An ancient princess still haunts Pyay
SHE was known as Princess Thon Pan Hla, or “pretty flower”. And centuries after her death, the villagers are still scared of upsetting her spirit. In Pyay, 200 years older than ancient Bagan, fables of royal intrigue are not uncommon. Legends about the old King Naga Naing and Queen Panhtwa are the stuff of children’s bedtime stories, mixing terror with delight and fact with myth.
But for those who still live near the ancient Pyu-era capital of Thayekhittaya – roughly 8 kilometres (5 miles) outside of Pyay in Bago Region – the legend of Princess Thone Pan Hla has a lasting legacy.
Legend has it that the princess shone like gold in the morning. The princess of another kingdom near what is now Nattalin in Bago Region, Thone Pan Hla was promised to wed King Duttabaung, the grandson of the great King Naga Naing. She secretly loved the handsome king, and looked forward to their bond bringing peace throughout the realm.
But the king’s consorts were jealous of her beauty, and conspired against her. They told Duttabaung that her loveliness was a magic trick, and that in fact she resembled a horrible ogre. In a cruel play on her name, they convinced him that she even assumed her true form three times a day: “three times pretty” indeed.
Believing them, the king had her driven from his door sight unseen. Stricken with self-doubt, the princess paused on the way home to dig in the swampy ground with her bare hands to see her face in the water. Meanwhile, King Duttabaung realised his error and set after her.
Thone Pan Hla died before the king could reach her, pining away in a forest. Heartbroken, he built her a tomb on the spot where she died, housing her loyal servants in a village around it. The village was named Ko Gyi Myoke – “where the body is buried” – in the ancient land of Mhaw Zar.
After her death, the princess is said to have become a nat. Villagers believe that if her spirit is accorded the proper worship and respect, good health and bountiful harvests will follow. But the penalty for disrespecting the princess is leprosy
Sayadaw U Thilasaya of Let Thay Yay Kan monastery, located about 1 mile from Ko Gyi Myoke village, said, “Nats and ghosts don’t really go with monks, though our Buddha did speak of them. Far be it from me to upset people’s beliefs. I heard these bedtime stories myself when I was a child. Nobody speaks ill of Princess Thone Pan Hla, particularly around Ko Gyi Myoke village, where the burial mound can still be seen.”
Not surprisingly, the princess hates untruth. Angered by a rich woman whose slanders caused the death of her husband’s lover, which must have struck a nerve, she laid waste the village by drought about 100 years ago, and its inhabitants were scattered.
The nat shrine, along with ruined pagodas and monasteries, some old houses and a wrought-iron statue of the princess, are all that remain of Ko Gyi Myoke. During the Buddhist Lent, villagers from Mhaw Zar and Mu Htaw villages collect donations to fund a ceremony of worship for Thone Pan Hla, held on the eve of the full moon day of Waso, said 60-year-old Daw Hla Kyine of Mu Htaw village.
“I’ve been making offering to the nats all my life, like my mother before me. More people came to the ceremony then, and offered more things,” she said. “But the village girls still bring good weather by making a wish.”
Thon Pan Hla’s shrine remains an object of devotion for nat worshippers.
Let Thay Yay Kan (fingernail pond) is where the princess clawed at the mud to see her own reflection.