Of biryani and Burmese American Buddhists

Volunteers doling out plates of biryani

This past May, I had the privilege of photographing a once in a lifetime event, the sacred umbrella hoisting ceremony at the Progressive Buddhist Association (Thondrarama Brahma Vihara Monastery) in Azusa, a hillside community in Southern California. The monastery is perched on the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains and was once a ranch, teeming with horses.

The crowning of the pagoda

The “umbrella” (called hti in Burmese) is actually a crown-like ornament that tops a Burmese pagoda. Usually layered with pure gold, it is the most important feature of the pagoda, second only to the enshrined relic. This gold umbrella and pagoda are the first of their kind in Southern California, perhaps a testament to the growing clout of the Burmese American community, whose numbers have grown 500% since 2000. In 2010, the Burmese American community undertook a major campaign to have ethnic Chinese and Indians (and indigenous minorities) self-identify as “Burmese American” on the Census forms, which may have also contributed to the spike.

Procession of the sacred umbrella

Surprisingly, the tremendous costs (the lavish festivities and the gold umbrella) were paid for by a single family.  According to my parents, the husband, an engineer, had saved up his overtime pay for nearly a decade, with the dream of holding this umbrella hoisting ceremony, to propagate the Buddha’s teachings.

Burmese pageantry out on full display.

The colors and costumes were stunning. I don’t think I’ll ever have the chance to document an event like this in the United States, not in this lifetime, at least.

Devotees surround the pagoda

No Burmese event is complete without food. On Sundays, Burmese families will sponsor feasts to the entire community, to celebrate holidays or even family events like birthdays and death anniversaries. I suppose it’s a tradition based on the Buddhist concept of dana (or generosity).

A ceremonial flower chariot transports the sacred umbrella up the hill.

My mom often  repeats a Burmese saying: ossa thinkhaya (ဥစ္စာသင်္ခါရ, from Pali ucca sankhara), which means “all material possessions are impermanent.” This proverb captures a very Burmese mentality, that one ought to live a generous life because everything can disappear at any moment.

Heapfuls of Pakistani biryani offered to the monks present.

At monasteries, food is doled out before noon, to allow monks to partake in the food as well. Theravada Buddhist monks have taken a vow not to consume any foods after noon. I remember when I was temporarily ordained, I ate two meals a day. I broke fast at dawn, eating a meal called ayon zun (အရုဏ်ဆွမ်း) and a mid-day mealAfter noon, I was allowed only to drink liquids.

Two years ago, my family spent a small fortune hosting my cousins’ and my monk ordination ceremony. The catering costs (for around 300 guests) alone were pretty outrageous. I can only imagine how much was spent on this entire event, especially considering how large the crowd was.

A poorly shot closeup of the serving.

The complete lunch menu included 1 main dish: Pakistani-style biryani catered from a restaurant (as well as a vegetarian option). Biryani is a very popular festive dish in Burma, probably introduced during colonial rule (Burma was part of British India for most of its colonial history).

The meal was complemented with 3 types of salads: fish cake salad, sour mango salad and pickled tea leaf salad. Unfortunately, I don’t have pictures of these, but Burmese style salads use a lot of finely chopped cabbage.

There were also 2 kinds of fermented shrimp paste, called ngapi (similar to Indonesian belacan), including tamarind ngapi and peanut ngapi.

And of course, every Burmese meal includes a bowl of soup (usually sour, to contrast the rich curries). At this particular event, roselle leaf soup was served. Roselle leaves are very sour and pungent.

Snacks and fruits galore

I snapped a photo of all the desserts being handed out, mostly fruits.

P.S. A complete photo album of the day’s events can be found here.

Progressive Buddhist Association သုန္ဒရရာမဗြဟ္မဝိဟရေကျောင်း (အဇူဇာကျောင်း)
1790 Ranch Road, Azusa, CA 91702


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