About Myanmar > Myanmar Nats
The Nats (နတ်) are a traditional spirit similar to saints, angels or guardians in western culture These are worshipped throughout Burma in conjunction with Buddhism. Worship of Nats predates Buddhism in Myanmar. With the arrival of Buddhism, however, the Nats were merged, syncretistically, with Buddhism.
At first the Nats that were worshiped were impersonal and local, as for example, the Nats of the banyan tree, the hill, and the lake which were just outside the village, and the guardian Nat of the village. Later on, thirty-six personal and national Nats came into being, who were distinct personages with their own life histories, and who were worshiped all over the country. They did not replace the local Nats, but diminished their importance.
The worship of Nats reached its peak during the reigns of ancient kings who patronised them. But since the time of King Anawrahta (1044-1077AD), a devout Buddhist king of the Bagan dynasty, the popularity of spirit worship has been in decline. However, it continues to play a significant role in the lives of local people, particularly in upcountry areas.
There are 37 Great Nats in total. Myanmar’s Nats are historical or legendary figures who had suffered exceedingly tragic or violent deaths (စိမ်းသေ). These Nats were celebrities in their time and that their stories captured the public imagination likely contributed to the belief among ordinary people that these tragic figures even in death live on in another form and are worthy of worship. They are now thought to exist as spirits in places such as forests, mountains, big trees and lakes. Apart from well-known Thirty Seven nats, there are also many spirits worshipped by specific social classes or in particular regions of the country.
There are two types of Nats in Burmese Buddhist belief lower nats (အောက်နတ်) and higher nat (အထက်နတ်). Much like sainthood, nats can be designated for a variety of reasons, including those only known in certain regions in Burma. Nat worship is less common in urban areas than in rural areas, and is practised among ethnic minorities as well as in the mainstream Bamar society. It is however among the Buddhist Bamar that the most highly developed form of ceremony and ritual is seen.
Every Burmese village has a nat sin (နတ်စင်) which essentially serves as a shrine to the village guardian nat called the ywa saung nat (ရွာစောင့်နတ်). You see their shrines at the base of banyan trees or at the entrance to villages, usually small wooden structures with crossed roof beams, young bamboo shoots and incense as offerings, and sometimes a small empty bed inside. Red and white streamers – a nat’s favourite colours – are hung from cars as good luck, and some Buddhist shrines will have nat figures as guardians.
One may inherit a certain member or in some instances two of the 37 Nats as mi hsaing hpa hsaing (မိဆိုင်ဖဆိုင်; lit. mother’s side, father’s side) from one or both parents’ side to worship depending on where their families originally come from. One also has a personal guardian spirit called ko saung nat (ကိုယ်စောင့်နတ်).
The 37 Nats of Myanmar
|Indra or Sakra, King of Nats
|Lord of the great mountain
|Great royal sister of Magagiri
|Lady with Golden Sides
|Thon Ban Hla
|Lady of Three Times Beauty
|King Mingaung of Taungoo
|The Royal Secretary to Taungoo Minkaung
|The young prince drowned by King Shwenankyawshin
|Lord of the White Horse
|Lord of the five white elephant
|Lord of the white elephant from Aungbinle
|Lord of Due South
|Lord of the North
|Old man of the Banyan tree
|King of Myanmar between 1531-50
|Brother-in-law of King Thalun
|Shwe Sit thin
|Prince, son of Saw Hnit
|Lady Golden Words
|Maung Po Tu
|Shan Tea Merchant
|King of Chiengmai
|Lord grandfather of Mandalay
|Elder Brother Inferior Gold
|Younger Brother Inferior Gold
|Grandson of King Alaung Sithu
|Lord of White Umbrella
|Lady of White Umbrella
|Pareinma Shin Mingaung
|The Usurper Mingaung
|King Alaung Sithu
|Lady of the North
|Queen of the Western Palace
|Little lady with the flute
Before King Anawrahta came to power in Bagan in the 11th century, it was common for the Burmese to build small shrines or spirit houses dedicated to land Nat who were displaced by the construction of houses, monasteries or other buildings, or by the planting of rice and other crops. The owners or tenants of the buildings made daily offerings of food, incense and flowers at the shrines to placate these “guardian” Nat.
