Why do monks’ robes have different colors?

Burmese dress unlike other monks in Southeast Asia. Here in Myanmar, monks wear red-brown robes that are very unlike the ones you see in Thailand and Cambodia. Why is this exactly?

Access to dyes plays a big role

It’s not like the Great Lord Buddha ever stipulated that monks in Myanmar wear maroon-colored robes while their bald counterparts in Laos should wear more yellowish colors.

Most people believe that access to different kinds of pigment for dyes has played the biggest role in the diverse patterns of vibrancy we see across Buddhist countries today.

In this way, Myanmar’s monks became identified with maroon-colored robes because this was the easiest pigment to source vis-à-vis their Thai brethren who likely had better access to other materials for dyes.

Throughout the centuries, these colors have gradually been adopted and finally standardized. However, here in Myanmar at least, you will still see monasteries where a few monks make an exception to the color dogma of their respective monastery. Again, this can have a simple and pragmatic background as they just maybe just didn’t have more of the same color at the local shop.

Monks in white robes? Really?

In this way, the colors very rarely say anything about rank. However, there are a few “Sayadaws” (senior monks) who choose to distinguish themselves by sporting a different hue but, again, sometimes this can just be because they have been donated a particularly expensive robe.

This novice monk is getting ready for his last meal of the day at Mahagandayone Monastery in Mandalay. The meal has to be consumed before noon – and then he won’t eat again until sunrise. The marble tablets in the background carry the names of donors of food, materials and money.

You may know that Buddhist nuns wear pink robes – but if you see young monks in white robes, who are they then?

It’s customary for monks here in Myanmar to undergo a six-month trial period during which they wear this rarely-seen outfit. The white color is a testament to the fact that the boys are yet to prove themselves to have the discipline and dedication required to enter the ranks of proper monks who exercise restraint and live an ascetic existence.

If the hopeful youths can control themselves and their worldly desires during the entirety of this trial period, they will be allowed to drape themselves in the holy robes.

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