Boxes, Baskets, Baubles and Bastions

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There seems to be no end of things gotten out of the toddy palm. There is yet one product which is a popular household equipment in rural and(urban homes. It is htan-khauk-pha, htan-khauk = toddy palm frond: pha= box or basket), it is called pha for short.


A pha is a box or basket woven with palm fronds. It is rectangular in shape and the lid is loose and when covered it fits to cover the four sides. A pha is strong and hardy. The cover is often woven in white and black squares, often with messages of goodwill or fair isle patterns.
Anyway you will need someone to pass a strong twine breadth wise while you press the pha with your knees. Make a noose and pull hard and fling the twine lengthwise and pull again and tie securely. There you are, the package is ready to take all the blows of the journey ahead.
Phas come in all sizes starting from small toys, sewing boxes to big packing cases. Big ones are good travellers. Light weight things like pillows, cushions, blankets and household linen can be pressed and squeezed into a pha; never mind if things are heaped high above the level. Just put the cover on and press hard with your body weight, and call in reinforcements if necessary.
Phas are very much sought after, especially at the pagoda festivals, where rows of stalls display products from all parts of the country. There are mats woven with fibres of toddy palm stems. Thsy are smooth and cool, very good for hot summer days.
Enough of this subject of phas, let me go on to other products. Toddy palm fronds are stormed into strips and dyed in bright colours. They are then woven into necklaces of fantastic shapes. They are children's delight. A little girl could be aprincess with a cache of jewellery.
One word of caution for those who would like to buy apha at a pagoda festival. Say the name in full, htan-khauk-pha, not the shortened form, pha. The versatility of the Myanmar monosyllable can often lead to embarrassing situations.
It is amazing how toddy palms serve man starting from the seedlings to the mature stage. The little green spike shooting out of the earth is made into a fan. The edge is hemmed with a strip of coloured cloth and the stem is cut to make a handle.
When the fronds are grown big and hardy, gigantic fans are made out of them. Such fans are used by monks as sun-shades. It also serves to safeguard the modesty of the monks, who are not supposed to let their eyes wander away from the path they are taking.
Toddy palm fronds are used as walling and roofing for huts, especially those watchouts on the farms and plantations. Since palm fronds are plentiful, farmers build the watch-out huts anew every year. The old ones are used as fuel. Toddy palm huts are cool and restful, just the thing for the hard working peasants.
Toddy palm trunks are like massive pillars too big and bulky for use as house posts. They are used as fencing round the villages. Villages in central Myanmar have toddy palm trunk walling and they have gates and sentry posts.
Villagers are proud of their village walling, which they say dates back to the days of Myanmar kings when armies built fortresses with the toddy palm trunks to hold the strategic positions. Villagers often Vie with each other in hyperboles.
1st villager: Our village wall is so high that you can't get a view of the inside even if you stood on an elephant's back.
2nd villager: Is that so? Things must have changed a lot, since I was there last week. The walling was such that given a bamboo pole, a tortoise could have jumped right in there!




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