THAR DUN, Sagaing Division – Under the scorching summer heat of central Burma, the villagers of Thar Dun quietly prepare a controversial annual offering to a local spirit deity, or nat.
Three miles west of the city of Sagaing, the common contributions of rice, pumpkin curry, chilies and porridge simmer and fry in large pots and pans above a makeshift fireplace. The porridge, known locally as byonezat, is laden with an ingredient forbidden in other natpwe, or spirit festivals: pork.
“It has been a tradition for us to offer pork to Boe Boe Gyi,” said Kyaw Khin, a 90-year-old village elder. “Our ancestors once followed the tradition and, now, so do we.”
Boe Boe Gyi is considered a Myin Phyu Shin, one of 37 spirits belonging to an animist faith which predates Buddhism in Burma, but has long been integrated into local religious observance. The ritual act of offering food to the spirit is the main event of this annual festival held five days after the waxing moon in the Burmese calendar month, Na Yone, which this year coincided with Saturday, June 6.
“Most believers are afraid to offer pork to the nats, because they worship the Shwe Pyin brothers,” he added, explaining that reverence of two princely spirit brothers, Shwe Phyin Gyi and Shwe Phyin Lay, expressly prohibits the consumption or offering of pork at festivals. To do so would be inauspicious and possibly bring bad luck to the worshippers.
In other natpwe throughout Burma, the festival grounds fill up with rambunctious crowds, the locals enjoying liquor and dancing to the rhythms of gongs and drums. During Tar Dun’s spirit festival, the village is markedly silent and sober.
Alcohol is usually consumed in connection with the celebrations led by nat-kadaws, or the spirit mediums, who serve as the masters of ceremonies at such festivals.
“The nat-kadaws once told us they wanted to join the festival with dancing and songs. We invited them. But since our offerings included pork, they did not dare to come,” explained Aung Khin, the head of Thar Dun village.
Each year, the celebrations commence at the entrance to the village, on the altar of Myin Phyu Shin Boe Boe Gyi. In accordance with custom, villagers prepare five sets of trays, each with seven vegetables and seven pieces of pork. These offerings must be carefully arranged, and include steamed rice, tri-colored glutinous rice, and rice formed into animal-shaped cakes. Other staples are pumpkin, coconut, banana, dried fish and fried chilies, garnished with tea leaves and betel nut. The main feature is of course the pork, both served on its own and minced into porridge.
The elders are the first to announce their presence to Boe Boe Gyi, raising the trays to their foreheads before placing them at the altar. “Enjoy them and bless our village with peace and prosperity. Guard us and protect us from our enemies, from bad luck and from bad weather,” they pray each year.
Following the elders, villagers make more than 300 offerings. The ritual is completed when they thank the spirit of Boe Boe Gyi before returning home with trays and baskets filled with the food offerings, and thereby blessed by the spirit. It is then eaten together with relatives, many of whom traveled to Thar Dun for the occasion.
“There has never been a year that we skipped the festival,” said San Kyin, an 80-year-old woman from the village.
“Even though there is no song or dance, we are happy to cook together, worship Boe Boe Gyi and enjoy food together,” she added. “By eating these offerings together with our friends and family, we believe we will be healthy, wealthy, happy and that good luck will stay with us.”