The Shinbyu or novitiation ceremony is one of the most important events in a Buddhist's life in Myanmar. Novitiation means allowing boys to enter the Buddha's Order of Sangha (or monks) as a novice after shaving their heads, donning robes, and asking permission in Pali to become a novice.
Myanmar people regard their lives to be incomplete if they themselves, or their sons, have not been novices. Parents normally sponsor a novitiation as an obligation, but certain well-wishers can also contribute if the boy's own parents cannot afford the expense or if he is an orphan. The tradition dates back to the time of the Buddha some 2,500 years ago when the Buddha granted His son the heritage of becoming a novice.
Now the occasion is usually associated with much fanfare, and charity feasts are held for invited guests and relatives of the sponsors. There are now also grand ceremonies of mass novitiation, in which sometimes up to a thousand affluent well-wishers sponsor a number of boys who have been unable to become novices.
Novitiation ceremonies are usually held during the summer around the time of the water festival when schools are closed for the year-end vacation. Boys aged between 9 and 12 are beautifully dressed in princely attire that can be attributed to the fact that the Buddha's son had been a prince himself.
When the procession begins, the boys ride the caparisoned horses, shaded with gilded umbrellas, accompanied by parents, family members and local women girls carrying sets of yellow robes, offerings and an ornate betel box. A band of music troupe and dancers accompanies the procession which leads to a suburban nat or spirit home where prayers and devotions are held.
Then the procession visits a pagoda to pay homage to the Buddha and do meritorious deeds. If the ceremony occurs in big cities like Yangon, the procession is a convoy of cars rather than horses, and the Shwedagon Pagoda is visited.
Finally, the novitiates return home, change clothes and rest until they visit a monastery late in the afternoon. There, the monks shave the boys' heads and the hair is caught in a white cloth by the closest of kin. Then the boys have to beg permission in Pali to the head monk to be novitiated, and the ceremony is then conducted. After prayers, the boys don robes and the transformation occurs. The fresh novices have to stay in the monastery for a retreat of at least seven days under the care of the residing monks, following every set of rules, studying Buddhist scriptures and making the most of their stay there.
While Myanmar boys are novitiated in the Shinbyu ceremony, the girls also have an important ceremony in which their ear lobes are pierced so they can wear ear-rings when they come of age. Unlike the novitiation ceremony, this is more a social than religious even, and Myanmar women have traditionally worn ear-rings as ornaments as well as status symbols. The ear-rings can be made of silver or gold, with or without gemstones set in them, or they can be of modern design, and are interchangeable to match the dress and to suit the occasion.
This ceremony of young girls usually coincides with the boys' novitiation rather than being held on its own. The girl, usually a sister of the novices-to-be, can have her ears pierced on her own or in a group depending on the situation. On the day of the novitiation ceremony, the girl's ritual is held before the novitiation so they can then join the procession.
Ear lobes were pierced, rather painfully, with a spike in the olden days, but now piercing guns are mostly used. Most Myanmar girls used to regard this ritual as the most important and auspicious ceremony in their lives apart from the wedding. But this ritual is no longer as popular although the majority of women wear ear-rings.
Diners serve curry and rice onto their plates. They can ask for a second helping or they can self serve if there no attendants. After the meal is finished, dessert including fresh fruits and snacks is served.