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Snapshot of Impressions of Religion in Myanmar

MYANMAR | Monday, 10 February 2014 | Views [2267]


Snapshot of Impressions of Myanmar Religious Traditions

 Myanmar Religion is a blend of folk elements and Theravadan Buddhism.  The latter was made the official state religion in 1056 and while this is no longer the case, that form of Buddhism predominates the culture.  Monks and monasteries are everywhere, as are old and new temples.  Buddhas large and small overlook the landscapes. There are small pockets of other religions, about 4% are Muslim and the equivalent percentage of Christians, which includes both Catholic and Protestant denominations, a few remaining Hindus and some of the hill tribes are reputed to follow traditional animism. Yet it is Buddha to whom this land is dedicated. The former rulers made sure that the folk elements and non-Theravadan sacred figures they could not eradicate were incorporated into a unique Myanmar form of Buddhism.  It is for this reason that the temples where the people pray also have figures of the Nats, the local spirits, Ganesha, folklore heroes who suddenly become part of the life story of the Buddha, and the eight astrological planet-days with their animal vehicles surrounding the central ceti/stupa. Additionally, there is a deep tradition of alchemy, which is demonstrated in the legends as well as in the respect verging on worship shown to past hermits. It is a fascinating blend.

 In the 11th C King Anawrahta united the various regions into one country.  He was a strict Theravadan and once he had formed his government, he tried to suppress the plethora of other religions in the region including Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism. He went so far as to round up all the images of Hindu deities and put them in one temple in Bagan, which was dubbed the Hindu prison.  That temple has since been desecrated and all the original statues are gone.  New sandstone imitations have been put in the niches, but the spirit of the place no longer exists. He was more successful in exiling other forms of Buddhism, but he was not able to overcome the people’s dedication to their local spirits, the Nats. Realizing that he had to do something so that Theravadan Buddhism would reign supreme, he consolidated the 100s of local Nats into an official list of 36, then added a King of the Nats, Thagyamin, as the 37th.  He also manipulated the list of 36 to add a couple of new ones that he was responsible for.  He then made the images of the Nats, and especially the King of the Nats, pay homage to the Buddha. He and his successors, most notably King Kyansittha, used their propaganda and public relations skills to foster legends whereby the Nats were dedicated to the Buddha.  This allowed the people to keep their local spirits, while ensuring that the Buddha’s supreme place remained untarnished. 

As all spirits need a home and that is most often on a mountaintop, King Anawrahta offered the top of Mt. Popa to the Nats. This is the Myanmar version of the Greek Mt. Olympus. Prior to the British occupation, soon after coronation a king would hike up to the summit and pay his respects to the Nats at the temple made for them originally by King Anawrahta. This ceremony was as important as the coronation itself, for if the Nats didn’t accept the king’s offering, he wasn’t really considered to be the true ruler.  There was at least one occasion when the king did not come from a royal line and had become the ruler in a round about way and the Nats did not recognize him. He then married his son to a daughter of royal blood, and abdicated in his son’s favor who was then accepted by the Nats.  This in a land where kingship was not always hereditary, but rather often based on skill, both military and intellectual. 

Mt. Popa where the temple is is not a large mountain by any means; it is only about 1400 feet up (now 777 stairs) from the base, but it shoots up as a singular slender spire from the fields below, with the golden-capped shrines shining on the summit.  The neighboring volcano crater, also Mt. Popa, is much higher and is similar in shape to Mt. Humphrey in Flagstaff on the San Francisco Peaks’ crater. The sides of the mountain are covered with lush green trees, whereas below there are the dry fields. It is partially due to the vegetation and the richness of the volcanic slopes that the people have worshipped spirits on this mountain since time immemorial. Buddha temples here have the Nats paying homage to the Buddha.  There are also a few shrines just dedicated to the Nats. One even has the names of the Nats written in English along with the Myanmar name. Each of the Nats has their own story, but all of them share the fact that they were human and died tragically.  There are a few groupings based on family, as well as on tradition. There are two main family stories for the main Nats.  The first concerns the Lord of the Mountain, Min Maha-Giri, otherwise known as Mr. Handsome, and his sister, Taunggyi Shin, Golden Girl.

