The full moon of the Thadingyut month is when Buddhists believe the Buddha descended back to earth after three months of preaching in the spiritual realm above. While the rest of Myanmar celebrates it by lighting the Buddha's way home, the town of Kyaukse near Mandalay commemorates it a little differently: with a Elephant Dance Festival, populated not by real elephants, but by pairs of dancers in gigantic elephant costumes.

Hmm... What is it? What makes it so special? and how to join the festival? You will have all the answers below.

What is Kyaukse Elephant Dance Festival?

Kyaukse elephant dance festival is an annual major traditional dance festival in Myanmar. It is held is on the day before full moon day of the Burmese lunar month of Thadingyut and the full moon day in Kyaukse, near Mandalay. The festival has been celebrated every year since Bagan period and also grown in popularity among the growing number of foreign tourists visiting Myanmar. 

The colourful competition sees teams and individuals wearing elephant costumes perform various traditional dances.

Similar to Chinese’s dragon dance, the Kyaukse elephant dance is run by two men dancing inside the colorful paper and bamboo-decorated elephant structure, trying to match the dance beat and the drum rhythm. The dance pays homage to the Shwe Tha Lyaung pagoda by circling 3 times at the foot of the pagoda’s slope. This tradition aims to increase and strengthen the people’s unity. The magnificent elephants take a few months to create. People come together to play their part in preparing this piece of art.

These spectacular creations take months to prepare, constructed from a bamboo frame covered in colourful cloth, paper, and foil. The costumes are further decorated in glitter, gold foil, satin, ribbons, and glass gems to create a true work of art.

The festival lasts all day and includes both a parade and a dance competition. The day starts with a parade around the marketplace, with the elephants circling the market three times so that everyone can get a good look at the beautiful artwork. The competition begins in the morning and is judged by prominent local officials. The elephants are judged on various details including the precision and harmony of the dancing, the teamwork of the dancers, the construction of the elephant, and the music and singing involved.

Check the below Youtube video for more idea of What is Kyaukse Elephant Dance Festival.

The origin of Kyaukse Elephant Dance Festival

King Anawratha of Pagan obtained several Buddhist relics on a trip to China. Upon his return to Pagan, he decided to build a pagoda to house the precious relics. He strapped the replica of the Buddha's teeth to the back of his white elephant Sinma Yintha and told the elephant to choose a suitable spot for the new pagoda. When the elephant stopped in the two hills, named Thar Lyaung and Kha Yway, the monarch ordered the construction of pagodas on each summit and enshrined the relic at Shwe Thar Lyaung Pagoda. To honor the royal elephants a festival is held every year at the foot of Thar Lyaung mountain.

Elephant symbol and the culture of Myanmar

Myanmar’s culture is mainly influenced by not only Buddhism and the Mon people, but also their neighboring countries as mentioned above. Like many countries in Asia, Myanmar also adopted the elephant as one of their symbols. They believe that the White elephants are a symbol of power, prosperity, and peace.

When is Kyaukse Elephant Dance Festival?

On the Gregorian Calendar, the Dancing Elephants Festival takes place on the following dates:

Year Date Day
2020 October 31 Saturday
2021 October 20 Wednesday
2022 October 9 Sunday
2023 October 29 Sunday

Where is Kyaukse Elephant Dance Festival?

That said, the festival is organized in Kyaukse, 50km south of the famous Mandalay. Check the map below for your reference.

How to Celebrate Kyaukse Elepahant Dance Festival?

Since the days of King Anawratha, Kyaukse city upon Shwe Thar Lyaung hill has celebrated the elephant dance festival. Traditionally locals don a colourfully decorated, life-size elephant costume, welcoming the end of Thadingyut with a unique array of dance and acrobats. The festival is held every year on the day before full moon day of Thadingut with a total of 29 elephants gracing the stage – 17 traditional, six sequined, and six baby elephants, according to the committee. 

A huge elephant figure is made from bamboo and paper. The competition teams from various wards of Kyaukse. Men take their places inside the figure and dance around the town to the accompanied by drums, oboe, cymbals, brass gongs and bamboo clappers. The elephant dancers circles three times at the foot of the hill to pay homage to the Shwe Tha Lyaung Pagoda and then compete in front of a panel of judges. It is a dance that requires precise rhythm and timing in order for the elephant dancers to maintain unity inside the elephant figure. People from far and near come to visit Kyaukse and watch the elephant dance. 

Awards are given out to each distinct elephant group, for those that show the most convincing and traditional portrayal of the elephant dance. Winners get to take home a sum of cash prizes for their deft performances and hours of training. First-place winners of the traditional elephant contest receive K1 million; second place, K800,000; and third K600,000. Prizes are given out for the sequined and baby elephant competition as well, with financial support from the committee. 

On the full moon day, thousands of pilgrims carry small paper elephants 900 feet (275 metres) uphill to the pagoda on top of the Tha Lyaung hill. At the top, they walk around the pagoda three times clockwise and present their donations.

Keeping the tradition alive

Nowadays, the new generation of elephant dancers keep this tradition alive by holding a competition in the morning. The Kyaukse elephant dance festival is now a full-day event where people can watch the original tradition as well as enjoy the parade and the dance competition.

Such wonderful traditions preserve the culture of a country. By knowing the culture of a country, it becomes easier to transmit a message from the language spoken. When we talk about translations and the secrets of good quality in our blog, we often refer to the cultural knowledge a translator must-have Living in the country and seeing their traditions first-hand helps to comprehend what is hiding under the layers of words in a text. It is easier to grasp a meaning and to transmit a message.

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My name is Jolie, I am a Vietnamese girl growing up in the countryside of Hai Duong, northern Vietnam. Since a little girl, I was always dreaming of exploring the far-away lands, the unseen beauty spots of the world. My dream has been growing bigger and bigger day after day, and I do not miss a chance to make it real. After graduating from the univesity of language in Hanoi, I started the exploration with a travel agency and learning more about travel, especially responsible travel. I love experiencing the different cultures of the different lands and sharing my dream with the whole world. Hope that you love it too!

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