Published in Articulations, Sunday Herald on September 27, 2015
As one travels farther, one finds that in similar ecospheres the ways of livelihood, customs and modes of communication manifest a thousand different shades. And therein lies the wonder of travelling.
For me, the experience of life around Inle Lake in the Shan State of Myanmar is one of mixed feelings.The unique biosphere of Inle Lake is located in the centre of the greatest depression in Myanmar’s Nyaungshwe Valley, situated between two mountain ranges, with River Salween flowing in between. With a length of 22 km, a width of 11 km, and an elevation of approximately 900 metres, it’s considered the second-largest natural lake in the country.
It’s rich in a variety of fish (at least 20 different species of snails native to Inle), the foremost of which is the carp.
The fishermen here use conical-framed gill fishing net with a narrow end, not less than seven to eight feet from top to bottom. They belong to the native Intha tribe and are known for their traditional method of fishing. They use both hands to handle the fishing spear to get the fish into the net, and manoeuvre the long paddle deftly, with their legs twined around it.
This is close to an acrobatic feat because they stand at the very edge of the bow.
The Inle Lake is remarkable for its unique method of farming. The crops are grown on ‘floating farms’, which are anchored at regular stretches to the shallower areas of the lake floor by long bamboo poles.
The farming area itself is a moving entity, with a floor of strong, dry weeds and clusters of water Hyacinth (sea grass) bonded with mud, which is further strengthened by a mat of grass.
These farms are about a metre thick and very stable though they appear deceptively fragile. The seedlings grow supported on canes. This structure allows the farms to perennially float on the water and to rise and fall with the water levels.
The weed, unique to the lake, is gathered from the lake bottom and used as manure as well as beds for their farms.
The crops? Well, tomatoes, cucumber, gourds, beans, cauliflower, peas, tobacco and flowers are grown in three crop cycles annually. These are used for local consumption and are sold in the ‘floating’ markets.
Tomato is a staple crop and presents itself rather creatively on salad plates in the restaurants fringing the lake area. It tastes delicious with a dressing of crushed and roasted sesame seeds and groundnuts.
The Intha or ‘sons of the soil’ are believed to be of Tibeto-Burmese descent, more specifically the Mons, who migrated to Southeast Asia from the Mongolian Plateau some 2,000 years ago. They are the followers of Theravada Buddhism, as are most Burmese. Lotuses grow in abundance on the lake and are used for an entirely novel purpose, unique to Inle. Lotus stems are snipped and the delicate fibre is pulled nimbly off the stems.
These strands are then put together onto a spool (the Indian charkha), dyed with colours, and worked on the handlooms to produce scarves, shawls, stoles etc. It’s a labour-intensive industry and handled entirely by women. This is the famed Lotus Silk ‘ the true ahimsa silk.
Handmade paper cottage industry in the lake area is quite prominent. The young branches of the paper mulberry tree are stripped, soaked in water for a couple of days, and then boiled for six to eight hours. The finer ones are used for paper and the tougher ones are used to create umbrellas and fans.
Once the boiling is done, the softened wood is beaten at length with a wooden mallet till a fine pulp emerges, which is then swished deftly. A wooden frame with a porous cotton backing is laid onto a shallow water tank, and the pulp (silky smooth by now) is poured onto the frame. The frame is put out to dry.
The wet paper is often embellished with seasonal fresh leaves and flower petals, left to dry and then carefully prised from the frame. The result is enchanting translucent sheets of paper of excellent quality, strength and beauty.
Silver work is of indigenous craftsmanship, and the silver of excellent quality is picked up as souvenirs.
Cheroot-making is also a thriving cottage industry handled by women. There are variations in flavour ‘ the star anis, tamarind and banana. They are rolled deftly by hand, the sides pasted with rice gum, flavoured tobacco poured then into the cylindrical chutes of leaf and tucked in.
The Lotus Silk and the cheroots together account for the primary source of cash income for the Inthas.
As you pass by on your boat, there are picturesque village homes on stilts, which means the mode of transport here is solely the boat, known as the sampan. There are approximately 17 villages around the lake.
One of the religious attractions in the area is the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda. It is said to be the most sacred in the southern Shan State, and one of the most famous shrines in the country.
Two more pagodas found around the lake are Shwe Indein Pagoda and Alodaw Pauk Pagoda.
Another experience of the gustatory variety is the Shan Noodles ‘ the delightfully spicy rice noodles, aromatic with an abundance of sprouts, greens, spring onions, fermented sugarcane sauce and soy sauce powder. It’s both filling and nourishing.
Imported seed varieties, increased use of pesticides and reducing oxygen levels are beginning to damage the unique ecosystem of the lake. The fish population faces serious threat and traditional farming is taking a hit.
Intha fishermen, masters of the distinctive fishing, are becoming fewer in number.