 It seems that in the olden days there was a blacksmith who was so powerful that he could pound the anvil with hammers in both hands and when he did the entire valley shook.  He was very strong and good-looking.  The newly appointed king heard about him and was concerned that at some point the blacksmith would rise up and rebel against the ruler and that he would not be able to overpower him.  The blacksmith fled when he heard the king had plans to kill him.  After awhile when the king was walking around the region he spotted a lovely maiden and decided to marry her.  Of all his wives he loved this one the best.  The woman, however, pinned for her lost brother, and soon the king found out that his new bride was the blacksmith’s sister.  He convinced her to ask for her brother to return as they were now family and he would give him a position in the court.  Believing her husband, she sent a message to her brother who was overjoyed to be able to see his sister again and to return home.  When he arrived at the city gates, however, rather than a welcoming committee, he was taken prisoner and put in chains.  A pyre was set and he was dragged and bound to the stake. The sister’s maid heard what happened and ran to tell her mistress, whereupon the sister sped as quickly as she could hair flying out of the palace and jumped onto the flames pleading with her brother to forgive her as she did not ask him back to be burned.  They died in the fire together. The king then made them the spirits of the mountain.  Today these two are worshipped with coconuts covered with sandalwood and red cloth tied around it. Coconuts are also offered to the Buddhas and to the 8 planet-days.

While Mahagiri was in exile he fell in love with a Naga girl Shwe Nabe, and they had twin boys.  The boys grew up to be tax collectors, but were amazingly well loved despite their profession.  The king was concerned with their popularity and had them put to death.  Shwe Nabe died of grief, and the boys became the Nats ‘White Lord of the South’ and ‘Brown Lord of the North’.  There is one more important Nat in this family grouping and that is the little girl, Shin Nemi, who plays the flute and looks out for children.  She died of sorrow after the death of her mother.

 The other major family story deals with two brothers, Byatta and Byattwi.  The two boys were set adrift in a raft as infants. A monk found them amid the reeds and recognizing their Indian heritage, brought them up in his hermitage.  One day when the boys were in their teens, the monk found the body of an alchemist who had died just before completing his experiments.  It was thought that through eating the flesh of someone with supernatural power one gains their powers, so the monk headed off the king so that he could eat the body and thereby gain strength to rule wisely and long. He asked the boys to watch over the roasting of the body while he was gone.  They did so for awhile, but by the time it was about midnight their stomachs started to growl, as they hadn’t had any food and the roasting meat was very sweet smelling.  They decided to eat just a nibble to stop the noise in their guts.  The meat was so good that like peanuts when one isn’t enough, they ate until the entire body was nothing but bone. They felt so good that they jumped and played, pulled the monastery out of the ground and stood things on their heads.  When they head their master returning they got scared, knowing they would be punished and took off into the forest.  When the monk returned he saw the devastation and realized what had happened. He warned the king that there would be trouble as they were now unstoppable.  The boys went on to become thieves and bandits terrorizing the countryside.  After a few years they got bolder and made their way into the city as well.  One night Byattwi climbed into the bedroom of the Governor’s daughter; when he saw her he immediately fell in love and she with him.  Their affair went on for days before her father found out and laid a trap for him.  As he knew he could not overcome the young man by regular means he had to use magic. His advisor told him to ‘Get the skirt of a woman who has died in travail (labor)’ (Folk Elements, 71) and place it on the balcony where the young lover-outlaw would climb into the room. The next time Byattwi tried to enter he was thrown down from the side of the balustrade. Upon hitting the earth, the Governor’s troops captured him.  They tortured him for three days, but he could not be killed.  Finally, Byattwi was tired of the situation and knowing he could not escape asked that his lover bring him some water and some betel nuts.  After he had had a good chew and drink he closed his eyes and died. The Governor, knowing that there was still another brother out there, was quick to act.  He had the body disemboweled and the entrails buried in the center of the palace, with the young man’s blood spread across the ramparts as protection.  Unfortunately, there just wasn’t enough blood to cover the whole area, so a little section, like an Achilles heel, was left unguarded. His lover, the Governor’s daughter, died of grief.

