- By MahaSaddhamma Jotikadhaja,
Sithu Dr. Khin Maung Nyunt
Myanmar is Theravada Buddhist Country where a great majority of its people professes that Buddhism. But there are other belief systems or faiths before, contemporary or after Buddhism. The reason is plain. Buddhism of Theravada type is very tolerant. It can happily co-exist with any belief system or religious faith. Today we have the Department of Religious Affairs and Culture. Religious Affairs cover all religious and belief systems current in the country. Throughout Myanmar history till today, there were aimed conflicts and wars with neighbours and beyond. But not caused by religious differences but by political, economic or border problems. The absolutely wrong accusations like “genocides racial extermination” which responsible servicemen of the U.N and other international communities due to misinformation or disinformation are invited to Myanmar and see themselves to know the real situation in Myanmar throughout. After they have seen the truth, they should be honest impartial and brave enough to “correct” their groundless accusation on Myanmar and kind and honest enough to present Myanmar as they see.
Buddhist Festival in Wakhaung month is the Festival of Charity by lucky draw lots. But the Nat Festival of Taungbyone is more well-known internationally. Myanmar word Nat is a derivative of Pali word “Nahta” which literally means a resplendent being worthy of respect and homage. Even Lord Buddha is referred to as the Nat of 3 worlds _ Human, Devas and Brahmans or as Tiloka Guru. The Sage of three worlds are Human, Devas and Brahmas.
Regarding Myanmar 37 nats, originally they were humans (kings, queens, war heroes, military commanders, ministers and even monks who had done good service for the state, country or the people. But due to violent deaths (assassination, murder, killed on the battle fields, burnt by fire, snake bite, tiger attack, poison, diseases, natural disaster earthquake, storm, lightening, thunder etc.) Their soul could not rest in peace. They wander until they are given a place to rest in peace (in the form of nat-shrines). They bless and help humans who propitiate them and they molest and do harm to humans who neglect them.
Greek gods and goddesses of Mt. Olympus and Hindu devas and deities never lived a human life. They were born god, goddesses, devas and deities. But their behaviour and their way of life are similar to that of human. They love, hate, they have anger, jealousy and greed. So they have stories, but at the time of their annual sports, games held at Mt. Olympus they suspended their wars or armed conflicts and participated fairly and peacefully in the sports contests. The winners were crowed with a wreath of laurel leaves on the head.
Myanmar 37 nats are human heroes and heroism. So they never born abandon their human character. So they never abandon their human character. Besides they are Myanmar ethnic Chin, Kachin, Kayah, Shan, Rakhine, Mon and Bamar even one neighbor kind became nat, during his visit to Myanmar when he died of malaria Yunbyin Nat.
Myanmar Kings tried to eliminate Nat worship but they failed because firstly Theravada Buddhism neither supported nor opposed Nat worship. Secondly Myanmar people came to have two types of religions. Theravada Buddhism to escape from the whirlpool of Samsara (Endless Cycles of Births and Rebirths, and all sufferings and cravings) and to reach Nivirna the end of all sufferings and cravings as both body and soul and soul becomes exist. That is the religion for your life here after. But living beings need to improve their life in present life. For that they need assistance and favour of nat spirits. Hence propitiation at nat festivals.
So nat shrines are seen in the compounds of Great Pagodas and Temples. In Bagan, the Great Shwe Zigone Pagoda has two shrines in the Inner Circle known as Atwin 37 Mins and in the outer circle known as Apyin 37 Mins.
Like other Myanmar Kings, King Mindon held 37 Nats Conference where Nat mediums (ewfxdef;ewfuawmf) were invited to standardize 37 Nats history, their seniority, rank, place of their origin, the time of their festivals, types of offerings to be made, songs and music and their jurisdictional areas. Recorded on folding papers (Parabite with illustrations of paintings).
When the last king Thibaw and royal family were deported to Ratanagiri near Bombay (Mumbai) the entire Mandalay palace and palace city were sacked by the British soldiers. Royal libraries and archives were sorted out. Most important were moved to Yangon to become Bernard library. The remaining 40 bullock carts loads of records and archives were burnt in front of the palace.
Luckily records of King Mindon’s 37 Nats Conference escaped. The first British Governor of British Burma Sin Richard Temple made a research on these records and he produced a monumental work in book form titled “The 37 Nats of Burma” with original colourful pictures of the 37 Nats. It is indeed a magnum opus of the Governor Sir. R.C Temples you can learn all about Myanmar 37 Nats.
Taungpyone Nat Festival originated in the time of King Anawrahta (1044-77 A.D) and among his knights _ Nga Htwe Yu, Naga Lone Let Phe, Nyaung U Pe, Kyan Sitha was one equestrian forester Byatta who visited daily Mt. Popa hill range (Popa means flowers) where especially champac golden fragrant flower of timber trees grow wild with other floral trees, plants and creepers). He gathered information and collected flowers for the palace use. In course of time he met a flower seller of the locality a beautiful young girl named Mei Wunna. Byatta and Mei Wunna fell in love and she gave birth to two sons later named Shwe Phyin Gyi and Shwe Phyin Ngwe. When King Anawrahta found out those love affairs, he was angry because Byatta was his adopted son why should he marry a jungle girl. He executed Byatta who became nat at Popa. When the King knew his adopted son had left two sons who should be his adopted grandsons. He sent his men to bring the two grandsons by force. The mother Mei Wunna died of broken heart and she became nat at Popa.
