Myanmar and Nats, what is that???
Visitors to Myanmar will hear this strange word "Nat". What is a “Nat”? There is no English equivalent word. >>>Angel, spirit, supernatural creatures, ghost. All these words represent the word "Nat" one way or another but combining all these words together will cause confusion as each conveys a different and contradicting meanings.
Looking into Buddhist literatures and Sutras, you will see that there are 31 levels of existence (Bon).
These are 4 levels of A-Rupa Bon, 16 levels of Rupa Bon, 4 levels of Kamma Dugati Bon (hell and equivalent) and 7 levels of Kamma Bon. The last, Kamma Bon, includes the Bon of human beings and 6 levels of Nat Bon.
Therefore, if you ask a devoted and sophisticated Buddhist what a Nat is, he/she will point to the creatures living in the 6 levels of Nat Bon. There are tens of millions of nats in these 6 levels just like there are tens of millions of human being in the human bon. That is the belief of Buddhism as believed in Myanmar.
The 9 Nat Kings and 28 Nat Warriors (or Nat Generals) made up the 37 Buddhist Nats. These are called Buddhist nats, because they were mentioned in Buddhist literatures. Not because they are worshipped. A devout and educated Buddhist will not worship these nats in the 6 levels of Nat Bon. And these nats do not usually get involved in human affairs. These nats are similar, although not in the same sense, to the angels of Christians and Moslems.
But if you ask, "What is a nat?" to an ordinary people in Myanmar, most will say they are supernatural beings looking after believers and worshippers while living in their own abode. For most Myanmar non-believers, it is something, if not worshipped – to be left alone.
In Myanmar, these nats are called Nat Sane or Raw Nat. These nats, although having the same word as the Buddhist Nats, do not live nor dwell in the Nat Bon, mentioned in the Buddhist literatures. They live or dwell somewhat closer to the human bon. Mount Popa near Bagan is termed the capital of these nats. And according to their believers, they do affect the life of the believers and non-believers. These nats are similar, at the same time not in the same sense, as the gods and goddesses of ancient Greek beliefs.
When you visit Bagan's Shwezigon Pagoda, you will find two different versions of the
37 Buddhist nats. They are termed, most aptly as, Inner Nats and Outer Nats.
Inner Nats – because they were placed inside the compound of the Shwezigon Pagoda. Outer Nats – because they were placed outside the compound of the Shwezigon Pagoda.
What's the difference?
The Inner Nats are a mixture of Buddhist Nats and Hindu god and goddesses. The Outer Nats are the nats that ordinary people of Myanmar will point to if they are asked what nats are. But please note that these 37 Outer Nats are not the only one. There are several others who were not included in this list but worshipped equally if not more.
These Inner Nats and Outer Nats were introduced by King Anawrahta as Bagan ascended to the height of its splendors during the early eleventh century. By making these Buddhist Nats, other nats and other believes into something like a guardian to the pagoda, he attempted to convert his supernatural worshipping people to Buddhism. Although he was able to convert the country as a whole into a Buddhist nation, his attempt to wipe out the old belief was not much of a success.
At that time, even to the present time, Myanmar people were mainly Buddhist but also retain the animist and nature-worshiping cult of their forefathers.
The worshipping of nats, including but not exclusively the outer 37 nats officially began around 250 BC. A blacksmith Maung Tint De from Tagaung, a kingdom near Bagan, and his family, wife, son, sisters and niece met a tragic fate. These family members were hero-worshipped by the people and it was believed that they all become nats. Not in the Nat Bon as mentioned above but somewhere closer to human beings.
Around 250 BC, the King of Bagan, Thay Le Kyaung, made statues of these family members and worshiped them in Popa Mountain. Thus Popa become a sort of haven for this newly established nat family as well as the new nats that follow them. The King of Bagan also instructed his followers to worship this blacksmith turned nat. It was the beginning the official worshipping of nats.
Several hundred years later, King Anawrahta tried to convert to Buddhism, as well as to appease, his nation by adding a few more nats. These new nats were also people who met tragic end to their popular life in and around King Anawrahta reign. This time, the new nats include two brothers of Indian origin and those close to them in their human life.
Further additions or substitution were made (curiously by the Kings only) as time goes by and the 37 Outer Nats are now as follows:
- Thagya Nat: During his human life, he was known as Maga and with his 37 friends conducted numerous public works benefiting everyone. After life, he became the head Nat or king of the nats in the 6 Nat Bon of Buddhist believe. He is purely a Buddhist Nat and was put in as head of Outer Nats by King Anawrahta to make Buddhism at a higher stature than nature worshipping, supernatural worshipping and cults that are dominant at that time.