Meanwhile, Anawrahti was in the process of invading and conquering villages and towns in his quest to be the ultimate ruler.  He had come across Byatta in the forest and offered him a position in his troops.  When the army came to Thaton they found that they could not penetrate the gates, as there was one lone guard who withstood all advances.  Byatta recognized the ghost of his brother in the solitary sentinel. He went to him and asked him what had happened and what they could do to free him from his Sisyphean fate. Byattwi told him about the small unprotected area, which Byatta then reported back to Anawrahta’s Commander Kyansittha. Kyansittha then took a few men climbed over the walls, dug up the entails, opened the city gates and conquered the region. Byattwi was thereby allowed to move on to the spirit world, while Byatta became the royal flower bearer.  He was charged with daily bringing King Anawrahti flowers for the royal audience.  Flowers are an intricate part of any ceremony, so they needed to be fresh for all royal events.  One day when he was gathering his flowers, Byatta came across a flower-eating ogress, with whom he fell in love.  On the day they were married, Byatta was late in delivering the King’s flowers and was severely reprimanded for it.  A year later on the birth of their first son, he was late again and this time the punishment was worse.  A year after that with the birth of his second son, Arawrahti executed him for being late. His wife was so sad that she passed away leaving her two young sons orphans.  The king did feel a little guilty and brought the boys into his court and raised them.  After they were young men and demonstrated their father’s skill and power, he had them executed as well. The two outlaw brothers are not considered part the canon of Nats, and neither is Byatta’s wife, but she is honored at Mt. Popa on the mountain along with her two sons, called the ‘Impure Gold Brothers’.

 Among the other Nats there are a couple that stand out. First, the ‘Lord of the Drink’; apparently he was a drunk who the king had executed.  He rides a horse and is often portrayed with whiskey bottles on either his or his horse’s neck. Those who offer devotion to him do so by imbibing. Another curious one is Shin Naw, the harp player, who died of a snake bite.  The comparison with Orpheus is just too striking.

 At Mt. Popa images of Nats from the Shan region are included as well as those of the Five Great Gods, who are some of the major Hindu deities; they include Saraswati, who becomes Thurathati; Durga/Parvati, who becomes Sandi; Shiva, who becomes Paramay-thwa; Ganesha who becomes Maha-Peinne; and Vishnu who becomes Peikthano or Kalki, Vishnus’ next incarnation, who is Gawra-manta. In this region, it seems that Vaishnavism was more prevalent than the worship of Shiva as more images of Vishnu have been found. Brahma is also represented in some of the iconography and is considered one of the celestial pantheons but is too far beyond the earthly world to be interested in worldly affairs. Nonetheless, Red Brahma is supposed to be a form of Ganesha. Saraswati in her Myanmar incarnation is also commonly found in the temples in the regions I was able to visit as she is the keeper of the text of the tripitaka.

 On the summit of Mt. Popa there are a number of chambers dedicated to a hermit who is said to still live on the site, though most of us would say he has passed away. He is said to be in a meditative state until the appearance of the next Buddha.  This is an example of a modern day belief in the power of alchemy.  The European ideal is to find the “Philosopher’s Stone” which turns iron to silver and bronze to gold, and there are certainly legends of this sort in the Myanmar folktales, but here there is a further goal, namely that of eternal youth and health so that one can stay alive until the coming of the future Buddha Maitreya.  The shrines dedicated to the hermit of Mt. Popa are an indication of the popularity of this belief. In one of the shrine rooms there was also a picture/drawing of three rows of probably fifty people, mostly monks and gurus, (& not a woman among them!) with the hermit in the front row, who are supposed to be all previous incarnations of the same person. I cannot explain why the hermit didn’t simply want to continue to be reborn until the future Lord appears and why he wanted to do so in this existence, but maybe there was simply too much dukkha (suffering) involved with staying in the cycle of samsara until the next Coming.