When King Anawrahta visited China to worship sacred Tooth Relic of the Lord Buddha he took with him his two adopted grandsons who performed their heroic deeds in China. On return home Anawrahta made a stop at the village of Taungbyone where he built a Pagoda in which sacred relics presents given him by Chinese Emperor were to be enshrined. He issued a royal order that every one of his entourage must contribute each a paint of water and a brick in building the Pagoda. His two grandsons failed to carry out that duty because they wasted their time in courting a young girl of the local village named Ma Shwe U (Beautiful like a gold egg). She resisted saying she was already engaged to her lover Ko Yin Maung who was away in upper Myanmar. Myanmar to supervise teak raft floated down the Ayeyawady River. The two brothers especially the younger one was very arrogant. They were royal grandsons why should you jungle girl refuse our love overtures. Out of anger Ma Shwe U cursed them may you die of violent death such as tiger attack and snake bites etc.
When King Anawrahta found out his own adopted grandsons failed to contribute their share of water and bricks as he saw at the entrance of the Pagoda they were missing. He must take action. He must do King’s justice.
The two adopted sons were arrested and executed by flogging their throats. Because of this violent death they became nat-spirits. When the royal entourage began to return to Bagan, Anawrahta barge did not move. The King beat the water “Any nat-spirit dare to withhold me” where upon the two adopted grandsons as nats appeared. You have done my service for which you be given reward. Two nat shrines were built near the pagoda and let the local people worship them and hold festival for them when the Pagoda Festival is held. All agricultural lands in the area were given to the two nat brothers the yields should be spent in the holding of Pagoda festival and nat festival.
The two nat brothers were still bachelor they had no wives in human life. They as nat spirits resumed their courtship with Ma Shwe U. When younger brother asked her the last question “Would you marry me?” She yelled out “no” and kept on cursing them. Finally the nat brothers brought out their tiger and let it carry Ma Shwe U uphill where she was eaten by the tiger. That hill is known “Mei U Taung”. Wild tigers are still seen up there till today.
Since British Colonial Days, Taungbyone Nat Festival was well known home and abroad for two reasons. Believers propitiate them because they help you in difficulty, bring good fortune, answer your prayers and give blessings. There are nat mediums
(ewfuawmf) who can communicate between the consultant and the nat spirits with a promise to fulfill your obligation to the nat spirits if you succeed. Amazingly believers are not only Myanmar, Myanmar ethnic people or Buddhists they are from other faiths and races, Islam, Christian, Hindus, Chinese, Indian, Thai, and even some Singaporean as well as from western world. At the festival time they gather at Taungbyone. Sometimes they themselves are possessed by nat spirits and they dance in trace to the exciting songs and music of the festival.
Here two cases of an American Consular and a Danish UNDP Department Head may be cited. The writer withholds their names. With the professor of Mandalay University one American consular visited Taungbyone Festival. He offered Johnnie Walker whisky to the two nat brothers and said to them “I have always been posted in Asia and South East Asia. You two nat brothers if you can make my next posting to Geneva I shall always bring a good presents to you at your festival. A month later, the order came out transferring him to Geneva. Coincidence or what? He kept his promise of sending presents to Taungbyone brothers every year.
The wife of the UNDP Program Chief in Myanmar was a believer in spirits. General Ne Win assigned me to go with her to Taungbyone Nat Festival. She was not only a believer but also an academic researcher. We two booked at the Mandalay Hotel and daily visited Taungbyone 2 days ahead. She interviewed local authorities, tapped achieves at monasteries and nat mediums.
On one of the peak days of the Festival called
csKd;a&awmfokH; ceremonial bathing of the Statues of two nat brothers in the Ayeyawady River, the Nat shrine was over crowded with dancers. As she was watching she said to the writer that the music was so exciting she could not resist the temptation to dance because the two nat brothers possessed her body. So saying she danced in trance.
After nearly 40 minutes when the music stopped, she recovered from trance. The writer told her she was dancing. She said she had a wonderful time with the two nat brothers. She became a confirmed nat medium. When she returned home, she too with her consecrated 37 nat statues. In her country she became a nat medium who could make future telling or the future of the consultant.
Two special days of Taungbyone Festival are the two nat brothers’ bachelors’ day called yone hto Pwes (,kefxdk;yGJ) wild rabbits in the local forests are hunted and roasted. With local fermented toddy juice or country spirits the local youths (swains) drunk and very merry in party come to the Nat shrine to offer the roasted rabbits and fermented toddy juices or any kind of intoxicant drinks. On the way these drunk and merry youths indulge in all kinds of male youth activities, songs, dance, music and sexual jokes and gestures to the point of obscenity. Freedom is given for this male bachelors’ Day and Night. After they offer the roasted rabbits and intoxicant drinks these village boys indulge in all sorts of young males activities to their hearts’ content. Songs, dances and hand gestures demonstrate sex activities. Young male visitors home and abroad join it. Police and local security officers allow that kind of Festival’s freedom provided that it does not become “License”.
Lighter side of Taungbyone Festival today is that it is becoming a kind of International Gay Festival. Real nat mediums and transvestites gather and dance not necessarily typical Myanmar nat songs and music. Michal Jackson’s and other hip hop songs and music are performed.
Myanmar musical ensemble being a seven-tone scale can play any music. Chinese, Thai, American, European, African, Indian, Russia, Korean etc. gays are having a wonderful time at Taungbyone Festival. Hotels, guest houses and private homes are fully booked for that International Festival.