By Maha Saddhamma
Sithu Dr Khin Maung Nyunt
The 9th month of Myanmar lunar calendar called Nat-taw is the second month of Myanmar cold season “Hei man” in Pali meaning winter. Myanmar has three seasons, Gaiman (Summer), Wathan (Rain or Monsoon) and Heiman (Cold Season or Winter).
Though it is pronounced “Na daw” its spelling has two words “Nat” and “Taw”. “Nat” is a derivative from Pali word “Natha” meaning “a resplendent being worthy of veneration” and “Taw” means royal or respectable. Nat generally applies to all spiritual beings, devas, gods, goddesses, and all spirits. Who deserve worship by human beings for their favour. So Nat-taw means the month for worshipping nat spirits.
According to Myanmar astrology, this month is called Danu Yathi. Zodiacal symbol of Danu is an archer with bow and arrows.
Among many orchids that bloom in this month. Thazin ([Bulbophyllum auricomum]) dominate sending out its soft sweet fragrance far and wide. It is listed in Royal Flowers. A special festival is held for this flower.
Before Buddhism arrived in Myanmar ancient nat worship were wide spread among Myanmar ethnic nationalities. Nat is a word derived from Pali word Natha. Natha means a resplendent being worthy of worship and propitiation by all human beings.
There are two types of Nats. Deva (ဒေဝါ)
Devas are lving in their kingdom on and above Mt. Meru, the legendry mountain. There are six such deva kingdoms.
Nat spirits were human heroes and heroins in the civil and military services of Kings. Due to their violent deaths by assassination, execution, fatal accidents such as fatal accident snake bite, tiger bite, burnt by fire and drown in water their spirits linger, moksting human being until they get a place to rest.
They need special seasonal worship and festivals. They were given by royal order day and month of their festival and special area.
In the 37 Nats of Myanmar, Thagyar Nat comes first. But he is just Myanmar version of Sakka Deva God of Hindusim. He is not a Nat spirit.
Only the remaining 36 are Myanmar nat spirits.
Popa Hill range is over 4,000 feet high and cold and freezing in Winter near old Bagan. It used to be a volcanic mountain several millions years ago it erupted shooting out rocks fire and lava.
There are Nat shrines on the Popa Taung Kalat near Bagan and Nat festivals are held almost every day.
The name Popa is a Pali word meaning flower. Mt Popa means Mt of Flowers.
Black Smith Maung Tint De and family Nats shrines are on the Mt Popa Range. Two pieces of Champac Tree log, higher respecfully the Elder Brother U Tint De and lower his elder sister Thone Ban Hla are found.
The Maha Giri Nats
The two brick niches at the old Tharapa Gate of old Bagan have the idols of two Maha Giri Nat spirits— the Elder Brother in the right and Younger Sister in the left niche. They tell their tragic story that happened in their birth place Tagaung, up country. Maung Tint Dei a mighty blacksmith with his apprentices was producing all kinds of iron weapons and implements. The king of Tagaung was worried that one day the mighty blacksmith would rebel against him. He sent his warriors to arrest Maung Tint Dei who fled and remained in hiding. The king raised Tint Dei’s beautiful younger sister to his queen and told her to bring him her elder brother as he would appoint him interior minister. The queen made her brother come to court. The king appointed him the interior minister.
But soon after, the king tried him to the trunk of a Saga Tree (Champac Tree) and burnt him alive to death. Upon hearing the horrible news, the queen came out and jumped into the fire to die with her elder brother. Because of their violent deaths, their spirits lived at that Tree and they molested any being that came under the Tree. The king ordered his men to uproot the Tree and float it down the Ayeyawaddy River. The Champac Tree stranded at the Jetty of Bagan. King Theyligyaung of Bagan [344-387 A.D.] had a dream in which the two nat spirits appeared telling their tragic story and requesting the king to give them a place to rest.
The king ordered his men to cut the Champac trunk into two pieces to be carved Images of the Brother and Sister and enshrined them on the summit of Popa Mountain range. Giving them the title Min Maha Giri [Royal Nats of Great Mountain] and made a yearly festival in Nat-taw month. The court and the public paid honour and to the Images in the shrines. The two nat spirits offered their service of guarding the capital city against all enemies.
Their Images were also enshrined at the Tharapa Gate. As Nat idol shrine was forbidden to keep in household, a green coconut with offerings was kept at every house to propitiate them as the guardian Spirits of the house. Since then a yearly festival is held on Mt. Popa in 9th month which thus came to be called Nat-taw month.
Mt Popa and Nats
In fact, the real dwellers of Nat spirits on the Mt Popa were Byatta and Mei Wunna.
Byatta was an equestrian of the Bagan Kingdom and he was sent out to Mt Popa to gather information and bring royal flowers. He met with Mei Wunna, a local beautiful girl, and they fell in love.
Two sons Shwe Hpyin Gyi and Shwe Hpyin Nge were born to them.
Byatta became a Nat spirit at Popa after he was executed by King Anawrahta. Two sons Shwe Hpyingyi and Shwe Hpyin Nge were also executed and became Nat spirits. Their mother Mei Wunna died of broken heart and became a Nat namely Popa Mei Daw or Popa Mother.
In month of Nattaw, their festivals are held. Successive Myanmar kings could not and would not stamp out nat spirit worship. They only forbid sacrifice of lives, animals and offering of intoxicants.
In “Loka Byu Ha Kyan” [ A Treatise on Court Festivals and Ceremonies] compiled by Minister Thiri Uzana, of Inyone town,Maha Pein-hne festival of Nat-taw is described in full account. The idol of Maha Pein-hne housed in a shrine inside the palace city was put on a specially made coach pulled to their Majesties on the first waxing moon of Nat-taw for royal worship and offerings. On the first waning moon the coach made a round of houses of nobility and aristocracy to receive pujas and offerings. Eight Brahmin Priests on the coach facing eight cardinal points incantated mantras invoking Ganesha god, praying for favour and blessings.
As nat worship or animism predated Buddhism and Myanmar Buddhism tolerates all faiths and beliefs, nat worhship stays and coexists with Buddhism till today. Nat shrines in the inner and outer compounds of Shwezigon Pagoda at old Bagana bear strong evidences to the nat worship and nat festivals of the Myanmar people since old days.