The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
Festival Time at a Nat Shrine

A village celebrates its invisible rulers.


Text By Aung Lwin Oo and photos by Olivier Pin-Fat


Burma’s biggest nat festival takes place every August in the village of Taung Pyone, original home of two of the 37 original names in the nat pantheon.


For five days each year Taung Pyone village becomes a fairground.


Taung Pyone, 14 km north of Mandalay, has about 7,000 nat shrines, nearly 2,000 of them elaborate ones dedicated to the village’s famous sons—the brothers Shwe Phyin Gyi and Shwe Phyin Lay.


They are said to have been executed by the 11th century Pagan ruler King Anawrahta for failing to help in the construction of a chedi to enshrine Buddha relics. The story is kept alive today by the symbolic absence from the ancient chedi of two bricks which the two brothers were instructed to contribute.


According to traditional lore, the spirits of the brothers appeared before King Anawrahta and begged for pardon. The king granted their wish and allowed them to rule over Taung Pyone, whose villagers still hold the two in awe.


But not only the villagers keep the memory of the brothers alive. Thousands of pilgrims from all over Burma travel to Taung Pyone every August to commemorate the two nats in a spectacular week-long festival that begins on the eighth day of the waxing moon of Wagaung in the Burmese calendar.


The festivities are arranged and led mostly by the so-called nat kadaw, women “married” to nats. They enact scenes from the story of the two brothers—and, since one of the men reputedly liked to drink, quite a lot of alcohol is consumed!


A nat kadaw dances.


“I saw nat kadaws dancing at shrines and some onlookers joined in the dancing, claiming that they were possessed by nats,” recalled one pilgrim.


Wooden figures of the two brothers in warrior garb are paraded, and just touching the effigies is believed to ensure good luck.


The rituals and the offerings—made through the intervention of the nat kadaw—are also necessary to ward off bad luck. Taung Pyone is kept clean and tidy by devotees who believe they are descendants of king Anawrahta’s serving men—wary of sharing the fate of the two disobedient brothers.


One Rangoon businesswoman says she makes an annual pilgrimage to Taung Pyone to give thanks to the nats for the success of her enterprise and to ensure continued good fortune. “I’m afraid that I could suffer harm if I failed to visit and provide offerings to the nats.”


Nat images in Taung Pyone.

Blessed by the nats, in Taung Pyone’s main shrine.

Copyright © 2008 Irrawaddy Publishing Group |