The Mons of Burma generally lived in the area southeast of Yangon as well as in the Kayin States and its coastlines. They migrated in the northern areas into what’s now referred to as Thailand and Burma and established the very first great civilization in that region. Among the earliest peoples to exist in Southeast Asia, the Mon was accountable for the spread of Theravada Buddhism in Burma as well as neighbouring Thailand. During the fifth and eighth centuries their kingdom was at its zenith and has influenced others with their culture and learning. However, other kingdoms warred with the Mon people it resulted to its defeat. One of these kingdoms was Burma who eventually toppled the Mons in 1757.
A Brief History
The Mon people were an influential kingdom that largely affected the lives of the Burmese during the 11th, 13th and 16th century. The Mons originally came from the west part of China settling in the Chao Phraya River of southern Thailand in the 6th century. They were known to have ties with the ancient Cambodian people such as the Funan. The early kingdoms of the Mon namely Dvaravati and Haripunjaya were closely linked with the Khmer kingdom.
By 825 AD, the Mon have reached Irrawaddy River delta and founded the Pegu and Thaton cities. During the same era, the Burmese started moving southward and took over several territories one of which is establishing the kingdom of Pagan. In 1057, King Anawrhata of Burma invaded and defeated the Mon kingdom. Not only did the king capture the capital of Thaton but he also carried off 30,000 Mon people as captives together with the Mon royal family. This hastened the conversion of the Burmese to Theravada Buddhism as well as adopting the Mon language of Pali and its alphabet.
The next two centuries were filled with warfare as the Mons assert their independence. During the mid-18th century, the Mon kingdom re-established their kingdom of Pegu but this proved to be shortlived. Ten years after that, they were triumphantly subjugated by the Burmese in 1757.
The Mon people have always lived in settlements and are a closed knit community. Their houses are rectangular and are raised by poles. The walls and floors are traditionally made of bamboo and with thatched roofs. Mon take pride of their agricultural skills, raising crops such as rice helped by their water buffalos and oxen. Men would also work as blacksmiths and the women would supplement their living by making crafts, weaving and pottery.
Traditionally, the Mons does not engage in formal weddings. The practice of the Mon is that when a man is interested in a woman, he would inform the girl’s parents and would move in with her and her family for three whole years. After which the couple would move out of the dwellings and establish a separate household from that of the girl’s family. Like most of the Asian peoples, Mon families are mostly male dominated.
The Mon people were key figures in influencing Burma with Theravada Buddhism but some still practice old traditions in worship such as animism where the belief of good and evil spirits inhabit non-living things. There are spirits known as tewatao are connected with the fields and trees. The Mons believe in the kalok, recognized to be the ancestral spirits that have supernatural influence over them. The Buddhist monks, interestingly, would act as mediators between the people and the spirits. They are also convinced that witches are the cause of illnesses and bad luck and spirit possession. The Mons would stick to the belief that when a person is ill, he or she has lacked good merits, and therefore offerings are made to a Buddha image in order to restore the balance.