Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Burmese Laundry

The Meditator Guidebook to Burma is in its final stages! As the guide gets closer to publication, we will begin to share excerpts of what yogis may expect... some sneak previews of what is to come. Here is an excerpt from the "Monastic Life" chapter on how to do laundry by hand during a stay at a monastery:

Most monasteries (along with the majority of rural Burmese homes) do not have laundry machines. In earlier years in Europe and the US, laundry was one of the more important (and time-consuming) household chores, but since the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century and the advent of automatic washers and dryers in the 1950s, many Westerners have forgotten what it takes to properly clean clothing by hands. The longer one stays at a monastery, the more interested one tends to become in the simpler tasks of life, some of which our modern age has made irrelevant (and thus for many, incapable of accomplishing without the aid of electrical assistance). When it comes to manual washing, foreign yogis employ differing strategies, though for many it involves little more than swishing the fabric in soapy water in imitation of what seems to happen in laundry machines, and then squeezing them out to dry. It is ironic that many Westerners copy the automatic washers, since the first crank-operated laundry machines in the West themselves copied the hand-washing methods at the time, as a built-in lever moved clothing between two ribbed surfaces. These earlier examples point to one key fact: agitation removes dirt (alas, the same cannot be said for meditation).

While gently swishing clothing in water for a few minutes may loosen some dirt, for real cleanliness it is necessary to beat or knead it. In the early days in the West this was done on special rocks called beetling-stones and with wooden mallets known as battling-blocks; in Myanmar today these same items are still used and referred to as a wut shaw kyauk pyar and a wut yite dote, respectively. Most monasteries and villages have a few smoothed rocks or wooded platforms that are used specifically for laundry washing, and keep several wooden mallets that can be used for pounding. It may also be helpful to request a thermos of hot water as this will work to better pry off the dirt.

As for soap, normal detergent can be purchased, or alternatively you can use the local method of mixing in the natural soapy sand (sut pyar) that comes from central Myanmar. Also used is sin chi tone sut pyar, or “elephant dung soap,” locally manufactured lumps of soap so called for their brownish black color and also used for dish-washing.

As for clothes-washing protocol, do not use the sink or bathing areas, as there are usually special buckets around the monastery designated for laundry use. For those not in robes, make sure not to take items intended for monks.

When finished, ask about where it is appropriate to hang your laundry before doing so. Undergarments are not usually hung outside at monasteries or in other public areas, and Burmese will often separate the upper and lower pieces of clothing, since the lower part of the body is considered more dirty. Happy washing!

Two women do laundry at a local water source in Upper Burma