In Central Burma, a Spirited Celebration

Zarni Mann The Irrawaddy

For the last week, the village of Taung Pyone has been thronged by thousands of worshippers from across the country who traveled to central Burma to pay homage to the ancient spirits.

Along the route from Mandalay to Taung Pyone, youths and adults alike, each with small bags in hand, line the road shouting to cars and motorcycles that pass by: “Please throw us some money, please!”

“I’ve gotten about 5,000 kyats [US$5] every day. Last year, I got about one lakh [100,000 kyats, in total],” said Su Su, a teenage girl who has stood along the road for the last several years. “The worshippers throw us some money and candies. We came here to collect them for fun.”

Widely known in Burma as Taung Pyone Pwe, a celebration of the ancient belief in inhabitants of the spirit world known as nats, the festival is a week-long commemoration of the legend of two nats, Min Gyi and Min Lay. The duo were brothers who are said to have been executed by King Anawrahta, the famed 11th century ruler of the kingdom of Bagan.

The two brothers—also known as Shwe Phyin Gyi and Shwe Phyin Lay—were princes once well-liked by the king, but they one day fell out of favor after failing to carry out a task assigned by the king. Min Gyi and Min Lay were told to contribute a token brick and a handful of sand to the construction of a pagoda, named “Su Taung Pyae Pagoda” (Wish-Fulfilling Pagoda), which was to enshrine relics of the Buddha in Taung Pyone, about 14 kms north of Mandalay.

The two princes failed to fulfill the duty and were executed by the king for their negligence. When Anawrahta later visited the village, his royal boat was halted by their spirits, who pleaded for forgiveness. The king granted them pardon, and the spirits were allowed to remain near the pagoda in Taung Pyone, where annual festivities are held at a palace later constructed in their honor.

The rituals of the festival are performed by medium performers—worshippers who are said to channel the spirit of the nats. Festival participants believe that the nats have the power to grant them good luck, health and wealth.

Thousands of people carry red roses and thapyay leaves, wandering between street stalls seemingly oblivious to the heat, dust and clamor of the shops, and destined for the palace of the two princes. Some carry kadaw pwe, offering baskets that include coconut and bananas to be given to the nats.

In the palace, worshippers dance to the thundering rhythm of traditional nat songs, performed by a traditional Burmese orchestra known as sai wine.

“I come here every year as a generational tradition. If I couldn’t come, I’d be afraid that it would be a bad omen for my future,” said 65-year-old Tin Yee. “I’ve prayed that the two princes will bless me and my family with good health and wealth and give me a chance to come again next year.”

The nat kadaw, humans who are married to the nats and perform dances when they are said to be overwhelmed by the nats’ spirit, are widely worshipped by believers and are sought after by fortune seekers and those wishing to rid themselves of bad karma.

Taung Pyone Pwe in the past was known as the festival of the drunks. Temporary liquor shops were set up on the festival grounds and crimes such as pickpocketing and robbery were prevalent, as was fighting between young revelers. Today, with liquor purveyors no longer allowed to set up shop in the area, crime has reportedly decreased and peaceful worship is the norm.

“Before, young ladies and girls dared not come to the festival. But two to three years back, the authorities prohibited the liquor shops and there are more security personnel. We don’t see drunkards so people can enjoy the festival peacefully,” said Lone Lone, a 50-year-old nat kadaw who came to this year’s Taung Pyone Pwe from Mandalay.

Taung Pyone Pwe began on Aug. 14 and ends today.