The older generations also believed that if a person from a royal family had died violently, then that person becomes a Nat. These superhuman Nats, when correctly propitiated, could aid worshipers in accomplishing important tasks, vanquishing enemies and so on.
During King Anawrahta reign, the King who was a devout Buddhist tried to suppress the worship of Nats after he introduced Theravada Buddhism to Bagan. During that time Nat worship in Bagan, which was and still is the strongest bastion of spirit worship in Myanmar.
As part of his anti-Nat campaign, he ordered the destruction of all Nat shrines in the kingdom, and banished all Hindu images to a desecrated Vishnu temple renamed Nathlaung Kyaung (Monastery of the Prisoner Nat). He also forbade the practice of animal sacrifice at nearby Mt Popa, an extinct volcano considered to be the abode of the 36 of the most powerful human Nat.
Instead of abandoning their belief in Nat, however, the Myanmar merely took their practices underground, rebuilding the guardian Nat shrines in their homes. Many people started to hang coconuts inside their houses as a sign of fealty to Maung Tint Tè (coconut juice being recognised as good medicine for healing burn wounds). This tradition is still practiced today
Finally, when the King realised that he was turning the people away from Buddhism, rather than destroying their faith in the Nats. The king relented and allowed the worship of spirits to continue within the context of Buddhism. Nat images and shrines on Pagoda (Paya) grounds were rebuilt. The King himself led the way by placing images of the 36 Nat from Mt Popa at the base of the sacred pagoda of Shwezigon. To these universally recognised 36, Anawrahta added 37th, Thagyamin, a Hindu deity based on Indra, who he crowned “King of the Nat”. Thagyamin thus outranked the previous Nat King, Min Maha Giri (Lord of the Great Hill. Since, in traditional Buddhist mythology, Indra paid homage to Buddha on behalf of the Hindu pantheon, this theistic insertion effectively made all nat subordinate to Buddhism.
Anawrahta’s scheme worked, and today the commonly believed cosmology places Buddha and his teaching at the top, with the Hindu and Bamar Nats in second and third place. In spite of the Nat lower position in the hierachy, the Burmese Nat cult is nearly as strong as ever. The Burmese merely divide their devotions and offerings according to the sphere of influence: Buddha for future lives, and the nat – both Hunu and Bamar for problams in this life. A misdeed,, for example, might be redressed by offering made to Thagyamin, who once a year records the names of those who perform good deeds in a book made of gold leaves, and the those who do evil deeds in a book made of dog’s skin. Offerings to Thurathati (Sanskrit Saraswati), a nat in charge of education, may help a student pass a tough exam.
One of the most frequently worshipped of the Thirty Seven Nats is Min Maha Giri. The story goes that a powerful blacksmith named Maung Tint Tè who lived in Dagaung, about 205 kilometres by river north of Mandalay, was captured and burnt to death by a king who was afraid of his strength. The king’s queen, who was also Maung Tint Tè’s own sister, committed suicide by jumping into the flames out of grief for her brother.
The brother and sister became Nats, living in the tree at which they were burnt to death and cursing all passers-by. The king ordered that the tree be uprooted and tossed into the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River. The tree floated down to Bagan, where the king of that realm ordered that the wood of the tree be sculpted into statues of the two nats and placed in a shrine at Mt Popa, as he had been instructed in a dream.
Maung Tint Tè was given the title Maha Giri (Lord of the Great Mountain) in connection with Mt Popa, which, as the centre of spirit worship, is said to be Myanmar’s equivalent of Mt Olympus. The king organised a feast for Maha Giri at Mt Popa every year around the full moon of the lunar month of Nayon (May/June).
