By Than Htun (Myanmar Geosciences Society)
India seems to have been the first centre of alchemic experiments. From India, alchemy spread westwards to the Arabs, the Egyptians and the Greeks, later to the medieval Europeans, eastwards to Burma and farther east to China. By the fifth century A.D. alchemy was being practiced in China and in Burma. In Burma the great period of alchemy was roughly between the fifth century A.D. and the eleventh century, and it became almost a religious cult by itself. But in the eleventh century its popularity waned with the introduction of Buddhism into the century, for Buddhism frowned upon alchemy. Thus, after the eleventh century alchemy started to decay, and although the cult has never completely died out, it has long ceased to be in any way a rival to Buddhism.
Alchemy in Burma is known as Aggiya, meaning ‘the work of fire’. ‘Work with fire’ is indeed essence of alchemy, for the alchemist endeavours to transmute metals by means of fire. This endeavour to transmute base metals into precious metals is not peculiar to the Burmese alchemist and was the common heritage of alchemists all over the world. But Burmese alchemy has as its background a deeper philosophy- a philosophy so deep and developed at one time that it was almost a religion. The endeavour ‘to turn lead into silver and brass into gold’ is to the Burmese alchemist merely a first step towards a great goal, namely to discover by further experiment ‘the stone of live metal’, or the stone of live mercury’, which is the Burmese equivalent of the Philosopher’s Stone in European alchemy. Again, ‘the stone of live metal’ itself is not the final goal. The final goal is to attain, after more experiment, a superhuman body and an eternal youth.
When the alchemist has discovered the right metal compounds, the first task before him is to search for a faithful pupil who will bury him in the forest, away from human beings, who will scare away evil spirits and magicians, and who will watch over the spot under which the alchemist lies buried. When the faithful pupil has been found the alchemist makes him dig a hole in the ground and, on entering it, the alchemist will swallow the metal compounds. Then the hole is filled up, and seven days later the alchemist of his own accord and in great joy jumps out of it, for he has become a Zawgyi, a fully developed alchemist. All the supernatural qualities of the ‘stone of live metal’ are now possessed by him in his supernatural body. Then he will enter the forest and come back to the abode of human beings very seldom, if at all.
As the alchemist’s body has become superhuman he can wander at will, flying in the air or travelling underground; physical fatigue is no longer known to him and his body needs no further nourishment. His body will remain youthful until he dies, and death will come to him only after thousands of years. On the whole the successful alchemist is happy after achieving his heart’s desire, but he also has his own troubles. His is an intensely lonely life. He does not have to eat, but occasionally he eats fruit, as he cannot eat meat because of its smell. Therefore, it follows that he cannot stay with human beings for more than a few minutes, as they are eaters of meat and smell too much for him. On the slope of Mount Popa there are trees whose fruits have exactly the size and shape of the average human maiden, and by his alchemic power the alchemist puts some sort of ‘life’ into them, so that the fruits become animated. He makes love to them, but unfortunately, as they are but fruit, they soon get crushed and become of no use to him. The majority of the Burmese Buddhists frown upon alchemic experiments as a wanton waste of time, and look upon the alchemist as a seeker after gold and after sensual pleasures (Maung Htin Aung, 1959).
The Cult of the Magus
It is not known whether there was a cult of the Magus in Burma before A.D. 1056. However, the hero of Burmese alchemy, the monk Master Goat-Bull (Shin Isa Gawna), seems to have been worshipped as their patron by those interested in alchemy. The details of his life had been mentioned in Burmese folk-tales written by Maung Htin Aung in 1948. After having many serious problems with his alchemistic experiments and replacing his eyes with eyes of goat and bull he obtained the Philosopher’s Stone. He announced his intension of leaving the world of human beings the next morning and requested the king to melt all his lead and brass in huge pots in front of the palace at sunrise. When the sun appeared Monk Goat-Bull went first to the palace and then to all the houses, and threw his Philosopher’s Stone into every pots. The stone jumped back into his hand every time, its mere touch having turned the lead in the pots into silver and the brass to gold. The people of Bagan became very rich, and with so much gold and silver at their disposal they built the countless pagodas that still stand at Bagan today.
When he had passed every house, Monk Goat-Bull, still attended by his novice, went to Mount Popa. At the mountain-top the monk dug up some magic roots and ground them with the Philosopher’s Stone. The ground roots formed themselves into six medicine balls and the monk swallowed three. The other three he gave to the novice and the novice swallowed the medicine balls with nausea. ‘It is clear that you are not fated to share my success in alchemy’, said the monk sadly, ‘and we must say farewell here’. The novice bade a tearful farewell to his master, who gave him a piece of gold as parting gift. The novice went to his widowed mother and took out the gold piece from his pocket and gave it to his mother. But when he again felt his pocket, there was another gold piece inside it. He took it out and gave it to his mother. But there was a gold piece in his pocket. This went on until the mother had ten gold pieces in her hand, and still there was a gold piece in the novice’s pocket. Then only did the novice realize that his beloved master Monk Goat Bull had given him a perpetual gift of gold ( Maung Htin Aung, 1959).
The Cult of the Runes
The cult of magic and witchcraft included also the cult of runes. The runes consisted of magical squares containing either letters of Burmese alphabet or arithmetical figures, and it is believed that every potent rune is guarded by a guardian god.
For reasons which are not known, the cult of the runes suddenly regained its popularity in the fifteenth century, when it took over many ideas from the cult of alchemy. The most famous ‘Master of Runes’ in the fifteenth was Dhamma-zedi. He and his companion Dhamma-pala, were young Mons who entered the Buddhist order and settled at Ava, the new Burmese capital, after fall of Bagan. The two Mons were very learned in the scriptures and were also interested in the cult of the runes. He is now regarded as the first patron of the cult of the runes.
The cult of the runes gained a second patron early in the nineteenth century, on the eve of the first war with the British. The new patron was Maung Aung or ‘Master Victory’, who may have been a contemporary historical personage, although the chronicles are silent about him. Maung Aung went to a university in India where he met two other Burmese students, one of them being Bodaw-paya (A.D.1782-1819) who was the King’s son. The third student became a monk, retired to a forest monastery and was never heard of again. At the present day the majority of the devotees of the cult of runes believe that there is no need to cast the runes themselves; provided they keep the Eight Precepts, go into retreat whenever possible, refrain from eating meat, and keep their faith in Dhamma-zedi and Grandfather Victory (Bobo Aung), one of the Masters will surely come and give them the runes, so that they will become Zawgyis and await the coming of the next Buddha.
1. R.C. Temple.1906: Thirty Seven Nats 2. G.E. Harvey. 1925: History of Burma 3. Maurice Collis.1937: She was a Queen 4. Maung Htin Aung. 1959: Folk Elements in Burmese Buddhism 5. Tin Naing Toe. 2004: Mt. Popa, Oasis of Dry Zone