There is, however, a more pragmatic reason behind the celebration: during the rainy season, farmers would complain of the monks (and anyone else for that matter) walking over their land, thus ruining the crops due to the soft, wet soil. Consequently, this was traditionally the period where the monks would stay in their monasteries and fast, only breaking it when the rainy season was over – an event which happily coincides with the anniversary of the Buddha’s return. Thus, the Festival of Lights commences the return to a normal lifestyle until the next year, and the first period of celebration after such a lengthy interlude of asceticism; it is not hard to see why it is just so popular and the Myanmarese of all people need little excuse to party and socialise.
There is, in fact, a palpable party atmosphere as we hop on a truck taking us up the mountain towards Kyaiktiyo, the Golden Rock Pagoda. A number of these trucks, holding approximately 50 people each, commute up and down the mountain to a kind of base camp. From there, pilgrims have to walk further up for about an hour, or pay to be carried in sedan chairs. Small children and luggage are carried in baskets strapped to the back. The route coils past an uninterrupted line of small shops and stalls, selling everything from traditional medicine (including rare animal parts) to souvenirs.
A constant stream of pilgrims is either climbing or descending the mountain – this is a very busy time of the year. Although I had seen many photographs of the Golden Rock and should, therefore, be prepared for what I’m about to witness, I still hold my breath when approaching for fear of it toppling over. I don´t dare risk being the one who shatters the fragile balance, even though as a woman, I’m not even allowed in the perimeter directly around it. My anxiety seems to be shared only by the other foreigners, who approach very cautiously; the Buddhist men, however, feel no such thing and approach the rock with all the confidence in the world as they go to paste on more layers of gold leaf. You can actually see through the gap between the rock and the spot upon which it rests – the point of contact is very fine indeed. It is utterly incomprehensible as to how the rock stays in place. According to Buddhist teachings, the rock remains in place by the grace of a single hair of the Buddha, which is enshrined in the small stupa crowning the boulder.
No other sacred site has been reproduced quite as much as Kyaiktiyo, whether it be in posters and paintings or more literally in concrete or in similarly shaped natural rocks that have been painted gold. It is considered one of the three most sacred sites in the country, after the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon and the Mahamuni Buddha in Mandalay. These are the favourite destinations for pilgrims and Thai tourists, who, like the people of Myanmar, also practice Theravada Buddhism. You can book an organised tour from Thailand, stopping off at the three different sites in four days of intense pilgrimage. The Thai pilgrims – the women at least – can easily be distinguished from the Myanmarese by their clothes. A sign at the entrance to the main area states: “Ladies are not allowed to wear trousers, short pants, miniskirts at square”. However, this rule is only enforced for the Myanmarese women, who dutifully pull their longyis over their trousers and skirts before entering the square.
Once in the big square, the Golden Rock glistens through the mist. The large crowd of pilgrims goes about their business: meditating, dozing on the ground in the shade, paying homage to the Rock, making donations, lighting candles and so on. Towards the evening, the crowd grows even bigger for the lighting ceremony. Thousands of candles are lit on a platform close to the rock itself. Together with the concentrated prayer and the rhythmic chanting, this creates a deeply mystical atmosphere which takes hold of every visitor. We stay a few nights on the mountain close to the Golden Rock and are lucky enough to enjoy a similar ceremony the following evening, with the ascending full moon as the perfect visual and spiritual backdrop to such an occasion, which is then rounded off by a dramatic thunderstorm that clears the site.
During the day, we watch celebratory dances of different tribes, follow donation ceremonies and even marvel at the outfits of some hermits who have emerged from their seclusion for the festival. It is impossible to avoid the many restaurants nearby; enticing ladies compete with each other as they attempt to lure in the next customer to their respective restaurants.
Often pilgrims will make their journeys to sites of worship since they are in need of answer, whatever the question may be. The Golden Rock, however, probably poses more questions than it answers. Yet it is a sacred site which doesn’t need to answer anything; it simply stands there and is, waiting to be worshiped and revered. The thousands of prostrating pilgrims are the proof of its efficacy, if any is needed at all.