27 March 2004

How Padre Carlo Came to Phekhon, Burma

My tribe were mostly animists, although some were Buddhists, who worshipped the Nats. These nature spirits are not peculiar to the Burmans, who had received them into Burmese Buddhism, but are part of popular religion in most of South-East Asia.... But my grandfather, and later his wife, were converted to Catholicism.

It was an unusual conversion, brought about involuntarily by an Italian missionary, Padre Carlo, who was on his way to China. He had no intention of winning Phekhon for the Church, and was simply passing through. My grandfather was out on a hunting trip, and came upon this strange being, who he decided was either a wild beast or a khimakha (an ogre in the style of the Tibetan yeti, that looks like a cross between a bear and an ape and is tall as a tree). So he captured him and brought him home. Padre Carlo was chained in a pigsty for the night, where his wailings and lamentations could be heard throughout the village. He made signs that he wished to eat, and accepted some cooked rice. This made the villagers suspect that he might, after all, be a human being, and that therefore he had rights, including traditional hospitality. (Some doubts about his humanity lingered, due to the fact that he had no toes. The Padaung had never before seen shoes.) He was persuaded to stay in the village for the rest of his life, and in due course converted the whole village to Catholicism, except for my grandfather. He finally consented to join the new religion only after he lost a wrestling match with the priest, whom he had challenged about the power of his god. The Christian God was obviously potent, because my grandfather was taller and more powerfully built than the priest, who was anyway suffering from malaria at the time.
SOURCE: From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey, by Pascal Khoo Thwe (HarperCollins, 2002), p. 25

No comments: