In the Union of Myanmar, where Theravada Buddhism flourishes, yellow robes have been offered to the Lord Buddha in different seasons for many hundreds of years. The robes are known as Waso-thingan, Kahtein-thingan, Matho-thingan, Kyar-thingan and Pantthaku-thingan. The Waso-thingan is the robe offered on the occasion of Wazo, the three-month Lenten period from round about July to October. The Kahtein-thingan is the robe that is offered to the Buddha and his congregation of monks, that is, the Sangha, at the end of lent. this robe must not be offered to a monk of one’s acquaintance or choice but to the Sangha in general. The Matho-thingan, literally meaning “the robe that has not decayed”; it is the robe which is woven on the full moon night of Tazaungmon and which must be completed before the sun rises the next day for offering at sacred Images of the Buddha. Some of the latter robes are woven with yarn from the lotus. The very first Pantthagu-thingan, was the robe sewn by the Buddha himself with remnants of discarded clothing. This was in adherence to the vow of poverty – no costly robes, no silks or velvets, just a simple garment patched from torn pieces of cloth – a robe to clothe oneself in decency and modesty. Another significance fact is that the Buddha laid out the scraps of cloth in the pattern of cultivated fields, each enclosed by low dykes. This pattern is still adhered to in making of robes for the Sangha.
Some regard the lotus robe as the noblest and most sacred one because it is meant as an offering to the future Buddha aspiring for Enlightenment or Buddhahood.
According to religious texts, the tradition of the lotus robe emerged a long time ago. Thar Lay Taung Sayadaw U Tay Zeinda from Inlay district states that the lotus robe does not literally mean the robe, which is woven from the lotus thread. When this present world, known as the Badda Kabba (the Badda World) came into existence, five buds appeared on a lotus plant and each contained a complete set of Thingan Pareikaya (prescribed articles for use by Buddhist monks). So it was prophesied that five Buddhas would appear in this world who would show the Path to Liberation. Then the age-old Thuddawartha Brahmas brought all the five buds to the place where “Ariyas” holy persons lived and offered the sweet-scented lotus robes to them. As only four robes have been so far offered, there is still one robe outstanding. That was said to be the origin of the lotus robe.
But there are lotus robes, which are woven from strands of yarn obtained from the lotus plant and are offered to the Images of the Buddha and in special cases to eminent monks who have been awarded titles for outstanding religious services.
Sayadaw Shin Ohn Nyo , one of the four ‘shins’ or venerable clerics, in Myanmar literature composed in his ‘Pyo’, or ode of 60 Ghahtas that a set of Thingan Pareikaya offered to Prince Sidhattha, the future Buddha, by Yatikaya Lord of the abode of Brahmas, was the fourth one obtained from the lotus flower that had been in the safekeeping of the ancient Brahmas.
In accordance with this legend in which Thudawatha Brahmas offered robes obtained from the primitive lotus to the potential Buddhas, Myanmar Buddhists celebrate a symbolic offering of the lotus robe.
The lotus robes are often decorated with patterns of flowers in gold and silver foil to make it as magnificent as possible, for offering to Buddha Images in shrines and pagodas.
Weaving a lotus robe by extracting the yarn from Padonma lotus stalks demands great creativity, imagination and artistic skill.
The place where such wonderful robes are woven is Kyaing Khan village in Inlay district. Inlay Lake, which is 2900 feet above sea level, is situated in Nyaung Shwe Township in the southern part of Shan State. Many varieties of lotus flourish in the Inlay Lake but the yarn for the robe is taken from the the Padonma Kyar ( the Red Lotus). As the level of the water surface rises, Padonma lotus plants begin to grow in profusion to supply the necessary thread for this special robe. Kyaing Khan village, located in the south of Inlay district is the only place where lotus robes are woven.
It is not easy to produce lotus thread from which the lotus robe is woven. Lotus stems are plucked in the months of Kason and Nayon (May and June) when lotus plants are abundant in the Lake.
We know from the local people that, according to traditional belief in the region, they consider the lotus to have supernatural powers and that the lotus must be in full bloom to produce lotus fibres from its stems. So they conduct a ritual at the lotus pond with offerings of nine dishes of food a week before they cut off the stems. At the time of plucking the stems also, nine dishes of food are offered to the guardian spirit of the house where the lotus robe will be woven. This is their traditional custom. After plucking the lotus stems, only the soft stems are taken. The next day having cut the stems, they prepare to separate the lotus fibres from the lotus stems. First they rub out the thorns on the stem and cut it into two parts. Then these are marked at 5 or 6 places with a knife at intervals of 9 inches or so after which the cut stems are twisted. They then pull out the fibres with wet hands on a special table about 3 feet long made for the purpose.
If these lotus stems are left too long, they will decompose and the threads obtained will be of no use. So, they pull out these fibres the day after they have cut the stems. These fibres are spun on the small pulley in order to prevent them from getting tangled.
Next , they are spun again into the spindle from the pulley. Naturally, the lotus likes water and they hold the fibre from the pulley with wet hands while spinning.
After that, handfuls of the fibres are put on different shelves of the same size and spun again on to the large pulley to make them stronger and thicker.
These strong and thick fibres are spun again almost continuously into a yarn to produce threads. Then these threads are washed and coated with glue to make them ready for special weaving.
These ready-made threads are fixed on the loom both for the warp and woof by twisting them into the spinning rod. Now the weaving of the lotus robe can begin.
“In weaving the lotus robe, unlike the ordinary yellow robe, it is necessary to adhere to the Buddha’s teachings and to abide by the five precepts.” said one of the old and skilled woman weavers of the lotus robe. She added, “Even if the weaver is not a virgin, she must be a woman of virtue who keeps the five basic precepts of Buddhism”. The loom is also considered to have supernatural powers, so it is surrounded with split bamboo fences of diamond-shaped designs used for royal occasions. Banana and sugar cane plants are tied to the fence at suitable intervals.
For a perfect robe, the outer robe (Aygathi ) must be two and a half yards long and under-wear ( Thinbine ), six yards long. The weaver must weave ten yards to get a perfect lotus robe. So two hundred and twenty thousand lotus plants are required for one set of robes. Besides, it takes sixty weavers ten days to complete one set. The process from the cutting of the stems to the finished robe takes one month.
As the lotus is a hydrophyte, lotus threads are woven by continuous spraying with water and are then pressed between rollers to yield thicker density. The natural colour of the woven robe is ivory-coloured, but it is dyed in what is locally called a deep jack-fruit colour somewhat like old gold. this is how a lotus-robe is made from padonmar kyayoe (lotus stems) and kya-kmyin (lotus fibres).
Although the length, size and colour are the same as the ordinary robe, it is not so heavy but light, strong and much more beautiful. You can smell the fragrance of lotus from a freshly woven lotus robe. This lotus robe can give coolness in the hot season and warmth in the cold season.