Myanmar’s Multicultural Spirits

By David Gilbert 15 August 2013

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.