make little figures out of rice. One would stand for an ox, the other, a lion and then the third, an elephant. These rice figures are exposed to birds and whichever is eaten foretells the fate.  If it is the ox, an agreement will be reached by the parties concerned. If a lion is picked, then the case will be seen as a sign of triumph. However, should the elephant figure be picked by the birds, then it is a sign of ill luck.


Mercury balls also play a strange part in the Burmese belief. It is widely acceptable to have mystic protective powers same with charms and even certain tattoo designs. Animal sacrifice offered to both the nats and demon spirits is also a common divination practice. Chicken sacrifices are most common where almost all bone parts would account to some kind of foretelling.


There is that imperceptibly strange pull and conviction that there exists a realm filled with magic, mysticism and in the unseen.  Where the beings wield strange, supernatural influences and have control over the most mundane matters. Their power is so great that they need to be appeased to gain their favour.

Myanmar zodiacal signs or the concept of “What-day-born” (ေမြးတဲ့ေန႔)

Daw Khin Myo Chit, a well-known author in Myanmar for her stupendous writing skills, said “it is quite impossible for a Myanmar to survive without knowing on which day of the week he or she was born”. Therefore, for a Myanmar, “what-day-born” (ေမြးတဲ့ေန႔) Mway:-te.-Nay. (literally meaning birthday, but actually meaning the day of the week on which you are born) is a very important word in his culture. When you ever ask birthday for a Burmese, it means to him on which day of the week was he born. Burmese people don’t really consider the date they are born, then actually Burmese birthday occurs once a week. And it’s what-day-born.

When you go and visit a pagoda in Myanmar, you’ll see everybody praying from each respective point (also known as corner), corresponding to the day on which they are born. There are a total of eight points of compass in every pagoda, with red signboards, usually accompanied with a figurine of a strange animal. But your guide can definitely explain about those eight points and figurines.
Actually, each day of the week is assigned to a specific point on the compass and a particular mythical animal. If so, there’s a question. What about the eighth cardinal point, is it left vacant since there are only 7 days in a week? Actually not, it’s simply the Wednesday that is divided into two portions so that all cardinal points can be represented and be even (”Even” means lucky in our culture). Every Burmese Buddhist usually has to pay homage to Buddha on their week birthday, and while in the pagoda, at the specific cardinal point that represents their birthday, there would usually be a statue of the corresponding animal there. Therefore, “what-day-born” (ေမြးတဲ့ေန႔) is quite a common and important word in Myanmar. If you keep in mind this information, you’ll easily find in which part of the pagoda you should pray.

The concept is very similar to the Chinese or Western zodiac. The Chinese one being based on the year during which you are born, while most of the western countries follow the zodiacal signs, which are mostly based on the month of birth. But, to be clearer just take a look to the following table, which shows you the details of the Burmese signs. For example, if you’re a Monday-born, your figurine animal is a tiger and you have to pray from the eastern corner of the pagoda.


In this table, Rahu is the second half of Wednesday (from 12:01pm to 12:00am) and tuskless elephant is representative of Rahu’s Figurine. You can also see that this tables shows planets that corresponds to each day, which is the base for Burmese astrology, but the background theory for the planets is not clear enough. Some say it came from Hinduism and does not relate to Buddhism anymore. And in some other’s words, it is in the repositories of Buddha’s scriptures. But nobody yet seems to have been able to prove any of these theories.

But “what-day-born” concept is not only used to determine when and where you should be praying Buddha at the pagoda, it is also used for many other social reasons. For example, there is a saying in Burmese culture which goes like this: “Mway: Nay. Thaut Kyar Ta Nin Lar Kay Thar San Nyat Ma Pyu Yar” (ေမြးေန႔ ေသာၾကာ တနလာ ေကသာ ဆံညွပ္ မျပဳရာ”), literally, is means Monday and Friday – No Hair Cutting, it indeed warns not to cut hair on Monday, Friday or on your week-birthday. People strongly believe cutting hair in such days brings bad luck.

In addition, Burmese people also used their birthdays to choose their spouse or business partner. For instance, you should not choose a Friday-born girl as your wife if you are Monday-born man because of the saying “Dammar Thaw Ka Innwa Yar Zar” (ဓမၼာ ေသာက အင္း၀ ရာဇာ) which is supposed to be remnants of ancient wisdom. And it also says if you are Sunday-born you will never get good Wednesday-born friends.
But let’s see a list of couples that should not be together according to this ancient saying:

1. Saturday-born and Thursday-born (ဓမၼာ)
2. Friday-born and Monday-born (ေသာက)
3. Sunday-born and Wednesday-born (အင္း၀)
4. Rahu-born and Tuseday-born (ရာဇာ)

Sometimes, the date for a special ceremony; such as company opening date or house-warming event; is guided by a professional astrologer whose ideas come mainly from the basis of “the-day-you-are-born” concept. The astrologer can even guide on which day to choose if you want to go praying or what you should offer to whom on what day, all of it to get a better life and “Karma”. You can even get the suggestion from the astrologer for your wife’s affairs, all the information coming out from that very concept.

Last, but not least, there is another usage of “what-day-born”, and it is really helpful to know on which day people around you are born. In our traditional naming system, each of the eight days, or eight cardinal point carries a certain number of names, therefore, therefore your name will also depend on which day you are born.
For instance, names starting with the Burmese consonants Tha (သ) and Ha (ဟ) are for Friday-born. Consequently, people with one of these consonants to start their name, such as: Thura (သူရ), Thiha (သီဟ) or Haymar (ေဟမာ), are usually born on a Friday. So let me share a chart that matches the day of birth with the first letter used in a child’s name, though the naming system is not universally used anymore nowadays.


Keeping this basic information about the day-born while you’re in Myanmar or planning to go to Myanmar, it will help you know where to pray at the Pagoda and even you can guess the day of birth of your Burmese friend from his name. And, if you want to add local superstition to your stay, you can even consult with one of the many professional astrologers based on the day you are born; you might just need a translator to get what he says…

Aung Ph Zaw

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