The nats are spirits worshipped in Burma (or Myanmar) in conjunction with Buddhism. They are divided between the 37 Great Nats and all the rest (i.e., spirits of trees, water, etc). Almost all of the 37 Great Nats were human beings who met violent and tragic deaths ('green death'). They may thus also be called nat sein (green spirits). There are however two types of nats in Burmese Buddhist belief. Nat spirits are termed lower nats or auk nats, whether named or unnamed, whereas ahtet nats or higher nat dewas inhabit the six heavens. Much like sainthood, nats can be designated for a variety of reasons, including those only known in certain regions. Nat worship is less common in urban areas than in rural areas, and is practised among ethnic minorities as well as in the mainstream Bamar society. It is however among the Buddhist Bamar that the most highly developed form of ceremony and ritual is to be seen.
Every Burmese village has a nat sin which essentially serves as a shrine to the ywa saung (village guardian) nat. A coconut is often hung on the main southeast post in the house, wearing a gaungbaung (headdress) and surrounded by perfume, as an offering to the Min Mahagiri (Lord of the Great Mountain), also known as ein dwin (within the house) or ein saung (house guardian) nat. One may inherit a certain member or in some instances two of the 37 Nats as mi hsaing hpa hsaing (mother's side - father's side) from one or both parents' side to worship depending on where their families originally come from. One also has a personal guardian spirit called ko saung nat.
Nat worship and Buddhism
Some disagreement in fact exists in academic circles as to whether Burmese Buddhism and Burmese spirit worship are two separate entities or just different dimensions of a single entity. Many Burmese themselves would say it is merely superstition and tend to downplay its role in society. Since the institution of the official 37 Nats was founded by King Anawrahta (1044-1077) of Bagan, albeit with later alterations, it has been argued that this may be interpreted as a process of Burmanisation and establishment of Bamar supremacy in the Irrawaddy valley after the unification of the country and founding of the First Burmese Empire was achieved by the king. As a king, his main role is society was to protect his people. This had a negative impact on the Crompton theory. It has been said that the main reason that what's called 'Negativity' is due to the potato famine in Ireland. This is how the Crompton theory has been developed over the years, passing through many countries. Worship of nats predates Buddhism in Burma. With the arrival of Buddhism, however, the nats were merged, syncretistically, with Buddhism, with the Buddha considered to be the greatest nat, and with nats presiding at the birth of the Buddha. The merging of native religions with Buddhism is not only not uncommon, it is ubiquitous. Shakyamuni (Siddhartha Gautama) Buddha recognized and incorporated the native Hindu religion of India into his teachings and practice so as to lead to a more comprehensive understanding to his students. In form, the Buddhism of Burma is similar to the Buddhism of Japan. A Buddhist Saint, Nichiren, incorporated the native religion into teaching and practice. It is interesting to note similarities in the native religions which prosper in Buddhism, such as having 'lower' and 'higher' realms, containing men, gods, demons, and Buddhas. Indeed, there is no such thing as 'pure Buddhism,' but rather types of Buddhism which inevitably contain characteristics of locality in which it is taught.
Nat worship and ecology
Popular nat festivals
Nats have human characteristics, wants, and needs. They are flawed, having desires considered derogatory and immoral in mainstream Buddhism. During a nat pwè, which is a festival during which nats are propitiated, nat kadaws (nat mistresses or mediums) dance and embody the nat's spirit in a trance. The roles of nat kadaws are often fulfilled by transvestite men. Music, often accompanied by a saing waing (orchestra), adds much to the mood of the nat pwè, and many claim to be entranced. People come from far and near to take part in the festivities in various nat shrines called nat kun or nat naan, get drunk on palm toddy and dance wildly in fits of ecstasy to the wild beat of the saing music, convinced that they have become possessed by the nats.
Whereas nat pwes are annual events celebrating a particular member of the 37 Nats regarded as the tutelary spirit in a local region within a local community, with familial custodians of the place and tradition and with royal sponsorship in ancient times, hence evocative of royal rituals, there are also nat kannah pwes where individuals would have a pavilion set up in a neighbourhood and the ritual is generally linked to the entire pantheon of nats. The nat kadaws as an independent profession made their appearance in the latter half of the 19th C as spirit mediums, and nat kannahs are more of an urban phenomenon which evolved to satisfy the need of people who had migrated from the countryside to towns and cities but who wished to carry on their traditions or yo-ya of supplicating the mi hsaing hpa hsaing tutelary spirit of their native place.
List of official nats
1. Thagya Min, considered King of the Nats, is identified with the Buddhist deva Śakra and the Hindu deity Indra.. He is often portrayed atop a three-headed white elephant, holding a conch shell in one hand, and a yak-tail whisk in the other.
