Monday, April 6, 2015

Content Constitution: Inle Lake

As we expand on our country of Menas, I want to do something that will help establish that Menas is a more temperate area than the real country that inspires it.  Recently I ran across an article on io9 about a lake in Burma.  Satellite pictures of the lake over time show the lake shrinking.  But, it's not drying up.  What's happening instead is that farmers are planting crops directly on the lake's surface (see below for how) so that it appears to be shrinking, but isn't.  I like the idea of sticking a lake somewhere in the Hadria, about where the foothills transform into mountains.  A giant lake helps telegraph, "this place is not a desert," which I think goes a long way to helping us split our fictional kingdom from its real world inspiration point.

NASA satellite photo of Inle Lake, Burma
Lake itself
The lake itself is medium sized and freshwater.  It's not particularly deep.  Most places the lake floor is no deeper than a foot or two beyond the height of the tallest men.  However, in some areas the lake can be twice as deep as that.  One large patch in the southeastern part of the lake is about this deep.  Areas in the northwestern part of the lake, where its watershed feeds into it, tend to be shallower.  These depths are for the summer evaporation which can lower the water's elevation by as much as five feet before temperatures cool at the beginning of September.  At the end of spring, when runoff is highest, all points in the lake are at least five feet deeper (12-17 feet depth).  Islands dot the lake.  The lake dra"lake drains from two rivers on its southern shore.  One of these runs eastward, and forms the boundary between areas considered part of the Hadria/Menas' coastal cities and the eastern steppes.  The other, larger river runs south towards Aden, where it meets the ocean in the Gulf of Aden.

On Inle, crops are grown directly on the lake  
IMG_1568, (c) 2011 Ken Marshall
Over twenty species of snails and nine species of fish in the lake are found nowhere else in the world. Some of these, like the silver-blue scaleless Sawbwa barb, the crossbanded dwarf danio, and the Lake Inle danio, are of minor commercial importance.  The Sawbwa forms the basis for a spicy local paste made by crushing its bones and combining them with spices.  Both danio species are large, carnivorous fish.  They hunt outsiders, but avoid the native Intha for reasons unkown.

On the lake's eastern shore, about 2/3 the way northwards up the lake, lay the Tather Caverns.  The Caverns are accessible only via an underwater tunnel for most of the year.  Only during height of summer are the caves accessible due to seasonal evaporation.  Even then, most entering the caves must wade through water that's chest-deep.  There's a small shrine/temple to [insert deity here] located here.  This works as a shrine to a good or an evil deity.  If a shrine to a benevolent god, it would be cool if there were people who live in the shrine year-round and who can only access the rest of the world during the month the caves are dry.  This is also the month of the major religious festival, when the blessed shrine dwellers return to the population at large.  Additionally, some roles in the region's society (definitely priests, probably some other civil leaders) must spend apprenticeships of at least one year in the shrine purifying themselves before they can be vested with their roles.

Canal in the Inle Lake Area, (c) 2011 Exotissimo Travel

People of Lake Inle
Those who live on Lake Inle's shores are known as the Intha.  The Intha are known as living in harmony with nature.  They claim a greater share of Andaran blood than most humans, and for that reason are left in peace by the Hardan dwarves, who see them as a symbol of the blessing of [insert deity's name here] on the area.

Unfortunately, Menas civil war affects the Menas of Inle Lake as well.  There is a force loyal to Rodrick I nearby.  Pinned in by Hardan forces all around, this group has retreated to the Inle Lake area, which they are able to hold due to the difficult passes that provide the only known means to reach the area.  Unfortunately, the large military force and the Intha require more food than the lake can easily grow.  The soldiers have requisitioned food from the locals, causing strife among them.  It's a matter of time before hungry mouths among the locals spark violence, though it is anathema to the Intha's ways.  The people are waiting now, but if the priests within the sunken shrine of [insert deity's name here] proclaim war upon the invading force when their surface access returns, a bloodbath could easily ensure.
The Inthas' homes are built on stilts.  Inle Lake Mynamar, (c) 2014 Clay Gilliland

Inle Lake 06, (c) 2008 Ben Belske

The Intha live in simple houses of wood and woven bamboo on stilts; they are largely self-sufficient farmers.  Transportation on the lake is traditionally by small boats.  Local fishermen are known for practicing a distinctive rowing style which involves standing at the stern on one leg and wrapping the other leg around the oar. This unique style evolved for the reason that the lake is covered by reeds and floating plants making it difficult to see above them while sitting. Standing provides the rower with a view beyond the reeds. However, the leg rowing style is only practiced by the men. Women row in the customary style, using the oar with their hands, sitting cross legged at the stern.