During the Bagan era, the House Guardian Nat (အိမ်တွင်းနတ် or အိမ်စောင့်နတ်) merged with Maha Giri to form Eindwin-Min Mahagiri (Lord of the Great Mountain who is in the House). In most homes, this dual Nat is represented by a large, un-husked coconut which dressed with red Gaung baung, perfumed, and hung from a pillar or post somewhere in the house. This Nat must receive daily offerings from the house’s inhabitants; for many Burmese, this is the only Nat worshipped on a regular basis.
Other Nat, particularly in Bamar dominated central Myanmar, have shrine in Paya or monastery grounds, which receive occasional offerings only during pilgrimages, or bimonthly full-new-moon visits.
Knowledge of the complex Nat world is fading fast among the younger Burmese generation, many of whom pay respect only to the coconut-head house guardian. Red and white are widely known to be Nat colours: drivers young and old tie red and white strips of cloth to side-view mirrors and hood ornaments of their vehicles for protection from the Nat. Those with a general fear of Nat will avoid eating pork, which is thought to be offensive to the spirit world. The main fear is not simply that spirits will wreak havoc on your daily affairs, but rather that one may enter your mind and body, then force you to perform unconscionable acts in public – acts that would cause other Myanmar to shun you. Spirit possession or metaphysical – is a real phenomenon in Myanmar.
The Nat festival
On certain occasions, the nat cult goes behind simple propitiation of the spirits <Via offerings> and steps into the realm of spirit invocation. Most commonly, this is accomplished through Nat Pwe <spirit festivals>, special musical performances designed to attract nat to the performance venue. Nearly all indigenous Burmese music designed for this purpose; the classical forms seen in tourist restaurants came relatively late in the country’s music history. When enough money is available, a Nat Pwe may be hosted the night before a Shinpyu <Buddhist novice ordination ceremony> as a way of receiving the nat blessings – perhaps, on some level, even asking the nat permission for the novice ordination. Often the nat pwe is part of a variety of musical, dramatic and comedic performances that last from dusk till dawn; those spectators who object to nat pwe <or are fearful of the nat world> can then leave during the nat pwe and return later for the rest of the show.
At nat pwè, the nats are believed to communicate with people through mediums known as nat kadaws (wives of nats), who during the pwè dance in a whirlwind that is a mixture of performance art and ritual worship. The dances are accompanied by very boisterous nat music played by a traditional Myanmar orchestra. These musical ensembles feature plenty of percussion instruments, including drums and gongs, and can sound quite noisy to Western ears.
The ceremonies are led by spirit mediums, usually women or transvestites, and feature ritual offerings of incense sticks, coconuts and bananas to the nats. Mediums often fall into trance-like states during which they dance and mimic the behaviour of the nat who has possessed them.
For example, a medium will act like a drunkard while possessed by the nat Ko Gyi Kyaw, who was famed as a gambler and heavy drinker before he died. Similarly, mediums will curse and dance violently when they are said to be possessed by Mother Gyann, remembered as a very ferocious lady. Or they will speak in the pleasing tone of an oboe under the influence of Ma Hnè Lay, known in life for her melodious voice.
The offerings to the mediums also differ as the preferences of the nats differ, ranging from cheroots and toddy wine, to fried chicken and eggs. Based on the story of a nat and their natural bent, the purpose of worshipping him or her also differs. Ko Gyi Kyaw, for example, is often propitiated in hopes of winning in gambling or finding success in the business of selling liquor.
The Nat festival or the Taungpyone festival is usually held in Taungpyone in Mandalay Division. This place is known to be the territory of the two princes “Min Gyi” and “Min Lay”.
The Nat Pwe is usually held for three days. The first day is for the Summoning the Nats. The second day is the Nats’ feast. The third is the day for the Nats’ departure.
The Nats are offered with coconut, bananas, flowers, scents, candles, liquors, soft drinks, fried chicken, fried fish, sweets, and many more.
Devotees from all over Myanmar, comes to this special festival and offer their donations and enjoy themselves with the blessings of the spirits, every year. They pray for prosperity, fame, and luck for the next coming year.
Other Related Links
Folk Elements in Burmese Buddhism – http://www.tuninst.net/FLK-ELE/flk-ele-indx.htm#Cont-this-pg