Bagan: Ancient Capital of Myanmar


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Spiritual Beings

Myanmar has a kind of a traditional heritage from generation to generation which is the worshipping of the Nats or the Spiritual Beings.

The legend says that before King Anawrahta came to power in Bagan in the 11th century, it was common for the Myanmar 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.

When King Anawrahta wanted to make Theravada Buddhism the national faith, he tried to ban the Nat worship in Bagan. As part of his anti-Nat campaign, he ordered the destruction of all Nat shrines in the kingdom. He also forbade the practice of animal sacrifice at nearby Mt Popa, a volcanic outcropping considered the abode of the 36 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.

Finally, when the King realised that he was turning the people away from Buddhism, rather than destroying their faith in the Nats, the king rescinded his total ban and allowed Nat images and shrines on paya grounds.

He 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".

All these nats live together in a big gallery. They have different images - kings, queens, animals or some enigmatic creatures. Some of them are very peaceful, including spirits of trees, rivers, snakes; some of them keep the spirits of people who have met a violent or tragic death, and can therefore wreak destructive vengeance on people who annoy them. These nats have had a very strong influence throughout the history of Myanmar. Mt. Popa was one of the most important places of homage for Kings of the Bagan dynasty. . The name is derived from Pali, word meaning "flower", so Mt. Popa means "a mountain of flowers".

These 37 Nats are listed as follows

No. Name Meaning
1 Thagyamin Indra or Sakra, King of Nats
2 MahaGiri Lord of the great mountain
3 Hnamadawgyi Great royal sister of Magagiri
4 Shwe Nabe Lady with Golden Sides
5 Thon Ban Hla Lady of Three Times Beauty
6 Taungoo Mingaung King Mingaung of Taungoo
7 Mintara King Hsinbyushin
8 Thandawgan The Royal Secretary to Taungoo Minkaung
9 Shwe Nawrahta The young prince drowned by King Shwenankyawshin
10 Aung Zawmagyi Lord of the White Horse
11 Ngazishin Lord of the five white elephant
12 Aungbinle Hsinbyushin Lord of the white elephant from Aungbinle
13 Taungmagyi Lord of Due South
14 Maung Minshin Lord of the North
15 Shindaw Lord Novice
16 Nyaung-gyin Old man of the Banyan tree
17 Tabinshwehti King of Myanmar between 1531-50
18 Minye Aungdin Brother-in-law of King Thalun
19 Shwe Sit thin Prince, son of Saw Hnit
20 Medaw Shwedaw Lady Golden Words
21 Maung Po Tu Shan Tea Merchant
22 Yun Bayin King of Chiengmai
23 Maung MinByu Prince MinByu
24 Mandalay Bodaw Lord grandfather of Mandalay
25 Shwebyin Naungdaw Elder Brother Inferior Gold
26 Shwebyin Nyidaw Younger Brother Inferior Gold
27 Mintha Maungshin Grandson of King Alaung Sithu
28 Htibyusaung Lord of White Umbrella
29 Htibyusaung Medaw Lady of White Umbrella
30 Pareinma Shin Mingaung The Usurper Mingaung
31 Min Sithu King Alaung Sithu
32 Min Kyawzwa Prince Kyawzwa
33 Myaukpet Shinma Lady of the North
34 Anauk Mibaya Queen of the Western Palace
35 Shingon Lady Hunback
36 Shingwa Lady Bandy-legs
37 Shin Nemi Little lady with the flute

Other legends about the spirits of Myanmar

Shwe Phyin Nyinaung or Min Gyi Min Lay

Legend says, King Anawrahta of Bagan (11th century AD) had an Indian fast-runner by the name of Byatta who had to fetch fresh flowers from Popa at a distance of about 30 miles and to offer to the King, everyday. Byatta fell in love with Mai Wunna, who was a flower-eating ogress of Popa and for this event, he was late for offering flowers to the King. He was killed for that reason. They had two sons. When the king realized of his mislead, he took the two young brothers and let them live in the palace. These two brothers grew up into wild, irresponsible young men. The royal family, ministers, princes and princesses started to dislike the way the brother's act. One day when King Anawarahta built the Shwezigon Pagoda, he ordered each and everyone in the city to lay a brick in the construction. Unfortunately, the brothers did not follow the orders and were executed for neglect of duty in the construction of the pagoda.

It so happened that after their execution, their spirits begged the king for mercy and he granted them certain rights and territories to rule. King Anawarahta gave Taungpyone just a few miles from Mandalay. The Taungbyon Festival is held every year in their honour. And thousands and thousands of people throughout the country worship the Shwe Phyin Brothers. The rise of their stature raised the status of their mother who is also worshipped as the Queen-Mother of Popa.

Panbe Maung Tint Dai

There was a domestic spirit who was senior to the Shwe Phyin Brothers. They were Maung Tint Dai meaning Mr. Blacksmith. He lived in the age of Tagaung (6th century BC), long before Anawrahta's Bagan. He was physically so strong that even the king feared for his own safety and played a ruse to get rid of the strong man. The king announced that he had made one of Maung Tint Dai's sisters a queen, and sent for him promising rich rewards that a royal-brother-in-law deserved. When the unsuspecting Blacksmith arrived at the royal city, he was promptly captured, tied to a golden "champa" tree and burnt to death. When his sister, the queen heard what had happened, she also jumped into the fire and was consumed by the flames.

Their spirits resided in that tree and put a curse on the people and animals that came under it. At last, the king had the tree uprooted and floated down the Ayeyarwaddy River. The tree drifted down the river slowly and reached Bagan in the reign of Kind Thelegyang. When the king heard about it, he had the tree salvaged and sculpted into the figures of the unfortunate brother and sister and enshrined them at Popa. The king also visited Popa once a year to pay his respects to the two spirits. His worshippers never offer candle light to him out of consideration for the way he met his death long ago, believing that he wouldn't want to see fire again.

Wizard and Alchemist

Besides spiritual beings, it is believed to be a special abode of other nats and the haunt of other supernatural beings, like Weikzars and Zawgyis (wizards and alchemists). Each of them has special powers, a special legend, a special story, and perhaps what is one of the most romantic, enchanted and exotic regions of Myanmar.



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