As a foreigner living in Myanmar from 2016-2020, I became accustomed to greeting people with one sparkling Burmese phrase: Mingala-ba!
My guidebook told me that it meant something akin to “auspiciousness unto you”.
Everywhere I went, Burmese people used it too. In airports, hotels, restaurants, and cafés, the service staff would address me with an equally enthusiastic Mingala-ba and we were off to a running start.
But as I came to meet more and more Burmese people on a personal level, it quickly became apparent that they very rarely used this uber-formal greeting amongst themselves (in fact, it started to seem like a conspiracy to use it only with foreigners!).
Whenever I listened to them greet each other in the street, they usually said sa-pi-pi-la? (have you eaten?) or nay-kaun-yay-la? (how are you?) or bay-thwa-m’lo-lay (for what/where are you going?), or simply nothing at all.
Moreover, when I dug a little deeper into the history books, I learned that this surprisingly ubiquitous phrase was, in fact, like so many aspects of Burmese culture, a modern invention.
The anthropologist Gustaaf Houtman has written that, much like the Thai greeting Swa-dee-ka, the Burmese phrase Mingala-ba first emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, coined as a Burmese language equivalent to ‘hello’ or ‘how are you’ in English.
Before that, Burmese had no official greeting.
More often than not, Burmese people would wish each other kyan-ma-ba-say “good health” or just say “Good Morning” in English.
Burmese-English language phrase books intended for the use of British colonial officers in the 19th century tend to list ma-ee-la?, ma-ba-ee-la? or kin-pya ma-yay-la? as the best Burmese equivalents for “how do you do?” alongside such useful phrases as “bring a brace of pistols” and “fetter the elephant and turn him out!.”
Mingala-ba, however, is nowhere to be found.
So where do the phrase’s origins lie?
According to the scholar and journalist Bo Bo Lan Sin, new year’s day in Myanmar was traditionally celebrated by Buddhists as Mingala-aka-daw-nay or the “day of great auspiciousness” on which the Mangala Sutta, one of the Buddha’s most important teachings, would be read aloud.
But Bo Bo writes that leading up to Burmese independence from Britain in 1948, the reciting of the Mangala Sutta inspired a movement within Burmese-Buddhist society called the Mingala Movement.
This was part of a larger conservative Buddhist movement for the renovation of Buddhist values in the face of modernity and Western influence with roots in the Burmese nationalist uprisings of the 1930s.
This movement was extremely successful, with Burmese prime minister U Nu attempting to make Buddhism the state religion in 1961.
(Myanmar is a majority Buddhist country, with some 90 percent of the country practicing Buddhism. But there are also Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Animists and representatives of numerous other faiths. There is still no state religion.)
In 1950, then-Secretary of the Railways, U Ba Than, and the lecturer, U Kyaw Htut, worked with the Young Men’s Buddhist Association (YMBA) to spread the Mingala Movement throughout the country.
They lobbied for the Mangala Sutta to be taught in schools and raised money to send Buddhist preachers into remote rural regions.
U Ba Than believed that by getting the Mangala Sutta into the hands of people, he might heal the moral decay in Burmese society caused by colonialism and the war wounds of World War 2.
As such, the Buddhist nationalist adherents of the Mingala movement greeted each other by saying Mingala-ba or “auspiciousness unto you”, but the greeting took a long time to catch on in the rest of Myanmar.
The main catalyst for its spread was public education.
Bo Bo writes that starting with the nationalization of schools under Gen. Ne Win’s government in 1964, English greetings were done away with and the formal greeting Mingala-ba substituted in their place. Consequently, one can still hear classrooms of children in Myanmar resounding with a chorus of Mingala-ba’s to this day.
This push to spread Buddhism and the Mingalaba greeting to the whole of Burma was aided by an official policy in the 1960s to teach the Burmese language in government schools (and not regional ethnic languages) and to reserve government jobs for ethnic Burmese.
The legacy of these twin policies of the Burmanization and Buddhification is evident today in the placement of Buddhist pagodas on prominent hilltops in ethnic areas and Burmese language road-signs in non-Burmese speaking regions.
In this way, the story of Mingalaba reminds us that even such fundamental cultural attributes as the way we say “hello” can be directly influenced by politics, religion and historical events.
Gustaaf Houtman, Mental Culture in Burmese Crisis Politics (1999).
Bo Bo Lan Sin, မင်္ဂလာနေ့ နဲ့ မင်္ဂလာပါအစ – BBC News မြန်မာ (2018).
U.S. War Department Burmese Phrase Book, March 10, 1944
Marlborough’s Burmese “Self-Taught” by R.F. St. A. St. John 1911
Vocabulary and Phrase Book in English and Burmese by Cephas Bennett (1886).