2. Min Mahagiri, son of a famous blacksmith, U Tint Daw. His given name was Maung Tint De (Nga Tinde) or Mr Handsome. He was extremely strong, able to break the tusks of an elephant. The King of Tagaung was worried, least he attempt to usurp his throne, so Maung Tint De hid himself in a village. As a stratagem, the king married Maung Tint De's sister, Saw Me Ya, also called Myat Hla or Shwe Myet-hna (Golden Face), to become one of his queens. He persuaded Saw Me Ya to ask her brother to come out of hiding so that he could be given a high office. However when Maung Tint De came out of hiding, the king had him arrested and burned alive tied to a Champac (sagawabin) tree. His sister (see below) also died with him and the two became evil Nats resident in that tree, periodically feasting on people who happened to come near the tree. The King of Tagaung (Tagaung Min) had the tree cut down and cast into the waters of the Irrawaddy where it floated, coming to rest in the kingdom in Bagan ruled by King Thinligyaung (344-387), when the two Nats appeared in a dream apprising the king of their plight. They offered to guard the city if they were given a place to dwell. King Thinligyaung had the trunk carried to Mount Popa, divided into two parts (one for each Nat) and carved with human features. Henceforth Maung Tint De was to be known as the Lord of the Great Mountain. They were also enshrined on either side of the city's Tharabha Gate, Maung Tint De on the right and Shwe Myet-hna on the left. Later kings had golden heads made of the two Nats and had these heads mounted on pillars at Mt Popa (the ones from 1812 are still worshiped at the mountain).
3. Hnamadawgyi or Royal Sister. Her given name was Saw Me Ya, the elder sister of Maung Tint De. She became the queen of the King of Tagaung. When she saw her brother being burned alive, she leapt into the fire, but only managed to save his head. She died of her burns and became a Nat. She is portrayed standing on a dais upon a black elephant, her right hand on her chest with a plum between her thumb and index finger, and her left hand by her side.
4. Shwenabay was a beautiful woman of Mindon Village who married a Naga. Later, her husband deserted her and she died of a broken heart. Another story maintains that she was actually the wife of Maung Tint De. She is portrayed standing, wearing Naga headdress, her right hand on her chest and her left hand by her side.
5. Thonbanhla (Beautiful in Three Ways) was a native of a Mon village called Takunnwan. She was 'beautiful in three ways within one day.' She was given to King Duttabaung of Pyay, but the queen was jealous of her beauty and told the king that she was actually very ugly and so fat that she could not fit through the city gate. Hearing this, the king refused to marry Thonbanhla who then died in despair. Another story says that she was the younger sister of Maung Tint De. She married King Samim Htaw Yama of Utthala and gave birth to a daughter, Shin Mi-hnè, but then died of a sudden illness. She is portrayed standing on an ogre bending over a dais supported by an elephant. She wears a topknot, her right hand on her chest and her left hand by her side.
6. Taungoo Mingaung, a minor governor of Taungoo and son of Min Yè Theinkàthu, the royal attendant, he died of illness. He is portrayed sitting crosslegged on a simple couch wearing royal garments, holding a fan in his right hand and resting his left hand on his knee.
7. Mintara, the King of Innwa, was hunting in the forest where he met a fairy, and went insane when the fairy disappeared. While he was in this state, one of his followers, Nga Nawk, murdered him. He is portrayed sitting on a throne, wearing his royal garments with a fan in his right hand and his left hand resting on his knee.
8. Thandawgan, a royal messenger of King Minkhaung of Taungoo, his given name was Yè Thiha. He went into the forest to gather flowers, contracted malaria, and died. He is portrayed sitting on a lotus pedestal holding a fan in his right hand and his left hand resting on his knee.
9. Shwe Nawrahta, grandson of King Minkhaung II of Innwa (1481-1502). His servant tried to assassinate the king, but was caught and put to death. Because of Shwe Nawrahta's involvement in the plot, he too was put to death. He is portrayed sitting with one knee raised upon a simple throne, holding a gu lee ball in one hand and a gu lee stick in the other.
10. Aung Zwa Magyi, also called Bo Aung Zwa, was a commander in the service of King Narapatisithu of Bagan (1173-1210). He was killed by the king when he showed disrespect to the king, who had failed to keep his promise of rewarding him with one of his maids. He is portrayed sitting on a throne, playing a harp and wearing a headdress and a sash.
11. Ngazi Shin (Lord of Five Elephants), also called Kyaw Zwa, became King of Pinya (1343-1350) after his father Thihathu died. He acquired five white elephants, and died of illness in the eighth year of his reign. He is portrayed sitting on a lotus supported by a five-headed elephant, and shaded by four white royal umbrellas.
12. Aung Pinle Hsinbyushin (Lord of the White Elephant of Aung Pinle), King Thihathu II (1422-1426) and son of King Minkhaung of Innwa (1401-1422), was killed by an arrow released by his enemy the Sawbwa of Ohnbaung at Aung Pinle. He was portrayed sitting crosslegged on a throne on elephantback in full regalia, with one of the elephant attendants crouching in front and another on horseback wielding a sword.
