The Abode of Nats (or) Myanmar’s Mt. Olympus.
By: Harry Hpone Thant
Millions of year ago huge volcanic explosions ripped the Myingyan plains, the earth heaved and Mt. Popa was born. Rising out of the arid and dusty plains Mt. Popa over time became a green oasis, a prominent landmark in Central Myanmar, It is indeed a unique sight to behold. Mt. Popa is visible from miles away, a bit hazy but towering high above the Myingyan plain.
The main mountain is approximately 1200 metres high. Another small pinnacle is also visible beside it. This is called in the Myanmar language as the Taungkalat, a solidified volcanic pipe about 250 metres in height. The main Popa Mountain is covered with green and lush vegetation, many species of medicinal herbs, countless wildlife and swift flowing natural springs. Popa in Pali language means flowers as there are also many species of flowers growing around the mountain top. But the smaller Taungkalat is a special place. The Taungkalat stands alone, as a perpendicular mount. The sides are eroded after several millions of years and show layers and layers of solidified lava. These geological and natural phenomena make Popa a unique place in the otherwise hot and dusty central Myanmar region.
Buddhism was just taking roots in faraway Bagan and many people still believe in the supernatural. So this unique place, in their primitive perception of the universe, cannot be anything but the Abode of Nats(spirits), with their powerful influences over humans. It must be where the weikzas and the zawgyis( mythical personalities who dwell in the forest and are in possession of elixir of life) and ogresses(but not the violent kind) live.
Here the resident ogress eats only flowers and is a devout Buddhist. Her name even translate as Mei Wunna, the Pan Sar Biluma (Mei Wunna, an ogress who eat only flowers). But is she a real ogress? Some say she was a beautiful princess from faraway Thaton Kingdom in the south, brought to Bagan as a prisoner. However, she had made Popa her residence to spend her life in meditation with the unique ability to transform her features from a beautiful princess to the face of a frightening ogress. If someone with evil intent approaches her she will project herself in her fearsome guise but if she sees someone she fancies she will reveal herself as a beautiful maiden. But, whatever the truth is, it is a beautiful story.
The weikzas and the zawgyis also have magic wands that can turn female-looking fruits from a special kind of tree that grow in the forest into human forms and enjoy the company of the fruit-maidens. A jolly good equipment to possess. An instant create-a-girl magic wand.
On the Myanmar Mt.Olympus reign U Tint De, Chief of the Myanmar Pantheon of nats. His story is also one of interest; intrigues and power plays and finally a sad and heart-rending end. U Tint De was a strong and popular blacksmith at Tagaung, far to the north of Bagan on the Ayeyarwaddy River. His fame grew so much that the king at Tagaung became afraid of him. He was afraid that one day U Tint De would usurp his kingdom. So he sent word to U Tint De that he would like to make U Tint De’s beautiful sister, Thon Ban Hla, his Queen and persuaded them to come and live at his palace. As a consequence of much court intrigues U Tint De was condemned to die at the stake. His sister Thon Ban Hla saw her brother being burned alive and she also jumped into the inferno. So U Tint De and Thon Ban Hla both became nats. However, any living creature which encroached under the shadows of the Sagar tree, where the duo was burned alive, died. So the King had it cut and floated downstream. The tree beached at Bagan and the Bagan King made statues of the U Tint De and Thon Ban Hla out of the tree, enshrined them at Mt. Popa and people started to worship them.
Another legendary hero connected with Mt. Popa is Byatta. He was a mighty warrior at the court of King Anawrahta, the King of Bagan, on the banks of the Ayeyarwaddy River. Bagan and Mt. Popa seems near yet far. On clear days the silver ribbon of the Ayeyarwaddy River can be seen flashing in the sun from Mt. Popa. One of the daily duties of Byatta was to bring flowers for the royal palace from Mt. Popa. If history is to be believed Byatta runs to Mt. Popa and back in time to bring the flowers back to Bagan before dawn breaks. He could be the world’s greatest and earliest marathon runner then. Well, inevitably Byatta fell in love with Mei Wunna. Presumably she showed her more lovely face to Byatta to get his love. Anyway, they got married and Mei Wunna bore Byatta two sons, Shwe Hpyin gyi and Shwe Hpyin Lay of Taungbyone fame. But that is another story.
One of the four Lords of the White Horse (Myinbyu Shin nats ) is also associated with Mt. Popa. Villagers living around Mt. Popa say that if rain clouds crown the main mountain, do not attempt to cross any of the dry creeks in the vicinity as the waters will rush down very swiftly. But there was one expert horseman who greatly believed in his own prowess as an excellent horseman. One day as the rain clouds covered the mountain peak he tried to cross over the Yamar Creek on his trusty steed. He was nearly across the creek ahead of the rushing waters but disaster struck. One of the hind legs of the horse was seized by the violent current and he drowned together with his horse. And he became a nat and is known as the Yamar Myinbyu Shin Nat(Yanmar Lord of the White Horse).
There are 37 official nats recognized since Bagan time, with many other local and regional natstoo. A long pavilion houses the statues of them at the foot of the Taungkalat. There are life-like statues of U Min Kyaw, the Nat of Bacchanalia, on his horse, the four Myinbyu Shin nats (Lord of the White Horse), Amae Yay Yin( who rules the poisonous creatures west of the Chindwin River), some Shan nats and even Indian nats. But a bottle of Johnny Walker whisky hanging from U Min Kyaw’s arm escapes explanation. Maybe his preferences had switched from the traditional slightly intoxicating toddy palm juice to a more potent and internationally recognized brand!
Taungkalat can be climbed up by a covered iron staircase clinging to its side. As you climb you will be accompanied by troops of wild monkeys begging for food handouts. Along the stairways are such places of interest as Bagan Hmaw, a place where the ogress Mei Wunna looks towards Bagan, waiting for her husband, another place where her two sons were born, a cave said to belong to Boe Min Gaung (another exalted personality who had found immortality by engaging in meditation) and many other such magical and mystical personalities. At the top are many pagodas, which make one marvel how the workers carried the necessary building materials up such narrow and steep steps. The view from the top, after a wheezing 700++ steps, is panoramic. In the west, the shimmering ribbon of the Ayeyarwaddy Rivers borders the endless Myingyan plain and to the east is another endless Meikhtila plain touching the blue, hazy Shan Mountains in the distance.
The main volcano is now extinct. One side had collapsed during one of its violent eruptions. But people at Popa village will swear that the mountainside caved in from the pounding hooves of King Kyansitta’s(another famous Bagan King) war horse.
However, quaint or old-fashioned these superstitions may sound, most Myanmar people still believes in them and worship these nats. Even the most sophisticated and educated person will still pay due reverence to these supernatural beings. Better to be on the good side of them than suffer the bad luck by ignoring them. Better safe than sorry! And a visit to Mt. Popa would undoubtedly be a unique eye-opener for a foreigner to these age old customs still being lovingly followed.
Mt. Popa is easily accessible by car from Bagan. It is just approximately 2 hours driving time. There is also a resort hotel on the side of the main mountain.
Photo: Sonny Nyein/Myanmar Polestar Travels.