Myanmar’s Multicultural Spirits

Worshippers pay their respects to the Muslim nat spirits Shwebyin Naungdaw and Shwebyin Nyidaw at the Taung Pyone nat festival. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

Ma Nway (not her real name) sits by a roadside curry stall, carefully examining the food on offer. She makes a point of avoiding anything containing pork, as per Muslim custom. But Ma Nway isn’t a Muslim; she’s a Buddhist. Like many Myanmar Buddhists, however, she also worships nat spirits, among the most popular and potent of which are Shwebyin Naungdaw (also known as Min Gyi) and Shwebyin Nyidaw (also known as Min Lay). She is on her way to Taung Pyone, a village near Mandalay, to attend their spirit festival—the largest in the country—and since both Min Gyi and Min Lay are Muslim, Ma Nway has stopped eating pork to show respect for their religious customs.

Ma Nway, like many in Myanmar today, sees Muslims as a threat. However, she and many others also regard Muslim spirits and spirits of Indian descent (or kalar, to use the often derogatory Myanmar term) as a crucial source of power and protection, assisting with the fundamentals of everyday life: wealth, health, love, success. For this reason, they are afforded a great deal of respect. This ethnic and religious harmony in Myanmar’s spirit world thus creates a layer of complexity to the ultranationalist anti-Muslim/anti-Indian sentiment spreading through the country.

Unlike Buddhism, a foreign religion originating in ancient India, Myanmar’s cult of the 37 Lords is local. Spirits are worshipped throughout the country, in the lowland areas in particular, and each spirit is tied to specific, local places.  Although many orthodox Buddhists reject spirit worship as contrary to Buddhist philosophy, it remains a popular folk religion among the country’s many syncretic Buddhists. For Muslims, on the other hand, spirit worship is strictly forbidden under the first pillar of Islam.

Min Gyi and Min Lay are brothers—their father was an Indian (presumably Muslim) serving the Bagan king and their mother was a flower-eating ogre, who became the spirit Popa Medaw. The story of the two brothers is recounted in Richard Temple’s landmark 1906 book, “The Thirty-Seven Nats,” which has since been translated into Myanmar.

In the early 11th century, during the reign of King Anawratha, the two brothers fought in the royal army and led an expedition to China to recover the sacred tooth relic of the Buddha. While they failed to bring back the relic, the brothers facilitated peace between King Anawratha and the Chinese emperor, and on the way back to Bagan, the king stopped to build a temple, just outside Mandalay. The brothers failed in their duty of providing bricks and were executed. Upon departure, King Anawratha’s boat got stuck, and his entourage realized that the brothers had become spirits. To pacify them and bring them under his sovereignty, the king built them a palace and locals began to worship them.

Spirits of Indian descent have a prominent position within Myanmar’s pantheon. In addition to the two brothers, prominent spirits include Ma Ngwe Taung, a Hindu of Indian ethnicity whose place of death is near Monywa in central Myanmar, the site of a night-long annual festival. Less commonly worshipped spirits of Indian descent also include Mandalay Bodaw and his sister, Shingwa Nat. The daughter of King Pallikara, possibly of the Pala dynasty of Bengal, Shingwa Nat was the wife of King Alaungsithu of Bagan. Mandalay Bodaw, who was a servant of King Anawratha, also traveled to China in search of the Buddha tooth relic.

The culture of local spirits shows the presence of ethnic Indians, Muslims and Hindus in Myanmar historical memory, long before British colonization. This is contrary to recent ultranationalist rhetoric that labels Muslims and/or ethnic Indians as outsiders who do not belong in Myanmar. Ironically, some 969 followers no doubt fear and worship Muslim spirits.

At spirit festivals, professional spirit mediums channel spirits. Yangon spirit medium Min Kyaw (not his real name) explains that this involves becoming that spirit during a ceremony, embodying the gender, ethnicity and religion of the said spirit. So when channeling Min Gyi and Min Lay, spirit mediums become Indian Muslims. The body acts as a vessel, and the boundaries of religion and ethnicity are fluid.

Spirits are an important source of power for many Myanmars in everyday life. It is common for believers to keep images of spirits in their homes and business and to make regular offerings. Offerings, of course, depend on the culture and history of each spirit. Ma Ngwe Taung is Hindu, so offerings of beef are forbidden. For Min Gyi and Min Lay, pork is out of bounds.

Spirit culture shows a very intimate, sacred relationship between Myanmar worshippers and Myanmar spirits of Indian descent, including Muslims. It is also an example of a Muslim presence in the country, long before British colonization. The power and respect for Muslim and Indian spirits is one of the ironies of the exclusionary nature of current popular strands of Myanmar nationalism.

When I question Ma Nway, she makes a distinction between humans and spirits, between an amorphous Muslim population and the particular histories and personalities of Muslim spirits. “These spirits are part of Myanmar culture,” she explains, as she digs into her pork-free meal.

David Gilbert is a Ph.D. candidate at the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific.

This story first appeared in the August 2013 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.

13 Responses to Myanmar’s Multicultural Spirits

  1. And, we cannot blame Than Shwe for being superstitious. This kind of superstitious belief is what the root problem Myanmar has been facing today. Is Buddha not reliable deity to rely on protection?

    • I am always amazed at the fact that members of the big religions (Christians, Buddhists, etc.) are calling other “less popular” religions “superstition”. Christians who believe in the Eucharist laugh at the native Ameridien who believes in the power of his Totem. Isn.t harmony with nature and interior peace the goal? regardless of the path to acheive it?

