TAUNGBYONE NAT FESTIVAL : A CURIOUS HOLDOVER OF ANCIENT BELIEVES
By: Harry Hpone Thant
Wagaung corresponds to the Christian month of August. It is the period when the monsoon rains reach Upper Myanmar and Ayeyarwady Rivers is full, stretching from one bank to the invisible bank on the other side. It is also the time when the waters of the Ayeyarwady River reach the small village of Taungbyone in Madaya Township, Mandalay Division.
Also this is the time of one of the most famous Nat (Spirit) Festival in the country, the one that dates back to the Bagan Dynasty, nearly 2 centuries ago.
Once upon a time during the time of King Anawrahta of Bagan there lived two mighty warriors, Byatwi and Byatta. Byatta fell in love with an Ogress-Princess Mae Wunna of Mt. Popa and had two sons, Shwe Hpyin Gyi and Shwe Hpyin Lay. After their father had been murdered in one of the court’s intrigues King Anawrahtha took pity on these two young boys and made them his favourites.
Then King Anawrahta went to war against the Chinese to demand the Buddha’s Tooth Relic and on his way back made camp at the village of Taungbyone. The King also commanded that a pagoda should be erected at this site to mark his expedition. His edict was that all his followers should contribute one brick each to the construction of the pagoda to be called “Su Taug Pyi Pagoda”(Wish granting Pagoda).
But the two young adolescent boys were in their teens already and as usual more interested in merry-making, drinking the intoxicating toddy wine daily or engage in cock-fighting and other mischiefs. The elder even fell in love with a village maiden and both forgot to fulfill the King’s command. Two spaces were left vacant on the inside wall of the pagoda and nobody went out of the way to tell the two young brothers of their lapse.
This was the chance the other jealous members of the court were waiting for. The King came to pay homage at the Pagoda’s Consecration Ceremony and saw the two empty spaces. When told that the two brothers had ignored the King’s command, the King told his courtiers to punish the brothers for their violation. The King thought they would be caned lightly with willow stalks but the other members of the King’s entourage had other ideas.
Taking the King’s permission at face value the jealous court officials bound the two youths, took them to the river bank and because royal blood is forbidden to be split on the ground, bludgeoned them to death inside velvet bags. And as the story goes both of them became nats(spirits)
The time came for the King to leave for Bagan but his raft was unable to move. Enquiring about this mishap the two young nats revealed themselves and retold their tragic tale. The King took pity on them and commanded that they be given this region as their fiefdom. Two life size statues were made and this started the custom of the Taungbyone Nat Festival, every Wagaung.
And to commemorate the Consecration of the Su Taung Pyi Pagoda, the King made it mandatory that a Festival be held yearly on the Full-moon Day of Wagaung. But, curiously, instead of the Su Taung Pyi Pagoda Festival being celebrated it has transformed itself into a nat (spirit) festival.
The Taungbyone Nat Festival gathers all believers and followers of Shwe Hpyin gyi and Shwe Hpyin Lay nat brothers from all over the country, as well as some curious foreign visitors. Mostly they are business persons. They come to pay respect to the two nats, ask for supernatural intervention in their business dealings or make good their promises for the success of their endeavours. And the spirit mediums ( nat gadaws) erect stalls and dance to entertain the two nat brothers for a fee. But why most of these spirit mediums are transvestites is beyond explanation or comprehension.
The Taungbyone Nat Festival itself is a very interesting spectacle: ancient beliefs and rituals that still linger into the 21st century. This is also a very lively and boisterous festival. Festival goers tease and shout, many with profanities and vulgar expressions to each other, but nobody take offence. This is to please and imitate the two young nat-brothers’ behavior when they were alive. A life they spent with much drinking and gambling and having fun. It is also a curious superstitious holdover that on the appointed day, the traditional village which had supplied roasted rabbits to the two brothers to take with their toddy palm beer still bring symbolic roasted rabbits to the festival grounds and offer to the Statues but the village that supplied the ropes to bind the brothers is banned to visit the festival and condemned to clean up the site after the festival. However, the new generations of believers now bring as offerings, bottles of Johnny Walker to the two nat brothers. Perhaps they had changed their preferences from the traditional slightly intoxicating toddy palm juice to a more potent and internationally recognized brand!
The most important date of this Taungbyone nat Festival is the day when the two life size statutes are taken for the bathing rituals (Cho Yey Daw Thon Pwe). Believers push and shove playfully to get as near to the palanquin carrying the statues, hoping that the nats would favour then with a blessing in their business ventures.
Taungbyone is easily accessible from Mandalay by car but as there are no accommodations for tourists it is a day trip destination only. Also because the Festival is celebrated according to the Myanmar lunar calendar, international visitors are advised to enquire ahead the exact dates from the travel agents. The two vacant spaces, said to be the quota of Shwe Hpyin Gyi and Shwe Phyin Lay are still visible to this day.
Photos: Sonny Nyein