Long before Buddhism swept over the lands of what would later be unified into Burma (now known as Myanmar), people believed in the spirits of nature.
Nats (နတ္), possessing the mountains, plants and animals, were worshipped by the indigenous for thousands of years, until the formation of the first Burmese Empire in 1044. Ascending the 777 steps of Mount Popa, a volcanic tower said to be the home of the Great Nats, there is an obvious feeling that Nat-worship has not yet left Myanmar.
50km from the ancient royal throne of Bagan (or Pagan), the Taung Kalat temple sits atop a lonely hill, looking like an enormous thimble made of rock had been pushed up by an underground giant beneath the surface. Here, the Nats are king, and shrines of all 37 Great Nats are on show. Climbers from all backgrounds pass through Mt Popa each day as they make the ascent to the top. Scores of boyish monks race up the steps and shout excitedly to one-another, an elderly woman lying on a makeshift stretcher descends at a snail's pace, surrounded by the chatter of the four local men carrying her, and tourists cluster towards the very top for a sunset view in the late afternoon.
With so many pilgrims jostling through the narrow and winding staircase, the real residents of Mt Popa seem to blend into the background. Over 2000 Rhesus Macaques have made this thimble their home, and they are not afraid to prove it.
Get too close, as many try to do, and a set of gleaming teeth befitting a lion are glared back at you with raised eyebrows. Even closer and you'll be liberated of your possessions, whether you wanted to be or not.
With humans under constant surveillance, these monkeys play, eat, fight and groom at the home of the Great Nats. On the roof an almighty bang sounds across the temple, as a large male slams his feet upon a particularly thin strip of metal to show dominance, while a group of juvenile monkeys practise grooming. A baby nibbles on a flower wearing an expression of concern as two young males jump at each other, entangled in a dance that's steadily growing into a full-fanged showdown.
The chaos that these monkeys bring is as much a character of the temple as the shrines, and strong animist traditions from ancient Nat-culture mean they are regarded with respect. Nats were, and still are, deeply entrenched in local tradition.
When King Anawrahta, a strict disciplinarian, wanted to remove animist Nat-worship under the creation of his Pagan Empire during the 11th century, his attempts to do so were repeatedly rejected by the populous. Instead of forcing change, the King decided to integrate the spirits into a new chapter of Burmese Theravada Buddhism, formalising the current pantheon of 37 Great Nats. When asked why nat shrines were allowed into Buddhist temples, Anawrahta is alleged to have responded: "Men will not come for the sake of new faith. Let them come for their old gods, and gradually the will be won over".
Stories of the Great Nats
Once upon a time in ancient Myanmar, the King of the Nats, Thagyamin, found himself in a heated debate with a powerful spirit-god about mathematics. With neither side giving in, Thagyamin severed the spirit's head, but where should he get rid of it? To drop it on the Earth would cause it to crack in two, so instead he bestowed it to his attendants. Every new year the head passes hands to a new attendant, and the Nat King finds it an agreeable time to visit the material world again, riding a great beast and recording the good deeds of people in a golden book.
မင်းမဟာဂီရိ and နှမတော်ကြီး
Son of a blacksmith, Maung Tint De, was so strong he could break the tusk of an elephant with his bare hands. In fact, so powerful and popular was he, that the King feared he had intentions to usurp the throne. Going into hiding, the King wedded the strongman's sister, Saw Me Ya, as a precaution. Then, offering Maung Tint De a position in the royal court, he persuaded his new queen to beg her brother to return. And so he did. Tied to a magnolia tree, Maung Tint De was set ablaze, and quickly joined by his distraught sister, who threw herself on the flames.
This would not be the end, and their spirits infested the magnolia tree, killing whoever came near. By royal decree, the tree was cut down and thrown into the Irrawaddy river, where it eventually found its way to the Kingdom of Bagan. Approaching the King of Bagan in his dreams, the Nats showed him their tortuous past and begged to be given residence. He agreed, and the tree was sliced in two, carried to Mt Popa, and carved into their likenesses.
ရွှေနံဘေ At the news of Maung Tint De's death, his wife, Shwe Nabay, died from a broken heart and became a Great Nat. Born from a water dragon, Shwe Nabay met her husband by chance at the end of a religious pilgrimage. They fell in love and married quickly at the pagoda where they were, eventually bringing two children into the world, Taung Ma Gyi and Maung Min Shin. Her sons grew up as strong as their father, and just like him, the King feared their power. Thinking the brothers were plotting against him, the King tricked them into fighting each other bare-handed. The conflict lasted till death, the older brother falling after the younger, and their vengeful souls instantly transformed into spirits ∎