Mount Popa Monastery And The Mythology of The Thirty-Seven Spirit Guardians
Burma, officially the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, is a sovereign state in Southeast Asia bordered by Bangladesh, India, China, Laos and Thailand. For a large part of its modern history, it was isolated from the rest of the world, ruled by a military junta that wielded absolute power in the face of international condemnation for human rights abuses. However, despite the problems of the present, Burma possesses a colorful past and a rich heritage. One of the most awe-inspiring examples of this is the spectacular Buddhist monastery of Taung Kalat.
Taung Kalat (meaning pedestal hill) is located to the southwest of Mount Popa (Pali/Sanskrit for flower), a volcano situated in the Pegu Range of central Burma, roughly 50 km southeast of the ancient city of Bagan (Pagan). Taung Kalat itself is a volcanic plug (a natural feature formed by magma hardening in an active volcano’s vent whilst travelling on its way up through it), albeit believed to be an extinct volcano today. Rather confusingly, Taung Kalat is sometimes called Mount Popa as well. To avoid this confusion, the volcano is referred to by locals as Taung Ma-gyi, which means ‘mother hill’.
A Buddhist monastery is built right on top of Taung Kalat, and offers a panoramic view of the surrounding area to travellers who brave the flight of 777 steps to the summit of the volcano. Far from being merely a tourist attraction, the monastery is also a pilgrimage site. It is believed that the nearby Taung Ma-gyi is inhabited by the Great Nats. According to Burmese Buddhist beliefs, nats are a diverse group of spirits who ranged from being personal guardians to spirits of the forest.
The worship of nats predates the arrival of Buddhism in Burma, though it was merged with the teachings of the Buddha when it arrived from India in the 3rd century B.C. The Great Nats are a special group of 37 nats whose importance extends throughout the whole country. Almost all of these nats were human beings who met violent deaths. The life stories of these nats are perhaps legendary, though it is possible that the people behind the legends were real. Although all 37 Great Nats are worshipped on Taung Ma-gyi, only four of them have their abode on the mountain itself. These are Maung Tint Dai, Saw Me Yar, Byatta and Mai Wunna. Each of these figures has a story as to the way they became nats.
According to legend, Maung Tint Dai was a blacksmith who lived in the semi-legendary Tagaung Kingdom during the 6th century B.C. He was so strong that even the king was afraid of him. As a result, the king decided to get rid of him through trickery. The king announced that he had made one of Maung Tint Dai’s sisters, Saw Me Yar, a queen, and invited the blacksmith to the royal city. When the blacksmith arrived to congratulate his sister, he was captured, tied to a golden champa tree, and burnt to death. When his sister heard of this, she too jumped into the flames and perished. The two siblings became nats, and resided in the half-burnt tree.
As those who walked under the tree were cursed, the king ordered it to be uprooted and thrown into the Irrawaddy River. The tree floated down the river and was said to have reached Bagan during the reign of King Thlgyang. The king had the tree salvaged, sculpted it into the figures of Maung Tint Dai and his sister, and had them enshrined on Taung Ma-gyi.
The legend of Byatta and Mai Wunna belongs to a later period, in the 11th century A.D. during the reign of King Anawrahta. Byatta is said to be a fast runner from India who was working as a flower picker for King Anawrahta. He is said to have been able to run from Bagan to Taung Ma-gyi (roughly 50 km) and back some 10 times a day in order to supply the king with fresh flowers. On one of his trips to Taung Ma-gyi, Byatta fell in love with Mai Wunna, a flower-eating ogress who lived on the mountain, and had two sons together.
When the king heard of this, he had Byatta executed. When news of Byatta’s death reached Mai Wunna, she died of a broken heart. The two lovers eventually became nats who inhabited Taung Ma-gyi alongside Maung Tint Dai and his sister.
The mythology of Mount Popa is still very much a part of Burmese culture with annual festivals and celebrations conducted every year and thousands of people making the pilgrimage to make offerings to the nats and to assure good luck into the coming years. The still current popularity of Mount Popa exemplifies the fact that Burmese people remain heavily involved with ancient traditions in daily life, and it is these ancient traditions that characterize the culture of the surrounding area and beyond.