Floating farms
The io9 article notes "the tomatoes aren't literally floating, they're being supported by a vast network of water hyacinth roots that have grown together so tightly that they're capable of supporting another plant on top." What happens is that farmers gather up lake-bottom weeds from the deeper parts of the lake, bring them back in boats and make them into floating beds in their garden areas, anchored by bamboo poles. These gardens rise and fall with changes in the water level, and so are resistant to flooding. The constant availability of nutrient-laden water results in these gardens being incredibly fertile. Rice cultivation is also significant."
Plants on the lake grow so thick that the surface appears to be ground rather than water.  
Inle Lake, Myanmar, (c) 2014, Ken Marshall
In addition to crops grown on the lake, there are also the famous Inle Carp, a regular part of the Inthan diet.  They're popular lightly oiled and fried as well as part of htamin gyin - 'fermented' rice kneaded with fish and/or potato  Another well-known Inle dish is Htamin jin - a rice, tomato and potato or fish salad kneaded into round balls dressed and garnished with crisp fried onion in oil, tamarind sauce, coriander and spring onions often with garlic, Chives root, fried whole dried chili, grilled dried fermented beancakes and fried dried tofu are frequent side dishes or accompaniments.

Water hyacinths near tangling the gate to one of the floating
Inlé Gate, (c)2014 ALWinDigital
The water hyacinth is the plant that allows the food crops to rest on the lake without sinking.  At one time, all boats coming into Nyaung Shwe were required to bring in a specified amount of water hyacinth.  But, it's not native to the lake.  In recent years, this has created challenges.  Because the water hyacinth grows so quickly, its starting to fill in the smaller streams and large portions of the lake.  This problem is less pronounced on the lake's northern shores.  Locals believe that non-native plants grow poorly in that area due to the ruined temple's influence.  But in the other sections of the lake, water hyacinth is growing with abandon and robbing native plants and animals of nutrients and sunlight.
The Maccarian Temple is located on the western side of Lake Inle.  Like all
habitations on the Lake, it has docks for easy water access.  Unlike many
other structures, it sits on solid ground, housing the five sacred statues.

Mandaly Inle_3, (c)2007 Oriol Gascon

Maccarian Temple
The Maccarian temple is located on the western side of the lake, roughly two-thirds of the way towards the southern shore.  Its pagoda houses five small gilded images of [insert deity here], which have been covered in gold leaf to the point that their original forms cannot be seen. The gold-leaf application to such excess is relatively recent. Older Inthan remember a time when the images were unadorned. There are rumors that some of gold has been removed on occasion.  Whether this removal was for proper religious reasons or represents nefarious activity by the clergy is up to the GM.  Maybe some local bad seeds have been removing gold while the pure-hearted clergy are holed up for eleven months out of the year.

The five statues are of differing sizes and range from about nine to eighteen inches tall. Made of gold, they are extremelly heavy.  According to Inthan beliefs, the statues were placed in the temple by Inthan's mythic Andaran forebears during the time when the Andarans ruled over humans in the area, before their leader was slain by the first Nulkavii Emperor.  Although the temple is open to all, only men are permitted to place gold leaf on the images.  Such a sing of respect is believed to bring [insert name of deity here]'s blessing.  However, only women are permitted to place a small robe or other article of clothing around the images.  This article can be taken back to their houses and placed on their own altar to invoke [insert deity's name here] blessing on all that live within the home.