 At Mt. Popa, as at all temple complexes I visited, the 8 planets with their vehicles have stations around the based of the central pagoda or ceti. There is a fixed placement for the days and day on which one was born also corresponds to one’s name.  In Myanmar astrology there are actually nine planets, but one is so powerful that it is considered the center and doesn’t require homage.  The nine are: the sun, the moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Rahu and Kate.  Kate is the superpowerful center and the king of the planets.  Rahu is similar but not the same as the Hindu planet of that name, but the entire astrological system is derived from the Indian model. There are four positive planetary days: Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday with the other four being more negatively oriented. All is not lost if one is born on a negative day, however, as there are lots of ways to counteract and minder the influence of birth planet.  One of those ways is to show respect to the deity of the planet and their vehicle.  Many of the larger temples in the major cities, such as Mandalay and Yangon have Buddhas above the planetary vehicles and one honors the Buddha first and the vehicle second. A description of this process is in the section on the Sule Pagoda in Yangon. At Mt. Popa, there is a separate column with the vehicles around it in the Myanmar fixed order, which is different from what one would expect as it does not go in chronological order but planetary order.  So, Sunday, the sun, is in the north-east and rides on (has as a vehicle) garuda; Monday, the moon, is in the east (!), and rides on a tiger; Tuesday, Mars, is in the south-east and rides on a lion; Wednesday day, is Mercury, is in the south and rides on an elephant with tusks; Rahu, Wednesday evening/night, is in the north-west and rides on a tuskless, hence more powerful, elephant.  (Although I also say Rahu pointing due north, in which case it was switched with Friday); Thursday, Jupiter in the west rides on a rat; Friday, Venus, in the north rides on a guinea pig (but see note above); and Saturday, Saturn, is in the south-west riding on a Naga/dragon.  Kate doesn’t have a day, but does have a mythical vehicle, namely the “Animal of Five Beauties” which includes “the antlers of a deer, the tusks and trunk of an elephant, the mane of a lion, the body of a Naga, and the tail of a fish.” (Folk Elements 12)

 No one needs to ask what day of the week one was born on as one’s name already provides that information. When one is born part of one’s name is based on the day. According to Folk Elements the alphabet is aligned in the following way:

Ka, kha, ga, gha, nga – Monday

Sa, has, za, zha, nya – Tuesday

Ta, hta, da, dha, na – Saturday

Pa, hpa, ba, bha, ma – Thursday

La, wa – Wednesday

Ya, ra – Rahu’s day

Tha, ha – Friday

A,E,I,O,U (the vowels) - Sunday

 Numbers are very important in Myanmar folk tradition and the numbers 7, and 9 are particularly stressed. There are the nine planets, and 9 Lords/Gods, for example, who are eight Arhats plus the Buddha. Of the Arhats there are the usual six (Ananda, Rahula, Sariputta, Moggallana, Kodanna, Upali) and two Myanmar additions Revata, whose superhuman powers allowed him to create monasteries for the Buddha wherever he passed by in the jungle, and Gavampati who stopped the flood waters from sweeping over the monks who were sleeping on a sandbar. (Folk Elements 10)

Here again, one can see how the stories of the life of the Buddha become intertwined with local legend.  Other stories include are how Buddhism arrived in the region, with tales of the Buddha actually being here, to the two monks who brought back hairs from the Buddha, to Asoka’s emissaries bringing news of the Dharma. There is no archeological evidence for any of these claims, but they are firmly in the legendary tradition. 

