The surprising spectacle of my ten-year old granddaughter struggling to spin a wooden top a few days ago brought back a nostalgia for my own childhood when I was the champion top spinner in our neighbourhood. My granddaughter is a quiet. gentle girl who usually plays with cuddly toys. jigsaw puzzles and Barbie dolls as most little girls do these days. So seeing her with a top and string in her hands pleased me no end.
Some days later she compounded my surprise by bringing home a paper kite – the usual square one. which in our days was known as the "Indian kite" as opposed to the large fancy "Bamar kite." I mused on whatever had got into her. but seeing her with a top and a kite reminded me of the traditional Myanmar toys that had given us so many happy and carefree child hood days.
We led a simpler life those days with little or no "foreign-made" toys except for one or two celluloid dolls. Most of our playthings were home made or bought from pagoda stalls. The highlights of our recreation were visits to the Yangon Zoological Gardens. very rare visits to the cinema to see Shirley Temple movies and cartoon features like Snow White and Mickey Mouse and last but not least. to pay our devotions at the Shwedagon Pagoda. Not surprisingly. we looked forward to visits to this sacred pagoda even though we had a full view of the Pagoda from our house at Park Lane. now Natmauk Avenue 1. because we were allowed to buy a whole lot of toys after devotions. We went with our parents. often accompanied by my grandmother.
I remember my father was always the first to finish his prayers and we three girls next. My grandmother and mother being more devout took longer. I remember I would squirm and fidget with impatience at their seemingly endless prayers. My father however kept us in check by pointing out the significant features of the graceful and symmetrical bell-shaped golden pagoda and its surroundings. Then all of us. (I think including my father). would sigh in relief as my mother approached the tall vases kept in a row in front of the Buddha images to arrange her flower offerings.
Then came the obligatory circambulation of the pagoda and stops at the various planetary posts of our respective birthdays of the week. We would each say a short prayer and sluice water and cleanse the Buddha image. the image of the planet spirit and the symbolic animal of the day of the week. That would take about another hour and I was always thankful my parents were both Wednesday-born and my sisters being twins. Sunday-born. because it meant two stops less to make.
The highly anticipated time for us had at long last arrived – the delight of choosing and buying toys from the shops lining the long steep stairways. This was our treat and reward for being well behaved. My parents allowed us to buy quite a large number of toys because they were fairly cheap and the total cost for each of us would come up to about three or four rupees only.
The toys would mostly be papier-mache. but oh! so colourful and attractive. Our first choice unerringly used to be the "pyit-taing-htaung" which means " that which always rights itself when thrown down." It is a tumbling kelly or billiken. In Myanmar. a person who rises up again and again in the face of all vicissitudes of life is likened to a "pyit-taing-htaung." Our next choice was the "Thu-nge-daw". a fat jovial character with hair hair tied in two trailing tresses. He represents a royal page and was chosen as the logo of the Visit Myanmar Year.
My sisters’ favourite toys were small marionettes of princes. princesses (or dancers) and horses. I remember them staging "pwes" (stage shows) with their other dolls and myself as audience. But I was not too welcome because I would turn their show into a farce with my rude and unflattering remarks. My favourite toys were of a different kind altogether. I liked the masks best – masks of tigers. monkeys. kings. soldiers. necromancer and most of all. the fearsome green ogre. The ogre was gorgeous. ( my favourite character in the Ramayana Drama is still "Dasaghiri" the ten-headed ogre). but my grandmother would not let me keep an ogre mask for long. She never overruled my father’s indulgence. but would go on for days hinting darkly at catastrophes that could befall the family because of its presence.
My mother not being able to take this any longer would then confiscate my cherished toy and throw it out much to my dismay. Then there was the Bandoola helmet (warrior’s helmet) and painted wooden Myanmar long swords. Alas! these were also denied me as not being fit for a girl. There were other attractive toys such as the earthenware miniature cooking utensils and other kitchenware like the mortar and pestle used for pounding chili. onion. garlic. ginger and dried prawn. Some were of glazed pottery and very attractive. They are produced in Kyaukmyaung. Shwebo Distirict. These toys were not made to last. After much handling they would disintegrate. Maybe it was an early lesson for Myanmar Buddhist children of the impermanence of all things.
The papier-mache and pottery toys did not encourage much physical activity. They were really tame affairs unlike flying kites and spinning tops. I fear one now rarely sees children flying kites in Yangon. what with the increasing high-rises and heavy motor traffic. It is prohibited in downtown areas because it has become highly dangerous for children. Even in the olden days there was some risk involved.The traditional Myanmar kite is a thing of beauty and cannot be bought ready made like the small square Indian kite. The Myanmar kind has to be made with what we call "his-sein" (oil-treated) coloured paper that is rather opaque. small smooth flexible bamboo sticks and glue. If this last is not easily available then mashed sticky rice can be used. And of course yards and yards of string.
