The Equestrian Festival

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The Equestrian Festival

Culture is the measure by which the progress of a nation or country is rated. Although material prosperity is the basic essential factor in all-round national development it is in culture that all modes of progress co nsummate; while the standard of living attests material prosperity cultural achievement epitomizes all human refinements. Myanmar is a country rich in natural resources and as a nation in the modern world, her material prosperity is yet to be achieved. But her cultural attainment has reached a certain advanced stage of progress, as proved by her expressions in all media of traditional arts.


Monthly festivals held in Myanmar reflect some aspects of Myanmar culture. Based upon the lunar system, the Myanmar calendar has twelve seasons. Each month or season is marked with a separate zodiacal sign and nature changes with the change of season. So we have twelve seasonal climates and special flowers which bloom profusely in each season are marked as seasonal flowers. Festivals held every season are also called seasonal festivals.

Of the twelve seasonal festivals, two have the background of Hindu-Brahmanic belief - the Thingyan or water festival held in April depicts the legend of Sukka and Brahma the two Hindu Deities and the Maha Peinhnè Festival held in December is the Festival of another Hindu deity "Ganesha". Eight festivals held in May, June, July, August, October, November, February and March are associated with the Lord Buddha, Buddhism and Buddhist culture and two festivals held in September and January are royal festivals namely the Royal Regatta and Royal Equestrian Tournament respectively.

January is the "Makara" season (Capricorn). It is the peak of Myanmar winter. Its zodiacal sign is "Makan" a mythical sea monster resembling a crocodile with a prehensile snout. In this season the northerly cold breeze turns the environment misty and chilly and "Kwa Nyo" (Clematis) "Thazin" (fragrant orchid) and "Ga-mone" (aromatic herbal plant) bloom. They are the season flowers of January. At night the cold azure firmament is sprayed with myriads of constellations. "Hpou Sha" constellation rival the silvery moon in beauty and gloss. "Hpou Sha" is an asterism of ten stars in Cancer (Praecipe). The chilly breeze wafts fragrance from nowhere. In such a pleasant season, equestrian tournaments which require skill, knack, martial art, bravery and physical exertion were held in the courtyard of the Palace and they were watched by the king, his family and court.

Just as the Royal Regatta held in September was the display of the king's "water forces", equestrian tournaments were a sort of military parade of royal "land forces" including horses, elephants, chariots, foot soldiers, archers, shieldsmen, swordsmen, lancers, and so on. Later, about 14th century A.D, gunmens and artillerymen appeared in Myanmar land forces.

The earliest evidence of the Festival of Equestrian Tournaments that can be traced so far was found in the literature of Pinya Period (A.D. 1298-1364) of Myanmar history. It was in the reign of King Thihathu (A.D. 1298-1324) that one unknown author composed a "Kyo" song describing a love-forsaken court lady longing for her lover who was an officer of some rank, seen riding his white steed to the Equestrian Tourney. But this evidence alone cannot establish that evidence of equestrian skill originated in the Pinya Period; however, because of lack of evidence in the previous periods does not necessarily rule out the possibility of such festivals held before the Pinya Period. Either evidence of such festival held in Pre-Pinya Periods have been not discovered or lost. Even if we accept Pinya Period as the date of its first appearance, there must have been before that date some initial stages of the festival. For cultural traditions and custom do not drop out of the blue. They evolve for several decades or centuries.

The Myanmar Traditional Equestrian Festival has two programmes - display and contest. Thirty seven different modes of horsemanship and thirty seven different styles of wielding the lance were demonstrated by select equestrian warriors. Men of letters of different historical periods have described them in verses of diverse forms. Also in Myanmar classical music and songs we find many compositions on the equestrian tourney. One outstanding piece of literary work on the 37 modes of horsemanship and 37 styles of lance playing are the 37 Luta verses and 37 songs composed by Maha Dhamma Thingyan, royal adviser to Kings Bodawpaya (A.D. 1819) and Bagyidaw (A.D 1819-1837). He submitted his compositions to the King. For easy memorisation, he also rhymed them in Than Bauk couplets.

In contests or tournaments 17 ways of horse-riding used in war and Myanmar traditional martial arts were demonstrated such as equestrian combat, combat on elephant back, horse race, horse riding, lance throwing, etc. The equestrian tourney was called in Myanmar "Set Thwin Pwe" or "Set Hto Pwe" because equestrians contested in lance-throwing to hit the centre of circular targets on poles. The King or the chief queen awarded the winners with scarves woven with gold or silver threads and a bunch of Thazin orchid.

