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A Séance with the Nats – Spirit worship in Myanmar

Mysterious Mount Popa and Nat Worship

The five transvestites, clad in traditional ladies’ costumes, gyrated and whirled in front of us to the accompaniment of crashing symbols and deafening tuneless music.

Soon, all five were in a trance, with glazed expressions and mumbling incoherently. We had been lucky to find a Pwe or Nat Festival at a Buddhist temple in Bago, an ancient city in the south of Myanmar (formerly called Burma).

The Burmese brand of Buddhism is unique as it incorporates nat – or spirit – worship. The nats are spirits of the trees, rivers, stones and the ghosts of ancestors.

They can be represented in human form, some as deities whilst others are rogues, thieves and alcoholics! We were watching a fertility dance aimed at luring a mischievous lady nat called Gadaw to the immediate vicinity. It was hoped that her influence at this séance would help a newly married couple to start a family.

A large, raucous crowd had gathered and the transvestite dance leader, the chief nat medium, was now staggering in circles, totally possessed by Gadaw.

Temple at Bagan.
Temple at Bagan.

At this point, our guide urged us to move quickly away, warning us that as nats are unpredictable spirits, they sometimes take possession of innocent bystanders in the watching crowd!

This had recently happened to a young American girl who then had to be exorcised by local monks.

Earlier, we had traveled to Mount Popa, an extinct volcano close to the central dry region of Myanmar. This mysterious, magical mountain, the traditional ‘home’ of the nats, has been an important pilgrimage site for the Burmese for centuries.

There are 37 different nats, which are not only capable of all sorts of mischief, but also when appeased, of granting generous favours – hence their popularity.

In the specially built shrine at Mount Popa, we came face to face with the nats – a display of colourfully dressed mannequin-like figures representing all these weird and wonderful spirits. Superstition says that you shouldn’t wear red or black in their presence, swear or say bad things about other people. By so doing, you could offend the nats who would retaliate with a spate of ill fortune.

Mannequin of the mischievous lady Nat ‘Gadaw’.
Mannequin of the mischievous lady Nat ‘Gadaw’.

Towering above this shrine is an amazing plug of volcanic rock, hundreds of feet high with a cluster of pagodas at its summit. We spent the next half-an-hour admiring its resident monkey population while clambering up the steep rickety walkway, which wound around the rock.

At the top, we joined pilgrims who were enjoying the calm ambience of the summit stupas and fantastic views over the surrounding countryside. Our hotel that night overlooked this astonishing rock pillar, and as we watched the sun sink below the horizon, it was easy to imagine that a nat might be lurking behind us listening for any verbal indiscretions!

The extraordinary temples of Bagan

No trip to Myanmar is complete without visiting Bagan, an ancient city founded in the 9th century at a strategic location on the banks of the Irriwaddy River.

It pre-dated the arrival of Buddhism in the country and its position was imbued with mystical significance due to its proximity to Mount Popa. This was the beginning of the golden age of Burmese art and architecture that lasted over 400 years before the city fell to Kublai Khan’s Mongol army in 1287.

The legacy of this great civilisation is one of the world’s most remarkable archeological sites with architectural masterpieces on par with Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. Concentrated in a 40 sq km area, over 2,200 pagodas still proudly stand, with another 2,000 in ruins!

We arrived at Bagan by river at dawn from Mandalay on a converted paddle steamer that dated back to the days of the British Raj. Rows of ornate pagodas lined the riverbank, some clad in gold leaf shimmering in the brilliant morning sunshine.

Mount Popa.
Mount Popa.

However, only after we had climbed to the top of the tallest did we appreciate the huge extent of the site. Pagodas stretched towards the horizon for as far as we could see across the dusty plain – a truly awe-inspiring panorama.

The variety of the different architectural styles in these ancient temples is staggering, even though most are constructed in brick. Their diverse interiors have an infinite range of Buddha images surrounded by decorations in bronze, wood, glazed tiles, lacquer and painted murals, all depicting Buddha’s life.

Each temple was built as an act of ‘merit’ – the largest by kings and the smallest by ordinary folk. Today, they continue to glorify the Buddhist faith, just as they were intended to by their founders, and throughout the year the locals hold frequent carnivals and pagoda festivals. Bagan is unforgettable and an uplifting spiritual experience for Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike.

The Burmese daily market

Taunggyi is an attractive town high in the Shan mountains and a former colonial hill station built as a cooling escape for British Raj officials.

Bagan child transport system.
Bagan child transport system.

It has a lively daily market, colourfully adorned by the ethnic tribal groups who come down from the hills clad in an array of traditional costumes.

We explored the myriad of stalls and alleyways with Aye-mar, our Shan guide, enjoying the exotic sights, sounds and smells of everyday Burmese life.

Their weights and measures system is a far cry from European metric standardization. It involves the use of the viss and the tical (pronounced tickle), with a 100 ticals to a viss, which weighs around 1.6 kgs.

On the basis that nothing ever goes to waste in Myanmar, old D size torch batteries are used as a standard on their scales because they weigh exactly five ticals.

Even more bizarre is their use of old Carnation condensed milk tins as a standard measure of volume for beans, spices and rice!

Aye-mar purchased a magnificent array of vegetables, herbs and plants at the market, none of which we recognised.

On asking if she was cooking something special for her family that evening, she replied to our amazement “No, this is your lunch”! Later, while we toured an ancient Buddhist complex consisting of rows of thousands of tiny pagodas, a nearby restaurant prepared our lunch.

To this day, we have no idea what we ate for any of the three courses, but it was quite delicious. The longer you spend in this remarkable country, the more you become aware of the smiles, gentle warmth, refined manners and spirituality of its people.

Despite their unquestionable political, economic and social difficulties, the Burmese people are remarkably serene and balanced.

Through centuries of exposure to Buddhism and spirit worship, they have developed the ability to open their minds and reach out beyond the pains of their everyday adversities.

Ellis Everarda, an expert on Burmese culture, summed it up nicely when he said “Burma is like a slowly burning love affair, constantly drawing its beholder into a beautiful world of mystical fulfilment”. 3″>features