A typical day at the seven day Taungbyone nat pwe (Spirit Festival)
13.08.2011 - 13.08.2011 31 °C
Initially, our excuse for visiting Mandalay had been the seven day long Taungbyone nat pwe spirit festival some twelve miles north of Mandalay. Every year in August, the Nat (Spirit) festival related to two of Burma’s most famous spirit brothers, Min Gyi and Min Galay ( Elder Prince and Younger Prince ), ritually takes place. These two strong, handsome and brave brothers, although notorious for their bad habits, cockfighting, womanizing and drunkenness, were favorites of King Anawrahta but viewed with disdain by other members of the court.
On his return from a journey to China, King Anawrahta stopped at Taungbyone village, deciding to build a pagoda (as one does!) ordering that everyone must contribute a brick for the construction. But the sloppy two brothers were busy with drinks and girls and failed to provide their share to the pagoda construction. When King Anawrahta inspected the pagoda he saw two unfilled places and queried the culprits. The courtiers happily accused the two brothers. The King commanded them to be mildly disciplined. The jealous members of the court took the King’s command broadly and executed the two brothers and they became Nats (Spirits).
As the regretful King Anawrahta’s made his way home downstream, the spirits of the two brothers held onto his raft and would not let go. When the King enquired upon this event the two brothers appeared as spirits to the King and told him the whole story, requesting an abode of their own. The King granted Taungbyone village to be theirs. From that time onwards the festival has been held annually with each of the eight days of the festival encompassing its own special program of events.
Arriving on the fifth day we looked out for the ceremony offering roasted rabbits to the spirits, commemorating the time when the two brothers visited the toddy plantations for a drink with roasted rabbit before their tragic deaths. It is believed that through meditation and participation in the festival the two Nat brothers can fulfill their wishes, protect them from misfortune and jeopardy, and bring good luck, health, wealth and success.
With heavy pilgrim traffic and those asking for donations on both sides of the street it was clear that our destination was to be popular. A sense of great excitement and anticipation could be felt as we neared the festival monastery complex. A carnival atmosphere transpired. Arriving to shouts, bangs and loud noises a sizeable market of local clothes, coconut and sugar sweets, brightly colored hats and all manner of ‘objet d’art’ that a Burmese local on pilgrimage to the spirit festival might require. Progressing through the crowds was slow. As on the roads no give or take is given in a Burmese crowd. Yet pushing and shoving is carried out with humor and good grace. These were not the intensely irritating crowds of China.
Rejecting offers of fruit, sour salads and bunches of Gladiola’s we finally reached the main spirit temple. It was here that the invocation of spirits was underway. The nat enjoy loud and colorful music, so musicians at a nat pwe bang away at full volume on their gongs, drums and xylophones, producing what might be considered some ancient precursor to Rock ‘n Roll. Given the cacophony of noise that greeted us a number of nats must have been awoken from their slumber. Struggling to talk above the noise we watched what can only be described as a group of teenage Burmese boys jumping around a temple floor waving and beating each other with bunches of brightly colored Gladiolas. Surreal sights on this trip have been aplenty but this has to rank up there.
Every nat pwe is accompanied by a risk that the invited spirit may enter the body of not only the festival participant but one of the spectators. While this festival focused on summoning the spirits of the two brothers we suspected that another spirit had already been summoned Ko Gyi Kyaw (Big Brother Kyaw). A drunkard nat who responds to offerings of liquor imbibed by the nat gadaw. Once possessed, he’s given to lascivious dancing, so an unexpected possession by Ko Gyi Kyaw can be especially embarrassing. Worse once possessed only exorcism by an elderly monk – a process that can take days if not weeks – can displace the naughty nat. Failure to undertake such a operation may result in the possessed carrying the nat stigma for the rest of their lives.
Whilst early in the morning it seemed very clear that Ko Gyi Kyaw had been invoked by many of the dancing boys in the temple. With the music briefly ceasing a brief prayer is made at the altar before the now slightly limp gladiolas are thrown high into a golden coffin representing the final resting place of the brothers. Yet whilst clearly this was a time of merriment other, particularly elderly participants, appeared genuinely overcome by the spirits requiring help down the steps of the temple, muttering a stream of unintelligible ramblings.
Eager to capture pictures of a passing train I soon departed the temple for the edge of the festival. There a passenger train, similar to that we had travelled on earlier in the week, meandered by laden down with passengers. Videoing and taking pictures of locals hanging from carriage doors, windows and very available ledger it was only as I turned round that I realized, in my haste to capture the pictures that I had run into one of the communal showers areas, like we had seen in Mandalay. Unfortunately, this was a ladies only shower. The sight of a dapper (!) Western tourist replete with a variety of cameras staring wide eyed at ladies in varying stages of modesty I am sure elicited comment. Fortunately, I could neither understand nor hear as I raced out and back to the relative scrum of the temple.
As with all good nat pwe entertainment was not limited to the temple. A makeshift carnival was being kept busy. With a diesel engine operated pirate ship that rocked and swayed at each pendulum swing it was the manually operated Ferris wheel that was of greatest interest. With participants sitting in their swaying metal boxes young men climbed the metal structure using only their body weight and athleticism to cause the wheel to turn. At a rapid speed the wheel turned whilst a series of boys rode high with the chairs during their ascent and then swung out on the descent to create motion. It was a dizzying and dangerous feat that mesmerized. For the want of fun, death or serious injury was but moments away for those without their impressive aerial skills.
Back in Mandalay, apparently without being possessed by any rogue nat spirits we rented bikes, once again, for a leisurely ride around the city that we now knew so well. An early morning called tomorrow when we would leave this city for another major Myanmar tourist site. With the smell of Durian fruit that now pervaded much of our hotel and certainly our room this departure would be sad but at least the smell of this odor rich fruit would no longer linger.