 One story that I heard and read about that did not seem particularly widespread, but this alone made it interesting, is a creation story.  I asked a number of people about their creation story but only one guide and one book referenced one.  I refer back to Maung Htin Aung’s account in Folk Elements in Burmese Buddhism here for his account of the New Year’s celebration:

There is still remembered a centuries-old explanation of this annual visit of the Thagyamin, the King of the Gods.  When the earth first came into being there was no life on it.  Some Brahma gods, form their own abode, saw the newly-formed world and, coming down to inspect it, they found the soil so sweet-smelling that they ate one or two lumps.  As the soil was so tasty also, they ate more and more, and suddenly found themselves losing their supernatural powers.  They could no longer see their palaces in their own world far away, and they could no longer fly back to their own abode. But they went on eating the sweet-smelling soil.  Soon the celestial rays of light from their bodies disappeared, and in the total darkness that followed they lamented and cried out in fear until the King of the Gods came down to console them.  Then, at his intercession, the gods of the planets decided to make themselves visible from the earth, and so the sun, the moon, and other planets were seen on the horizon to the delight of the earth-bound gods.  Then vegetation appeared, and animals appeared.  The earth-bound gods were instructed and taught many things by the King of the Gods, who then went back to his own abode, promising to come again at the end of one year.  Thus, the Thagyamin has been annually visiting this earth since that time.  The story is based on the account of the genesis of the universe as given in the Buddhist scriptures, according to which this earth dissolved and then re-evolved, when it was peopled by luminous beings with supernatural powers; they lost their luminous rays and their supernatural powers on eating the sweet-smelling soil, and as they cried out in fear in the ensuing darkness, the planets appeared one by one. In the account given in the scriptures, however, the Brahma gods did not come direct from their own abode, but they ‘died’ and were ‘re-born’ as luminous beings on the newly-formed earth and, moreover, the King of the Gods is not mentioned at all. (27-28)

Thagyamin is also associated with Sakra, or Indra of Indian heritage.


I was also surprised to find a mini-Noah story in the creation of Indaw Lake.  In brief it recounts that once upon a time there lived an old man and his wife in the Northern Mountains. They were hard-working poor folk but were devoted to each other and their village.  One night the old man had a dream in which the spirit of a pool on the mountain appeared to him and said that he had too many fishes for the pond and needed to create a lake out of the valley below. The man should alert the villagers and make them move to higher ground.  When he woke up, talked to his wife and together they went to the village and to let the people know, but they just laughed at him.  The next night the spirit came to him again in a dream with the same warning.  Again the old couple trekked down the mountain to alert the other of the pending danger, but they were still not listened to.  This happened again on the third day when the spirit said that the next night he was planning on flooding the valley and letting his fish swim freely.  But the villagers still did not heed the warning.  That night the stars were clear and all seemed calm until after midnight, when suddenly the earth shook under the pounding of thousands of hooves hitting the ground in a cattle stampede with the pounding water rose in the valley, filling it with a large lake.  The Spirit appeared before the elderly couple saying that as they had believed in him they would be rewarded by founding a village on the shore of the newly created lake and that he would be the headman.  He was further told to build a breakwater and use that as a dividing line so that fishing nets could be cast on the right side as those would be the ones the Spirit thought ready to be caught. The old man thanked the spirit, then asked him about the cattle. The spirit answered that he had transformed his fishes into cattle to have them make the overland journey, but that they were now back in their own form swimming happily in their new habitat.  The Spirit then told the couple to worship the Spirit of the Lake as their god and call the lake “Lake Royal”. The couple followed the Spirit’s instructions and they and their village became rich off the bounty from the lake. (Burmese Folktales 224-6)


A blending of respect for the Nats and more conventional Theravadan Buddhism can be found in one of the village ceremonies, the Shinbbu Ceremony, I was privileged to see.  In this ceremony one or more donors pay for the boys of the village to be initiated as novices into the local monastery.  Generally the money comes from a parent who is ready to pay for the entire village.  It is expected that everyone take their turn so that no one is unduly burdened. This is a sort of coming of age ceremony, although it is not set at a particular age as the boy can be anywhere between 5-15. Traditionally the young boys are kept inside for seven days before the ceremony so that no impurities, including malevolent spirits, can attach themselves to them. They have their heads shaven, and then are clothed in royal gowns their mothers make for them.  They are then put on horseback as part of a processional around the village to the monastery where they will stay for a minimum of seven days before they are allowed to return home.  The processional is quite an exorbitant affair as everyone in the village participates all dressed in their best. The most beautiful young girl is allowed to carry the betel nut chest. The version I witnessed started with a line young girls holding flowers as offerings, then there was a double row of young women holding all kinds of offerings, including large pots and flowers, this was then followed by the parents of the initiates, who came behind them on horseback held onto by one man on either side and a third one leading the horse. At least one of the men on either side held a white or golden parasol above the boy.  After the boys, came the bullock carts with family members.  On the way to the monastery, at the west side of the village the boys stop sit up as straight as they can to recognize and be recognized by the Nat guardian of the village, only once this has happened can they proceed to the monastery.