Local market far away in the south of the Inle Lake (Myanmar)
(c) 2009, Dieter Zirnig
A local market serves most common shopping needs and is held daily but the location of the event rotates through five different sites around the lake area, thus each of them hosting an itinerant market every fifth day. Sometimes it is held on the lake itself, and trading is conducted from small boats.   Shan-bags, a type of tote-bag, are produced in large quantities here. Silk-weaving is another very important industry, producing high-quality hand-woven silk fabrics of distinctive design called Inle longyi. A unique fabric from the lotus plant fibers is produced only at Inle lake and is used for weaving special robes for [insert deity name here]'s statues.  These are called lotus robes.  The Inthan also make handmade cigars cheroots (from tobacco, honey, rice flour, tamarind, banana, and anise).

Buddha festival at Phaungdaw Oo Paya, (c) 2013 Zniper
Locations of interest in the area include: The Gypsy Inn (boarding house), the Smiling Moon (sprawling tavern cum boardinghouse.  The main structure floats on the lake and is several stories tall.  Guestrooms are separate structures accessed via boardwalks from the main building.), the Red Mountain Winery (located in the hills on the eastern side of the Lake Inle valley and known for its spectacular sunset views), and Inle Speaks (claims to host an oracular water spirit tied to the lake which tells fortunes for those who pay a fee or perform a service to the spirit and/or its handlers).

Harvest Festival
During the festival, the statues travel the lake on barges
built to look like mythical birds.
 Inle Lake Myanmar,
(c) 2014, Clay Gilliland
The Harvest Festival begins on the night of the full moon halfway between midsummer and the autumnal equinox.  During this 18-day festival, four of the Buddha images are placed on a replica of a royal barge designed as a coatl and taken throughout Inle Lake. The elaborately decorated barge is towed by several boats of leg-rowers rowing in unison, and other accompanying boats, making an impressive procession on the water. The barge is towed from village to village along the shores of the lake in clockwise fashion, and the four images reside at the main monastery in each village for the night.  One image always remains at the temple.  Though the local story is that statue prefers not to travel, the truth is that during a particularly windy day, when the waves were high on the lake, the barge carrying the statues capsized, and they tumbled into the lake.  Divers could not recover one image.  When the priests returned to the temple, a translucent image of the missing statue glowed in its traditional place.  Those viewing the statue's outline then saw the sanctuary transformed.  Only the oldest of them recognized it as the sanctuary of the former ruined temple now in ruins on the northwestern corner of the lake.  Locals believe that the statue traveled there through [insert deity's name]'s will.  It was at this time that non-native plant life began withering near that portion of Inle Lake.

The statues travel across the region, visiting
towns as well as the four minor temples on
the lake.
  Inle Lake, (c) 2013 Christopher
The high point of the festival is on the day when the images arrive at the main town on the lake's eastern shore.  There most pilgrims from the surrounding region come to pay their respects and veneration to [insert deity's name here].  Originally, the high priest of [insert deity's name here] would personally welcome the statues to the town. They would be taken from the barge and a grand procession would take them to the palace, entering its prayer hall from the western entrance.  Unfortunately, the high priest vanished on the night that a star fell from the heavens, bringing both darkness and flame to his temple on Inle Lake's northwestern shore.  Since the temple's ruination, the priests of [insert deity's name here] spend the night before traveling to the main town with the statues on the lake in memory of the night when the statues would spend time at the former temple.

Haunted Ruined Temple
Abandoned Temples, (c) 2009, Ed Brambley
On Inle Lake's northwestern shore lies a broken temple and a nearby hot spring.  At one time, it was the largest temple to [insert deity's name here].  It's sprawling campus was the center of his/her faith.  Then, years ago a star fell from the sky (or a meteor, or there was an earthquake, or magma shot from the earth, or other apocalypse of your choice) and brought the temple low.  The accident happened on the last night of the Harvest Festival, which is traditionally a time for contemplation.  Lighting any light is forbidden on that night.  People woke abruptly to cacophonous sounds and bright lights.  The following morning the few survivors began streaming into other settlements.  The high priest was dead.  Rescue parties were sent to the temple, but none returned.  None have visited the temple since that time and returned, save those who did so in a vision when one of the traveling statues of [insert deity's name here] was presumed to have been transported from the bottom of Inle Lake to the ruined temple's sanctuary.

An artists' rendering of the haunted temple.  Magical Myanmar,
(c) 2013 Christopher Michel
Inle Lake io9:
Inle Lake Wikipedia:
Hpaung Daw U Pagoda Wikipedia:
Inle Lake Wikitravel