Fire Kites in the Skies of Burma

It was the Day of the Kites, a day that belonged to the people of the mountains in Eastern Burma. I did not then know their myths or meanings, but we, a scraggle of American Missionary children from the nearby boarding school at Taunggyi (DOWN-jee), had set out that afternoon to see this splendid thing of which I had only heard.

Like obedient ducklines, we followed our two teachers up one of the steep paths of the mountain to an alp of pale golden rice grasses. It was a path we often took on our pre-breakfast walks when gray dawn light resembled the lacquered iridescence of a conch shell, and the distant valley below hid under a cottony river of mist.

Now, the afternoon sun bronzed the scattered thickets of bamboo and lit the rocky crags behind me. I ran to my favorite perch, a great gray rock, socketed firmly into the hard red clay at the very edge of this mountain meadow.

Wind poured up from the valley in a cool steady push, bending the grasses into flaxen waves, shimmering leaves, and bowing the supple bamboo, demanding all to pay homage to those gilded crags. It flapped my skirts and tugged at my hair, inviting me to race with it to those crags. Instead, I burrowed deep into my bulky green sweater and pulled my hands inside the cuffs.

From my stone dais, the hillside tumbled steeply toward the smoky blue valley. Far below, a lake in the shape of a flying white crow shone like hammered silver. White Crow Lake, people said, marked the memory of one of the Buddha's early lives, and this mountain, Taunggyi, was where Buddha's spirit flew to meditate. For a delicious moment, I became the White Crow, soaring among the scurrying clouds, surveying my beautiful mountain.

Not far below, on another alpine shelf, I could see the red tiles of the Georgian limestone building that was our school. A few other stolid European houses beaded along that particular balcony before the mountain rushed steeply on to the town, about half a mile farther down. Its patch of corrugated tin roofs shimmered in the low, hot sun. But here, in this high meadow, the sun offered welcome warmth against the coolness of the September wind.

We watched as people came, threading like parading ants, up onto the many terraces of this beautiful mountain. Usually we saw these people, mostly Shan, only when our big yellow truck took us to the bazaar.

"Sit quietly and don't bother anyone," our teachers instructed us. I curled on my rock platform, cocooned in my sweater, clutching the tips of my shoes.

Nearby, several young men pulled and arranged a mass of colored rice paper and slender bamboo stays, while two women worked to light a kerosene lamp. For a moment, a black smudge of oily smoke invaded the crisp, earth-fragrant air with its choking odor.

But the hot smoke was quickly captured inside the great paper balloon-kite. I watched wide-eyed as the bright green, red, and yellow tissues unfolded, filled, and began to tug at the ropes tethering it to the earth.

With a friendly grin toward me, one of the young men cut the rope, and the giant fire-balloon soared upward.

One by one, from the terraces below, other kites lifted into the air: globes of bright color, gay boxes, one like a giant orange carp, and several fiercely painted dragons. Up they sailed. Up and up, catching the setting light of the sun, glowing from small flames within, catching fire from their own candles, but still soaring upward, carrying, I knew, prayers and hopes.

I must have been saucer-eyed, for this was a sight of great wonder, and my heart was thumping with the excitement of it all. I, too, seemed to burst the bounds of earth, and, like the balloons, ascended into the vast blue heavens.

Years later I learned that this was Thadingyut (tah-DEEN-juh). It is a time of great rejoicing and thankfulness and occurs in late September or early October when the monsoon rains are over and the cool season begins.

The full amber moon of fall marks the end of Buddhist lent, and commemorates the belief that the Buddha returned at this time of full moon to teach his mother.

All over Burma (now called Myanmar), millions of candles shine in monasteries, temples, small shrines, and homes. Along rivers, small candle boats are floated downstream, carrying wishes and prayers.

On at least one sacred mountain, fire-balloons rise into the heavens carrying hope, flaming with joy.

Here, in a quiet corner of Connecticut, I often watch the kites of spring tug against the strong breeze, or I smile up at the moon on almost any day of the year and suddenly, I remember the fire kites. Then I wonder, do the people of Myanmar, in their current times of trouble, still celebrate that special day?

Does hope still glimmer half a world away?

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