  2. The Nat songs by the poet PADETHA-YARZA (Padesaraja) who lived at the court of Innwa/Ava during the time of the last king of the Nyaung-yan Dynasty (Hinthawaddypar-min, before 1748) include a poem about another Muslim Nat.
    In his human life he was a courtier at the court of Ava/Innwa, and later became a Buddhist monk. The 37 Nat Kings known to this poet were different from the present 37 Nats, that were codified in the Konbaung Dynasty (King Bodawpaya), about 50 years later.

    In his human life he had been a play mate of the future king, and was later appointed by him as a royal officer in charge of the the royal palanquins. When Ava/Innwa was conquered by the Mons and the king taken as prisoner to Hamsavati (Pegu/Bago), the royal courtiers fled here and there. This Muslim courtier did not want to bow down to the victorious Mon people. He thought he could avoid it by becoming a Buddhist monk, because then the Mons would bow down to him. But because he became a false (insincere) monk, he was reborn as a Nat.

  3. Good observation!
    As someone born in Burma, I always found it very strange why Burmese are so anti-Indian (not just anti-Muslim) nowadays. It’s not just those two Nat brothers. Burmese history is intertwined with Indian and Ceylonese and Burmese courts had a lot of Indians. If you look at the frescoes in Pagan, you wll see a lot of South Asian faces, so why this sudden dislike of the “Kalars”. I think it’s all politically motivated, and has nothing to do with religion or culture since Buddha was a Kalar and most of the early cities and the names of Kings in Burma were either Sanskrit or Pali: Sri Khestra (tharaykhittaya) Beikthano (Vishnu) Thuwanna Bhummi, Thampadipa, etc. The Burmese and Mon scripts were also based on a Brahmi script. Of course all the Sutras are in Pali. You don’t see too many Chinese words used in Burmese history or religious books, until now!

    • time has changed. adapt to it. actually, in today’s burmese literature, most borrowed words are from english not from chinese. Hindu culture had a great deal of influence over Burmese, thai, khmer, malaya, and indonesian cultures. that was in the past. If india want to influence the burmese now, she’d better do things that attracts burmese minds instead of acting like an ex-lover who got dumped. or, let burma move on. otherwise, india will be issued a restraining order.

  4. Almost all problems that have been happening in Myanmar is because of the clash of cult and tradition that was rooted by tribalism.

  5. Nothing that can be called Burmese can be without the influence of Kalars. And that makes some of them feel convoluted instead of just seeing it as facts.

    • Of course there are influences dating back to Indian culture, Khmer culture etc. Basically Buddhism transcends the Indian (read Hindu) religion and culture. Yet one cannot deny the influence that came with it.
      The fact that there is an anti muslim sentiment has nothing to do with that. Just read history books on the destructive force that raided the man countries since the rise of islam. In Indian history it is just the same. The fear for the agressive spread is world wide!!
      Besides all this, the recent show ow violence is more a result of that past and the pressure on society by muslims than a reaction by ‘Buddhists’. All over the world people (of all religions) have the same respons. I d o not agree that it is a Buddhist community against … view. Yet the fact remains that (luckily) the vast majority is Buddhists.
      ABout Bangladesh: are we forgetting the horible actions against the tribal people in Chittagong? Muslims grab lands from Buddhists and Hindus for decades. And that violence was hardly recognized by the UN etc.
      Best solution would be: let those muslims return and let the Buddhists come to Myanmar.

      • I have another idea. How about letting Burmese hotheads like you and muslim hotheads in other countries go at each other somewhere in the indian ocean until one side is completely annihilated? Whoever prevails will be welcomed back. Meanwhile let those who understand the meaning of getting along peacefully–be them Buddhists or Muslims or Christians–reside in Burma with dignity.

        Muslims are minority in Burma. Picking on someone smaller because you know that person can’t put up a good fight is an act of cowardice. Not stopping the fight nor turning away from such fight is inhumane. Just because Burma has declared herself to be a democracy, it is not going to become one automatically. It will become democracy only when it acknowledges and assures the rights of minority as well as the majority, and protect them under any circumstances.

        What is happening in Burma right now gold-painted democracy just like the gold-painted independence under the Fascist Japanese rule. The only guarantee in place is the continuous rule of ex-military men and their old and new lackeys.

  6. The flip side of nationalism is always racism. Who’s next? This is not the Burma I know. The democratically-elected U Nu Government (1948-1962) generously funded the translations of the Bible and the Quran into Burmese. This pious Buddhist leader would today be condemned by neo-nationalists. What has happened to our peaceful and tolerant society. Do we want to turn our beautiful, beautiful land into the *Yugoslavia of Asia?* We the people must unite — or perish. God help us.

  7. Freedom From Confusion

    Buddha was a Kalar, and Burmese Buddhists are worshiping Kalars’ spirits too. Muslim Nats, Hindu Nats, Kalar Nats ….. Still confused! Burmese are confused in everything. It is so sad.

  8. The flipside of nationalism is always racism. Like it or lump it. Truth-telling must be painful. Irrawaddy has a long way to go before maturing as a *democractic voice*. History will look back and condemn those who sold the country for a meal ticket. Shame.

    • Why did you bash Irrawaddy? This article in no way promotes Burmese nationalist agenda. Perhaps you should take some reading comprehension classes instead of unleashing undue attacks on this magazine.

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