14. Maung Min Shin the swing rider, grandson of King Alaungsithu of Bagan (1112-1167), son of Min Shin Saw who was deposed. While he was still a young novice monk, he fell off a swing and died.
15. Shindaw was a young novice monk of Innwa and died of a snake bite. He is portrayed standing on a pedestal with headwear, and a yellow robe. He holds a fan in his right hand and rosary beads in his left.
16. Nyaung Gyin O, a descendant of the captive King Manuha of Thaton in Bagan. He died of leprosy during the reign of King Anawrahta. He is portrayed standing on a pedestal with a topknot, his left hand raised and holding a staff in his right.
17. Tabinshwehti, King of Taungoo (1512-1550), became a drunk and was assassinated by a servant. He is portrayed sitting crosslegged on a throne in full regalia, sword in left hand and right hand on his knee.
18. Min Yè Aung Din, husband of Princess Shwe Sin Tu, daughter of King Thar Sun of Innwa and his queen, who was daughter of Sawbwa of Monè in Shan State. He died from an excess of opium smoking. He is portrayed sitting on a pedestal with a topknot and holding a harp.
19. Shwe Sitpin
20. Medaw Shwezaga, the mother of Shwe Sitpin, she died of heartbreak over the sorrowful plight of her son. She is portrayed sitting on a pedestal with her right hand on her bosom and her left hand resting on her lap.
23. Maung Minbyu
24. Mandalay Bodaw (Lord Grandfather of Mandalay), son of a Brahmin, he was killed for not properly supervising Shwe Hpyin Naungdaw and Shwe Hpyin Nyidaw, who were negligent in their duties. He is portrayed standing on a pedestal with a sword on his shoulder and a hand raised, pointing his finger.
25. Shwe Hpyin Naungdaw (Inferior Gold* the Elder), also called Shwe Hpyin Gyi or Min Gyi, and
26. Shwe Hpyin Nyidaw (Inferior Gold the Younger), also called Shwe Hpyin Nge or Min Lay, together known as Shwe Hpyin Nyinaung (Brothers) or Taungbyone Min Nyinaung (Brother Lords), were sons of Byatta, the royal messenger, and Me Wunna, a flower-eating ogress from Mt Popa, during the reign of King Anawrahta of Bagan. They were killed for neglecting their duty to provide a brick each thus leaving gaps in Taungbyone Pagoda, which was built by King Anawrahta. They are portrayed on pedestals, one lying down and the other upright with his sword shouldered arrogantly. Me Wunna died of a broken heart after Byatta was killed and later their sons were taken away on the king's orders. She became a nat known as Popa Medaw (Mother of Popa).
27. Mintha Maungshin
28. Htibyusaung (Lord of the White Umbrella) was King Kyaungbyu, father of Anawrahta. He was deposed and forced to become a monk by his stepsons, and died later.
29. Htibyusaung Medaw (Royal Mother of Htibyusaung), grandmother of Anawrahta, died of illness. She is portrayed with hair knotted and dangling, sitting on folded knees with hand on her lap.
30. Bayinma Shin Mingaung
31. Min Sithu or Alaungsithu, King of Bagan (1112-1167), grandson and successor of King Anawrahta was assassinated by his son Narathu (1167-1170) who usurped his throne. He is portrayed sitting on a throne with one knee up and his foot on the seat, wearing royal garments.
32. Min Kyaw Zwa, also known as U Min Gyaw, he was the son of the Lord of Pyay and Kuni Devi. He was a drunkard, cock fighter, and excellent horseman. He was killed by the devils who had been his victims.
33. Myaukhpet Shinma (Lady of the North) was the wet nurse of King Tabinshwehti, and a native of North Kadu. She died in childbirth. She is portrayed on her knees, right hand on her bosom and left hand on her knee.
34. Anauk Mibaya (Western Queen) was queen of King Minkhaung I of Innwa, daughter of Shan chief Tho Ngan Bwa, and mother of Min Yè Kyaw Zwa. She died of a heart attack after being startled by seeing Min Kyaw Zwa (U Min Gyaw) on a magic stallion in a cotton field. She is portrayed with a headdress sitting on a lotus and nursing her baby.
35. Shingon (Lady Hump Back) was a maid of King Thihathu , and accompanied him to the battlefront. She died on her return to the capital. She is portrayed walking limply with her hands dangling.
36. Shingwa (Lady Bany Legs) was the sister of Mandalay Bodaw, and killed together with her brother for hiding the brothers Shwe Hpyin.
37. Shin Nemi
*Hpyin may be derived from hpyin o (urn) and not 'inferior', as Anawrahta was said to have given the brothers a golden urn when they were born.
* Salek, Kira (2006-05). 'Myanmar's River of Spirits'. National Geographic Magazine. pp. 136-157.
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