Na htwin: More than just a tradition

Cultures have a way of expressing age-honoured traditions. Rites of passage, the coming of age, all of that are full of significance and meaning. Other countries would welcome their young girls into society with debuts and soirees, for example in Africa people would traditionally tattoo their girls as recognition in welcoming them to adulthood. Burma, as a rite of passage for its teenage girls, would be celebrated with an ear boring ceremony called na htwin.

In Burmese culture there are three significant events for a girl. The first event is when she is named 100 days after she was born, the second would be the na htwin and the last event would be the taung yan, during which the groom to be and his parents would ask her hand for marriage. All of these important events are carefully planned based on the alignment of the celestial bodies as Burmese people heavily rely on astrology when making decisions.

Na htwin would sometimes be held together with a ceremony intended for the boys, called shin pyu or shinbyu which is a rite of passage involving the shaving of head and eyebrows and spending time in the temple with the monks. So the whole village would plan the event and have several candidates join the ceremony. This type of ceremony is literally a pageantry and is quite expensive, an orchestra would lead the procession followed by villagers carrying fragrant lotus blossoms inside lacquer boxes.

The girls would be adorned in silk, heavily embroidered in gold thread, intricately beaded and matched with a headdress – they are dressed like princesses. There would be a procession, as the girls are being paraded around the village, riding on flower-designed carts pulled by an ox. The whole village would anticipate this event and people would line up on the streets to glimpse these young girls in all their finery. The mothers would hold their head up high gazing at their daughters with pride.

Only experienced women are allowed to bore the ears of these young girls. The modern world has influenced the traditional Burma as more and more people have opted for ear piercing guns and anesthetic to dull the pain. In the old days, a needle made of pure gold was used to pierce these young girl’s ears. The ear piercing symbolize that the girl is no longer a baby and that she is being welcomed in the adult society. Prior to na htwin, these girls would romp and play around with their hair down and pretty much do things they want to do, without having too much responsibility. The ear piercing ceremony changes all that. The girls in the na htwin ceremony would put their hair up not only displaying their pierced ears but also saying that their carefree days are over. Hence on, they are expected to share adult responsibilities and learn household work. It is the start of imposed discipline, as they are old enough to understand the teachings of Buddha. They are now considered as part of the women of Burma.

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