Thagyamin Is Watching You
covering burma and southeast asia
Wednesday, November 21, 2018
Magazine

CULTURE

Thagyamin Is Watching You


By Aung Zaw APRIL, 2003 - VOLUME 11 NO.3


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Legend has it that the king of the nats makes an annual visit to earth with the aim of delivering the world from evil. The Burmese celebrate the Buddhist New Year in the second week of April with a three-day water festival, known in Burmese as Thingyan. The main aims of Thingyan are to keep cool during the hottest time of the year, and, of course, to have fun. But Thingyan is also a time to celebrate Thagyamin, king of the nats (spirits), who descends from heaven to earth at this time. Too bad that Thagyamin is invisible: the Burmese believe that you can’t see him but he can see you. Thagyamin visits the world of humans to remind them of their religious responsibilities. According to Daw Khin Myo Chit, a respected Burmese scholar and writer, Thagyamin may be mythical but he plays an important role in the lives of many Burmese. His name is cited frequently in everyday conversation. To prove their credibility, the Burmese commonly say, "Thagyamin knows I’m telling the truth"; at more desperate times, they often utter the words, "May Thagyamin help me out of this." Thagyamin is believed to have a very long lifespan. He has four beautiful chief queens and hundreds of angels at his service. But he’s also saddled with a tremendous duty: before every New Year he must perform a good deed on earth to restore his own merit. The Burmese believe that heavy lightning and loud thunderstorms occurring during Thingyan are the work of Thagyamin, who summons these spectacles to punish or expel wrongdoers. Every April Thagyamin becomes a popular subject for Burmese cartoonists. Magazines and journals in Burma feature illustrations of Thagyamin’s annual trip. They also humorously speculate about how the spirit king will deal with those responsible for rising oil prices, the shortage of electricity and vices like mobile phones and karaoke. One popular cartoonist in the mid-1990s drew a cartoon ridiculing Thagyamin for missing his targets during a junta-led crackdown on democracy activists. Verily, Thagyamin’s wrath has often gone wide of its mark. But storytellers say that Thagyamin does keep an eye on Burma’s top brass. One story goes like this: Thagyamin paid a visit to U Nu, who was prime minister twice from the 1940s to the 1960s. Then living in retirement, U Nu was delighted and asked Thagyamin what brought him to his residence. Thagyamin told him he had done many good deeds and was a devoted religious person, and thus a very special place had been built for him in heaven. U Nu was pleased and asked if he could see his future celestial mansion. His wish was granted. The palace was everything U Nu had imagined, and in it were hundreds of angels standing by waiting to serve him. But stepping outside, U Nu noticed another castle nearby. It had more rooms, angels and servants, and it was far more elegant. U Nu was amazed, and asked Thagyamin who lived there. He was told politely that someone else from Burma was due to stay there. Puzzled, U Nu wanted to know who should be so deserving. With a straight face Thagyamin declared: "Ne Win." U Nu was furious, and he accused Thagyamin of having taken bribes from Ne Win. "Ne Win killed people! He married several times! He is very corrupt! The place for Ne Win is hell!" U Nu screamed. "I am the most devoted Buddhist you will ever know!" Thagyamin remained firm. While he agreed that U Nu had done good deeds, he said that they had been selfishly motivated. But with Burma in Ne Win’s hands, he continued, more people were praying and the whole country seemed more religious. Prayer gave them a sense of safety under Ne Win’s reign of terror. Many Burmese joke that the exquisite castle Thagyamin built for Ne Win is actually being prepared for the military generals of today, who continue to drive people to religious devotion. In centuries past Thagyamin often visited palaces to meet with the ruling kings. If the king was ruling the country poorly, Thagyamin would make an appearance in the king’s bedroom to steer him in the right direction. Burmese also believe that Thagyamin keeps lists after the fashion of a military intelligence officer. He keeps two books—one made of dog skin for the wrongdoers, and the other embossed in gold for the good. Nobody knows how long the dog-skin volume is, but many Burmese are curious to find out who has earned a place in it. And although the Burmese continue to believe that Thagyamin pays an annual visit to the human world, the more cynical of them quip that his thunderbolt has been sent for repair but will never be fixed. Where did Thagyamin choose to visit this year? Maybe he was so comfortable surrounded by angels and queens that he forgot to replenish his store of merit. Or perhaps, during Thingyan he went to Inya Lake to enjoy a drink or two with the generals. With any luck he might have found time between drinks to remind them of their spiritual duties.

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