- Maung Tint De: The strong and handsome blacksmith who was unfairly persecuted by the King of Tagaung. As a nat, he was known as Min Maha Giri, meaning Great King of the Mountain (referring to Mount Poppa and his being worshiped as a royalty starting by Bagan King Thay Le Kyaung). He is the most widely worshiped nat of all the known nats.
- Sister Nat or Golden Face Nat: Maung Tint De's sister who was made queen by the King of Tagaung in order to trick and catch Maung Tint De. When Maung Tint De was burn under a tree by the King, she also jumped into the fire and died along with her brother. The King unsuccessfully tried to prevent this by pulling at her hair but was able to save the face only and thus the name, Golden Face.
- Shwe Na Be Nat: Believed to be wife of Maung Tint De while he was running away from the wrath of the Tagaung King. She died of broken heart when the king killed Maung Tint De.
- Thone Ban Hla Nat: Youngest sister of Maung Tint De. During Maung Tint De's persecution by Tagaung King, a Rakhine King adopted her. After getting married to King of Oakkala and giving birth to a daughter, she travel back to Tagaung in order to meet with her relatives. She died of sickness on the way.
- Ma Ne Mi Nat: Two years old daughter of Thone Ban Hla. Die after her mother dies of sickness.
- Taung Ma Gyi Shin Nyo Nat: One of two sons of Maung Tint De and Shwe Na Be. He and his brother were strong like their father. The King they were serving under become fearful of their strength and forced them to fight each other to death.
- Myauk Min Shin Phyu Nat: Another son of Maung Tint De, Shwe Na Be and brother of Taung Ma Gyi Shin Nyo. Met the same fate as his brother.
- Hti Phyu Saung Nat: Father of King Anawrahta, King Khun Saw who die as a monk.
- Hti Phyu Saung Me Daw Nat: Mother of King Khun Saw.
- Pa Rame Ma Shin Min Gaung Nat: Brother of Anawrahta who deposed their father King Khun Saw to become a King. A hunter killed him by accident while they were out hunting for a deer.
- Shwe Phyin Gyi &
- …. Shwe Phyin Lay Nat: Two Indian sons of King Anawrahta's trusted lieutenant Byat Ta. Byat Ta rivals, who fear him, tricked King Anawrahta to kill Byat Ta under some trump up charges. After realizing his mistake, the King adopted Byat Ta's two sons but in the end the unforgiving rivals of Byat Ta and new rivals to the rising powers of the two sons trick the king again to kill the two sons on yet another trump up charge. These two are the second most worshipped nat after Maung Tint De.
- Mandalay Bo Daw Nat: By the order of King Anawrahta he looked after Shwe Phyin Gyi and Shwe Phyin Lay after Byat Ta was killed. Later, when the two brothers were killed, he was also killed and as he was killed near Mandalay, he became known as Mandalay Bo Daw Nat.
- Shin Kwa Nat: Sister of Mandalay Bo Daw. Killed along with her brother, Shwe Pyin Gyi and Shwe Phyin Lay.
- Nyaung Chin O Nat: A Mon prince who was captured and brought to Bagan with Mon King Manuha when their country was conquered by King Anawrahta. He died as a leper while being kept as a prisoner.
- Min Si Thu Nat: King Alaungsithu, last of the three most well known kings of Bagan after King Anawarahta and King Kyansittha. His son Narathu killed him.
- Prince (Swing) Maung Shin Nat: Eldest son of King Alaungsithu. He died young when he fell of a swing while playing.
- Min Kyaw Swa Nat: Differing accounts existed. One version put him as a son of Bagan King Thein Khun. His brother killed him. Another version put him as an adviser to King Alaungsithu. Die as an alcoholic. Third version put him as Min Ye Kyaw Swa, son of Ava King Mingaung. Min Ye Kyaw Swa was a famous young warrior prince who was killed in a battle with the Mon.
- Aung Swa Nat: A trusted lieutenant of Bagan King Narapati Sithu. Aung Swa assassinated Narapati's brother under the promise by Narapati to take any of Narapati's sister-in-laws. After the successful assassination, the king reneged on his promise upsetting Aung Swa too obviously for the king. Fearing future problem, the king killed him
- Shwe Sit Thin Nat: Son of Bagan King Saw Mon Nit. He died after his father imprisoned for neglecting his duties and playing while going to war.
- Shwe Sa Ga Nat: Mother of Shwe Sit Thin. Die of broken heart after her son die during imprisonment.
- Nga Si Shin Nat: Son of Pinya King Thiha Thu. He was king of Pinya for 9 years and die of illness. There was another Nga Si Shin Nat from the Bagan kingdom in the original 37 outer nats but was replaced by this one later.
