A fes­ti­val of the dep­re­cated spirit lords

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page - IRFAN KORTSCHAK news­room@mm­times.com

THE an­thro­pol­o­gist Ward Keeler used to oc­ca­sion­ally visit the Yan­gon home of a rather su­per­cil­ious se­nior Burmese gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial, who would lec­ture him on Burmese cul­ture and so­ci­ety.

One time their con­ver­sa­tion turned to the cult of the nats, or “the 37 spirit lords”. This pan­theon of ghosts of in­flu­en­tial his­tor­i­cal or semi-his­tor­i­cal fig­ures, usu­ally roy­als, pow­er­ful rebels or folk he­roes, ex­pe­ri­enced vi­o­lent deaths that pre­vented their rein­car­na­tion and left their souls to roam the earth and con­tinue to play havoc in hu­man af­fairs – of­ten by caus­ing nat­u­ral dis­as­ters and other cat­a­clysmic events.

Keeler asked the of­fi­cial about the cer­e­mony known as the nat pwe, at which a rit­ual spe­cial­ist, a natkadaw, or “Nat wife” plays a cen­tral role. As Keeler states, “Medi­ums ne­go­ti­ate with these spirit lords, who in a shaman-like role go into a state of trance and thus be­come a con­duit be­tween the spirit and the client.”

This bar­gain is usu­ally struck to seek the nat’s as­sis­tance in gain­ing some ad­van­tage or re­solv­ing some cri­sis af­fect­ing the client in the area of his or her per­sonal or pro­fes­sional life. The ne­go­ti­a­tion with the nat takes place in a tem­po­rary shel­ter erected to ac­com­mo­date a shrine, at which a band of mu­si­cians and the natkadaw per­form, with the natkadaw of­ten con­sum­ing large amounts of al­co­hol and tobacco as an aid to en­ter­ing the trance state.

These events are usu­ally open to the pub­lic, with the gen­eral ex­u­ber­ant con­sump­tion of al­co­hol a com­mon oc­cur­rence. As Tamara C Ho says, the nats “have no­to­ri­ous rep­u­ta­tions as foul­mouthed char­ac­ters, lech­er­ous se­duc­ers, shame­less drunk­ards and in­vet­er­ate gam­blers”, with the fes­ti­vals to ap­pease them “in­spir­ing pub­lic, car­ni­va­lesque de­bauch­ery”.

Keeler notes that de­spite the fact that the spon­sor is very of­ten a pow­er­ful, high-sta­tus in­di­vid­ual, in the pos­sessed state, the natkadaw can ad­dress him with a de­gree of fa­mil­iar­ity and frank­ness that would be un­ac­cept­able in day-to-day in­ter­ac­tions.

In re­sponse to Keeler’s ques­tion, the of­fi­cial smiled pa­tro­n­is­ingly and told him that civilised Burmese cit­i­zens were Bud­dhists and that only ig­no­rant peas­ants in the vil­lages and the low­est class of city dwellers still spon­sored or at­tended such cer­e­monies, or oth­er­wise sought the aid of the nats.

Keeler raised an eye­brow and pointed to the house­hold al­ter, in the same room where the two men were con­vers­ing. There a statue of a Popa Maedaw, a fe­ro­cious and fickle fe­male nat be­lieved to re­side on a vol­canic moun­tain of the same name, sat in pride of place, only slightly lower and to the left of the cen­tral po­si­tion oc­cu­pied by a statue of the Bud­dha him­self. The of­fi­cial had the grace to look slightly em­bar­rassed and mut­tered that the statue of the nat was only tol­er­ated at his wife’s in­sis­tence, that he dep­re­cated its pres­ence. The next time they met to con­tinue their dis­cus­sions, the of­fi­cial in­vited Keeler to sit else­where, where Popa Maedaw’s vis­age could not be seen.

The tale says much about the pre­vail­ing at­ti­tude to­ward the nat cult. As a text on the sub­ject by Mariko Wal­ter and Evan Frid­man states, while nor­ma­tive Bud­dhist be­lief places much em­pha­sis on the qual­i­ties of gen­eros­ity, res­traint, equa­nim­ity, so­cial har­mony, de­tach­ment and men­tal dis­ci­pline, “the ven­er­a­tion of nats gives so­cial re­al­ity to a host of emo­tions Bud­dhist prac­tice dis­cour­ages ex­plic­itly: ha­tred, greed, and de­sire; at­tach­ments, li­cen­tious­ness, and jeal­ousies; un­hap­pi­ness over mis­for­tune, ill­ness, and the loss of so­cial power more gen­er­ally”.