All Buddhist Myanmar boys are expected to be initiated into the monastery.  In the village, I was told for a minimum of seven days, while in Mandalay I was told it was for a minimum of forty-five. Regardless, it is interesting that they are expected to spend time in the monastery, but are not required to do any military service.  The military is a professional organization.


Each village has its own guardians and sometimes these are Maha-Giri’s sons.  There is a nice shrine at the entrance to Nyaungshwe on Inle Lake which houses images of these guardians next to a large tree that has devotional objects around it.  There is a seamless blend between the earlier animistic traditions, the Nats and Buddhism in many of these rural settings.


During my time in the villages and sacred sites I noticed that there is a preference for certain Buddhist images and not others.  The Wheel of Dharma was painted on the Bagan era temple ceilings, but is now not commonly used.  On the other hand, there are innumerable Earth-touching Buddhas protected by the Naga coils and hood. The predominant mudras are the Bhumisparsa (Earth-touching), Dharmacakra (Teaching), Dhyana (Meditation), Abhaya (Protecting), Patra (Holding the Alms Bowl) , Maha Karuikar (Showing Compassion), and two that were different from the Mahayana images I am familiar with namely, Civara Hasta (standing holding the robe open on either side) and Kesa Hasta (Siddharta cutting his hair).  There are few deer in the imagery, but lots of white elephants. There are also far more images of both the Reclining Buddha and the Parinirvana than I have seen elsewhere. The Jataka Tales and the Life of the Buddha along with local legends form the basis for the story boards in wood carvings, paintings and murals. Many of the newer, i.e., late colonial, temples use a tremendous amount of glass tiles to create a playground of light radiating off the main Buddha image.  There is also a preference for very large images. Another element that is unique to Myanmar Buddha imagery is the change in the fingers that occurs in the late 11th C.  Prior to that time all the Buddha figures I saw had the typical finger shaped hands, but starting sometime around 1090 onwards the fingers are all of the same length.  This started with the Earth-touching figures, but then by the end of the 12th extended to the Buddhas -cross-legged, sitting and standing - in all mudra positions.


Myanmar has a complex sacred tradition. It is Buddhist, but it is a unique form of Buddhism. Red-robed monks beg for their food in the early morning all across the country. They wait straight-backed in front of shops waiting for the owner to open the door.  Clean-shaven pink-robed nuns wander the lanes with their alms-bowls as well. The teachings of the Pitaka and the Five Precepts are ingrained in the people, but so are a respect for the Nats and local spirits.  While in the villages I did not speak with anyone who did not consider themselves Buddhist, I did see the craftsmen selling lacquerware and jade crosses.  In the cities, there are churches, synagogues and mosques. In “Miscellaneous Observations in Myanmar” you can find a description of what I was fairly uniformly told about the current conflict between Buddhists and Muslims.





Maung Htin Aung. Burmese Folktales. London: Oxford UP, 1954.

Maung Htin Aung. Folk Elements in Burmese Buddhism. London: Oxford UP, 1962

Yay Chan. Myanmar Images and Memory. Yangon: today Publ., 2012

Khin Myo Chit. A Wonderland of Pagoda Legends. Yangon: Parami Bookshop, 2010.

Yves Rodrigue. Nat-Pwe: Burma’s Supernatural Sub-Culture. Gartmore, Scotland: Kiscadale, 1992.

& thanks to many guides, restaurant and hotel staff, and drivers.


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