King Thibaw (A.D. 1878-1885) the last Myanmar king held an Equestrial Tourney Festival in A.D. 1878 which was probably the last festival of its kind. It was recorded in the chronicle "Konbaung Set Maha Yazawun Taw Gyi" vol. 3 as follows:

"In the year 1240 M.E, the second waning day of Pyatho (January), to make preparation for holding of equestrian festival and tourney in accordance with the traditional display of cavalry, elephantry, chariotry, archery, and demonstrations of princely martial arts as staged by the previous kings of the past five circular target posts were set up in a straight line in the courtyard on the leftside of Myay Nan Palace Building. The heights of the five circular target posts ranged from 5 cubits, 20 cubits, 25 cubits, 30 cubits to 50 cubits. On the northside of the royal Thetkadan Staircase, a royal pavilion was built. It was decorated with royal emblems and was ready for the events."

" On the 3rd waning day of Pyatho, princes, ministers, minister of the Interior, commander of Palace Guard, Knights, commanders, and army officers dressed in their military uniforms rode caparisoned steeds. Each with 10 lances participated in the contest. Riding the horse at high speed, each by turn, threw a lance at a time, at the circular target on the post, until all ten lances had been thrown. Princes dressed in the army uniform of their rank also contested.

His Majesty wearing a priceless military uniform and gem-studded helmet and the Chief Queen and the court came out in state to the Pavilion from where they watched the Equestrian Tourney. His Majesty and Chief Queen awarded each of the winners a scarf woven with gold or silver threads and a bunch of Thazin flower for every lance that hit the centre the circular target. When the tournament of equestrian lancers was over, officers of Cassay Horse (Manipuri Regiment) and Akkabat House (Assamese Regiment) of cavalry and their equerries gave demonstrations of their skill in weaponry and horsemanship such as cutting banana stems, lime fruit and water pot with swords, spears and lancers while riding at high speed and different techniques of horse-riding. After seeing them His Majesty, the Chief Queen and the court entered the Palace."

One princely game played at the Equestrian Tourney Festival was "Gu-lee" a kind of polo game. In Myanmar history and literature the word "Gu lee" has been spelt and pronounced differently. This game was one of the favourite games which Myanmar royalty nobility and aristocracy played any time of the year. But being an equestrian game which required skill in horse-riding, it was included in the programme of Equestrian Tourney. All countries with horse tradition claimed the origin of this game. Mongolia, China, Persia, Tibet, and most central Asiatic countries deserve such claim because they all have "Gu-lee" game. How and when the Gu-Lee game came to Myanmar no one can tell for sure. One can only surmise from what anthropologists and historians say. Ethnically Myanmars are of Mongoloid stock; they still have cultural traits not dissimilar to those of the Mongols. The time when their forefathers migrated gradually from Central Asia riding horses and driving caravans in quest of new pastures in Myanmar where the grass was green and water was clean their Mongoloid traditions and customs including the equestrian game like "Gu lee" were introduced into Myanmar. But historians say that "Gu lee" game appeared in Myanmar chronicles and literature only in the 15th century and from Taungoo Period (A.D. 1752-1885) "Gu lee" was the popular game among ruling class. Court bards composed different forms of verse describing this game in association with the Equestrian Tourney Festival. Prince Nat Shin Naung, the vice-royal of Taungoo and noted poet composed many ratu verses on "Gu lee" games.

In Myanmar traditional performing arts also, "Gu lee" game was composed, sung and mimed in dances. Thirty seven songs of propitiation for 37 nat-spirits have descriptions of the Gu lee game. In the dance gestures of the primadonna's inaugural dance in Myanmar traditional drama or puppet show, were mimetic dance movements of horse-riding and playing the Gu lee game. One of the 37 nat-spirits in the Myanmar pantheon was "Nat Shwe Nawrahta, a high-ranking officer at the court of King Shwe Nan Kyawt Shin of Inwa Period. He was an excellent Gu lee player. Legend has it that when he became a nat spirit after his violent death, songs were sung extolling his mastery of the Gu lee game. His statues have a Gu lee rod in one hand and a Gu lee ball in the other. In view of such evidence one may say that Myanmar already had the Gu lee game long before the British introduced it as Polo in colonial times.

With the loss of independence in 1885 the Equestrian Festival and Tournament ceased. The Royal Regatta also disappeared, though boat races were held locally. British horse racing was introduced, at Mandalay and Yangon race courses, and horse races were held for revenue and fund raising not for cultural purpose. Many people were ruined by betting at the horse races.

Young generations have no idea of what royal regatta and equestrian tourney are like. They learn about them only in school text books. One noted song composer of Mandalay named Myo Ma Nyein composed two modern songs on the royal regatta and equestrian tourney "Yey Khin Taw" and "Myin Khin Taw" respectively and they were two of his many hits.

Thanks to the joint effort of the Government and the public, royal regatta festivals had been revived and held for seven consecutive years. In October 1993, the Equestrian Tourney Festival made its debut in Aung San Stadium, Yangon providing a golden opportunity for every Myanmar citizen to see the long forgotten royal pageant and events and to recapture the glorious past.

Dr. Khin Maung Nyunt



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