With the ap­par­ent con­tra­dic­tion be­tween nor­ma­tive Bud­dhist think­ing and be­lief in the appeasement of the nats, the an­thro­pol­o­gist Melford E Spiro stated that the Burmese world­view “is in­formed not by one, but by two re­li­gious tra­di­tions, an in­dige­nous spirit cult and one of the great world re­li­gions, Bud­dhism, an im­port from In­dia … [with these be­ing] two sep­a­rate, al­beit in­ter­re­lated re­li­gions”.

How­ever, if they are in­deed two sep­a­rate re­li­gions, they cer­tainly do not re­late on terms of equal­ity: As the com­ments of the of­fi­cial above in­di­cate, the nat cult is dep­re­cated and sub­ject to semi-of­fi­cial dis­ap­proval, with this cult be­ing, as Ho states, “defini­tively sub­or­di­nated and dis­ci­plined un­der the signs of tra­di­tion, the ru­ral, and the un­ruly fem­i­nine”.

Ho notes that the semi-of­fi­cial dis­ap­proval dates to a 1962 de­cree by Ne Win and the Burma So­cial­ist Pro­gramme Party (BSPP) that “crim­i­nalised the su­per­nat­u­ral”. The de­gree pro­hib­ited “the pro­duc­tion of any film de­pict­ing nats, ghosts, witches, and so on as part of the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Gov­ern­ment’s ef­forts to re­move the ob­scu­ran­tist in­flu­ence of su­per­sti­tious be­liefs on the peo­ple”.

De­spite the in­creas­ingly in­tense of­fi­cial dep­re­ca­tion, nat pwe con­tin­ued to take place, of­ten with spon­sor­ship from pow­er­ful in­di­vid­u­als associated with po­lit­i­cal elites. Ho also notes that at about this time, the role of the rit­ual spe­cial­ist at this event in­creas­ingly came to be filled by trans­sex­u­als, whose so­cial po­si­tion and stand­ing were as am­bigu­ous as the pres­tige of the events at which they of­fi­ci­ated.

As Ho states, “These gov­ern­ment re­stric­tions ap­par­ently opened a pro­fes­sional vac­uum that be­came in­creas­ingly oc­cu­pied by a stig­ma­tised mi­nor­ity called mein­masha or achauk, near syn­onyms which could be loosely un­der­stood as ‘trans­gen­dered/ef­fem­i­nate ho­mo­sex­ual men’.”

A novel by Burmese au­thor Nu Nu Yi, Smile as They Bow, tells of the fraught love tri­an­gle be­tween a fa­mous, older trans­gen­dered spirit medium, his man­ager, and a young, fe­male singer.

In it the natkadaw re­lates what first drew her to her pro­fes­sion: “In my home­town, gay or not, I had to look like a man ... I wasn’t a nat kadaw then; I didn’t know a thing about Nats. Must have been my fe­male hor­mones, I just wanted to doll up and dance – and have a boyfriend! To have ev­ery young man in sight fall in love with me ... It’s not like I had a choice to be­come a nat kadaw or not. This girl, let me tell you, she loves to dress up and dance. As soon as I set foot in Taung­by­one, that Nat blood, that Nat spirit was in me. How could I see all that trance danc­ing and not pic­ture my­self pos­sessed?”

The novel de­scribes the events at one of the largest an­nual nat fes­ti­vals in Myan­mar, which takes place in Taung­by­one, near Man­dalay, in hon­our of Shwe Hpyin Nge and Shwe Hpyin Naung­daw. The two broth­ers were blud­geoned to death at the or­ders of King Anawrahta of Ba­gan for ne­glect­ing their duty to pro­vide a brick for the build­ing of a pagoda.

The fes­ti­val is one of sev­eral large an­nual cel­e­bra­tions in the month of Wa­gaung (Au­gust), with pri­vate spon­sors of­ten hir­ing pavil­ions to stage a small nat pwe at the pe­riph­eries. Two weeks later, a slightly smaller fes­ti­val is held in Yadanagu, in Amara­pura, also near Man­dalay, to hon­our Popa Maedaw, the mother of the two broth­ers, the flower-eat­ing ogress who lives above Mount Popa. – New Man­dala

Photo: Si Thu Lwin

A spirit medium dances to nat doe, or tra­di­tional nat mu­sic, to pro­pi­ti­ate Phakan Ko Gyi Kyaw.

Photo: Si Thu Lwin

A natkadaw dances at the Yadana Gu nat fes­ti­val in Man­dalay in Au­gust 2014.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Myanmar

© PressReader. All rights reserved.