- Min Ta Ya Nat: Eldest son of King Swa Saw Ke and brother of Innwa King First Mingaung. He was King for 9 months and became mad after encountering supernatural beings while going out for a hunt. His guard killed him.
- Maung Po Tu Nat: Maung Po Tu was a tea merchant during Innwa King First Mingaug. He was killed by a tiger in Own Daw Mountain forest near Pinya while coming back from Moe Mate and Sipaw in Shan State..
- West Queen Nat: She was one of the queens of Innwa King First Mingaung. While going out with her followers into a garden, she saw Min Kyaw Swa Nat riding on a horse and die of shock.
- Aung Pin Le Sin Phyu Shin Nat: Son of Innwa King First Mingaung. He was King Thiha Thu and was killed in a battle near Aung Pin Le while riding ontop of an elephant.
- Shin Kone Nat: Lesser wife of Aung Pin Le Sin Phyu Shin and die after returning to Innwa from Aung Pin Le.
- Shwe Naw Ya Hta Nat: Nephew of Innwa King Second Mingaung. During the reign of his uncle King Shwe Nan Kyaw Shin, one of his subordinate Nga Thauk Kya (Mr. Friday) revolted against the king. As a result, he was drowned in river under the king's order. During this period, it was the usual form of death sentence for people of royal blood.
- Min Ye Aung Din Nat: Son in law of King Thalon. He died of excessive usage of alcohol and opium.
- Maung Min Phyu: Son of one of the Innwa era king. He was also another victim of excessive usage of alcohol and opium.
- Shin Daw Nat: Another son of another Innwa era king whose death was caused by snake-bite while he was a junior monk.
- Ta Bin Shwe Hti Nat: Ta Bin Shwe Hti was a warrior king and predecessor of famous Myanmar King Bayintnaung who founded the second Myanmar Empire. His own guard assassinated Ta Bin Shwe Hti while he was drunk.
- North Shin Ma Nat: The second wife of Ta Bin Shwe Hti's caretaker. Die while giving birth to a child while traveling back to her parents.
- Taungoo Shin Min Gaung Nat: Son of North Shin Ma Nat and became King of Taungoo as King Min Gaung. His untimely death was caused by the strong smell of onions from an onion field. He was passing by the onion field as he went out of his palace to cure himself from dysentery he was suffering.
- Than Daw Khan Nat: Follower of Taungoo King Min Gaung. Caught malaria and die while fetching flowers for the king from the forest. Another version put the cause of his death as snake-bite while fetching flower for the king.
- Chang Mai King Nat: When King Bayintnaung conquered Chang Mai (in Thailand) he brought back the King of Chang Mai as a prisoner. He died of dysentery in Yangon.
There are several well-known and worshipped nats that were not included in this list. These were nats like Bago Medaw (worshipped near and around Bago), Ko Myo Shin (worshipped near and around the nine cities of central Myanmar) and U Shin Gyi (worshipped in the delta area, fishermen and seafarers).
When traveling to Mount Popa, people avoid eating pork in respect toward the two Indian brothers who were thought to be of Muslim origin. Myanmar males avoid passing under the cloth line of women wears because the two Indian brothers' uncle lost his supernatural power and his life when he was tricked into passing under women wears by his enemy. While traveling in central Myanmar, people avoid traveling in groups of nine in respect toward Ko Myo Shin (The owner of the nine towns) believing some tragic fate to meet those who do so. These are some of the strange belief or superstitions that is associated with nats in Myanmar and both the believers and non-believers of nats are careful about these matters.
All nats that are worshipped met an untimely death. All are somewhat well known personality of their time. They are victims of assassination, execution, or strange accidents. They leave behind distraught and grief. Depraved princes are swept away by drugs and alcohol. Foreign princes and kings languish ill in royal prisons. Valiant soldiers are the victims of a king's ungratefulness. While they are rarely significant in the history of Myanmar, they capture the popular imagination with their tragic death.
Believe it or not, true or false, the worshiping and belief in nats are widespread in Myanmar. No king's degree or the popularity of the world's major religions was able to stamp out this belief yet.
In the covered walkways that lead to a pagoda, there is usually a vendor of small, strangely shaped, wooden statues. You will find a woman with the horns of a buffalo, harp players, a prince riding an elephant, a horseman, soldier or an ordinary person straddling a tiger. These are the figures of the "Nats" which are widely worshipped in Myanmar.
So, what will be your answer to the question – What is nat?By – Zaw Min Shwe for Gracious Myanmar Travel Ltd.