The kite is like an isosceles triangle with a curved top. It may have a short forked tail or a long sweeping one with multi-coloured squares strung along close together on a string. It is huge. about three feet long and a foot at its widest. It needs a lot of strong twine and skill to get it aloft. But once it gets high up in the sky it stays there swaying majestically among the clouds. It fascinates small children about four or five years old. and can keep them quiet while they watch its every movement. The small square Indian kite is less expensive and meant for older and more adventurous kids who challenge each other to kite fights in the sky much like fighter planes in air battles.
They try to cut away the other’s kite string and if one succeeds in doing so. there is a chase with much yelling and noise to retrieve it. finders being keepers. The string. wound on a large wooden reel. is rubbed with glass shards to give it a cutting edge. It can make quite a deep cut in the skin if one happens to slide the palm of the hand along it accidentally. When a kite has been severed. boys run headlong after it with long bamboo poles or cut tree branches to pull down the runaway kite if it should get caught in the branches of a tree or electrical or telephone wire.
It is indeed a competition fraught with danger as the boys run heedless of traffic and scramble up trees or wireless or electrical wire poles. It is a game played when the winds are strong round about March and April. It is a popular sport even for grown men especially in rural areas. It was a seasonal fad in the in big cities too and one used to see kite flyers on roofs of apartment houses.
For us. kite flying in competition with others was strictly forbidden. But my favourite toy was always the top. The true Myanmar top is made entirely of wood right down to the single leg on which it spins. Here again there is the cheaper Indian variety available in any small shop with a single nail hammered in head first into the narrow tapering bottom of the pear shaped globe. to form the spinning leg. But the Myanmar top is a lovingly crafted piece. exhibiting the skill required in wood-carving and turnery.
The wood of the leg and the pear shaped globe are all of a piece. the whole top tapering ever so gracefully into a leg as in a human body. It is known as a "kalatt gyin". A "kalat" is a circular salver with a stem. The Myanmar top has been so named in comparison. because between the globe and the leg is an indented rim with the edge curling up decoratively. The size of this top is usually about as large as a man’s fist but it varies with the age of the player. The wood of the Tamarind tree is said to be the most suitable. but actually any hard wood will do.
In the old days it was said that the twine from fibres of the palmyra tree was the best. One winds the twine. beginning from the lower tip of the leg right up to the bulging mid portion of the top. At the end of the string is a small knot which one places between the ring finger and the pinky. While holding on firmly thus. one lets go and throws the top down with speed. The force unwinds the string and the top spins beautifully. My uncle had such a beautiful top but we were allowed only to touch it. not play with it. One of the games played in rural villages was to try and hit a spinning top with one’s own and crack the wood. A better game was to draw a small circle and try to aim one’s top so that not only would it land within the circle. but stay in it until its momentum was lost and the one whose top could spin the longest was the winner.
I regret to say that even when I was a child. Myanmar wooden tops had become a rarity. There those with an iron nail hammered into the bottom for us to play with. Nevertheless. we had a lot of fun. There are two ways to spin a top. One way is to let loose the string after winding it around the top from the leg up to the middle. by throwing it down from about shoulder level. That was for the boys. Girls were supposed to crouch down and push the hand holding the top forward and pulling it back at speed to unleash the string. This is actually harder. But a champion top spinner is one who can throw a top down and whip it up again to make it land on one’s open palm and let it spin there.
Such toys and games kept us amused and happy during the long hot summer holidays.There is another dangerous game called "kyay thar". which is a sort of rural base ball game played with a short cylindrical bat and a wooden peg sharpened to a point at both ends. That was the missile to be hit. One would dig a small hole about the size of an apple. balance one pointed tip of the peg on the edge of the hole; or one could find a brick on which to balance the peg with one end portruding beyond the edge of the brick.
Then holding the cylindrical bat (which is about 3 inches in diameter at the most). firmly in the palm. one would tap the point. the peg would fly up. and that was when one had to aim and hit the peg as far as you could. There was no pitcher. only you and your opponent. The distance covered by the projectile would then be measured out with the bat which was only about a foot long. The one who can hit the farthest is the winner. There was always the risk of the peg flying up to hit your face or if very unlucky. your eyes. Needless to say. the adults of the family thoroughly disapproved of this game. But it was exciting and the implements required could be hewn out of any piece of wood lying around in the garage.
These were the simple things that we amused ourselves with. There are better and more sophisticated toys today - toys that are educational as well as toys for amusement. We did not have such sophisticated toys but we not only had fun. we learnt to improvise with materials at hand. We learnt to socialize and learned many a lesson in getting along with others and the consequences of cheating on one’s friends. The toys we had served us well at very little cost. There are still papier-mache toys in the stalls at the Shwedagon Pagoda and earthenware and glazed pottery toys at pagoda festivals. But. sign of the times. there are also many ugly plastic toys.
So. for me. it was refreshing and heartening to see my grandchild and her friends taking up again. the toys that had given me so much joy in my childhood.