Taking a peep at Mt Popa

For those intrigued by the practice of nat worship in Myanmar, a trip to Mt Popa is a must as it’s the most revered place in the country for this fascinating, millennium-old form of spirit worship.

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Published in Mizzima Weekly on 27 August 2015

Nats in temple complex at the summit of Mt Popa
Nats in temple complex at the summit of Mt Popa

For those intrigued by the practice of nat worship in Myanmar, a trip to Mt Popa is a must as it’s the most revered place in the country for this fascinating, millennium-old form of spirit worship.

Mt Popa’s name is derived from the Sanskrit word for flower and this rocky crag contains a complex of monasteries, shrines and pagodas at its summit. It’s mind boggling to contemplate how they got there (divine intervention perhaps?!). Mt Popa is located just 50 kilometres southeast of Bagan, which means it’s possible to explore it by taking just a half a day out of the more touristy temple hopping activities on offer there. Booking a minivan or shared taxi is a cinch from Bagan’s tourist town of Nyaung Oo and costs around K45,000 per person, however it’s worth investing a little more to hire an English speaking guide because the area is rich in stories of legend, history and mysticism. It is said, for example, that a person who gathers an army at the slopes of the mountain is guaranteed of victory. I doubt the claim has been tested for some years though…

Worshipping nats (‘spirits’) predates Buddhism in Myanmar: the institution of the official 37 nats was made (albeit later amended) by King Anawrahta of Bagan, who also founded the first Burmese empire during his rule from 1044–1077. When Buddhism arrived, the nat worship system was merged without so much as a hiccup – although it cannot be said that all Buddhists subscribe to the practice of nat worship in contemporary times. It does, however, remain immensely popular in rural areas.

Not one, but two Mt Popas

Mt Popa - how is it even possible?!
Mt Popa – how is it even possible?!

The term Mt Popa can be a little confusing due to it being duplicated. Mt Popa is now the official name of the famous Popa Taung Kalat, which is a 740 metre volcanic plug with 777 steps leading up to its gilded Buddhist temple complex. The 1500 metre volcano that was previously known as Mt Popa has been renamed Taung Ma-gyi (‘Mother Mountain’) and is nowadays home to the luxurious Popa Mountain Resort and Popa Mountain Park, which offers excellent hiking environs. There’s a bit of debate as to when the volcano last erupted: some say it was 250,000 years ago while others contend it was 40 million. Either way, both estimates are distant enough to be sure the volcano is well and truly (and safely) extinct.

A sesame-grinding oxen
A sesame-grinding oxen

Do make sure that your driver understands which of the Mt Popas you wish to visit – the assumption would likely be that it’s the temple complex you’re seeking. En route you’re very likely to stop by a toddy ‘brewery’ because the region is well known for producing palm wine (in fact I believe everyone stops at the same road-side place, which also features an interactive mill where oxen slowly turn sesame seeds into oil). Toddy is made from the fermented sap of certain types of palm trees – including coconut palms – the same trees also produce the non-alcoholic jiggery, a type of candy loved across the region. Both are available to buy at the little shop, but do watch your toddy intake: drink enough in the morning at you’ll be out of it by lunch…

Play by the rules

A word of caution: according to local superstitions, visitors should avoid wearing red, black or green while visiting the area (so forget your favourite football jersey). Swearing or saying nasty things about others is also ill-advised (as it should be in general!), as is packing meat-based snacks. Pork is a definite no-no. There’s a bunch of restaurants serving up hot meals and refreshing drinks along the base of the temple steps, so there’s no real need to bring anything other than possibly a bit of trail mix. Those who breach the aforementioned rules risk offending one of the 37 extremely powerful nats, who may retaliate by inflicting dramatic ill fortune. Nats aren’t to be messed with: they have a reputation for being far less forgiving than the Lord Buddha. Whether this is because almost all of them met a violent death during their lives as humans is an un-established but plausible reason. A violent death in Myanmar is known as ‘sein’ – a ‘green’ death, whereby green means ‘raw’. ‘Nat sein’ is another term for nats. There’s a book called The Land of Green Ghosts by Pascal Khoo Thwe that makes for wonderful pre-departure reading. The memoir begins by describing the author’s childhood in a remote Burmese village, where nat worship is part and parcel of his mystically infused upbringing.

Drunk Nat and Flower Eating Ogress

Drunk Nat
Drunk Nat

The most popular Kyawswa in Myanmar spirit history is Lord Kyawswa (‘Drunk Nat’), who was himself born at Mt Popa. He is famously claimed to have said, “If you don’t like me, avoid me. I admit I’m a drunkard.” He’s the guardian of gamblers and drunks and sits on a horse decked in rum and whiskey bottles. Pilgrims leave unopened bottles of whiskey, beer and rum as an offering – not just to Drunk Nat but to a variety of the male nats. Lit cigarettes are also placed on their mannequin-like hands. When the ash of a cigarette remains unbroken to the filter, a blessing is considered to have been bestowed on the donor. Meanwhile, female spirits are sprayed with perfumes and decorated with scarves by devotees.

Before embarking on your journey up the 777 steps, it’s worth paying a visit to the tiger-statue shrine in the village at the foot of the mountain. The display inside begins from a dark inner hallway containing mannequin-like figures representing some of the nats, as well as Hindu deities. This shrine contains nats excluded from the principal group of 37, including the Flower-Eating Ogress and her two sons, Min Gyi and Min Lay. There’s also the Pyu goddess Shin Nemi (Little Lady) who is a guardian of children and receives a bounty of toys during Myanmar’s exam season. Locals pray to Shwe Na Be (Lady with Golden Sides) when a snake enters their house. Unsurprisingly, you’ll note that she’s the one grimly holding a serpent.

Monkey mayhem

A mischievous baby monkey
A mischievous baby monkey

An abundant population of Macaque monkeys also call Mt Popa home. They’re completely brazen and some are so well fed that some are the size of a small child. Keep your belongings safely tucked away in a bag as you climb the steps – despite being fed loads of bananas which hawkers sell to tourists and pilgrims, they won’t hesitate to rob you of the water bottle you’re clutching. I saw this happen to a lady walking a few steps ahead of us – and I heard several others let out squeals of terror during a close shave. A number of Myanmar workers have been tasked with the unfortunate job of clearing the steps of the prolific monkey poop and will approach you for a donation; sometimes a little aggressively. It’s your call either way. And be on the lookout for hermit monks known as yetis: they’re dressed in brown robes and sport conically peaked hats.

Once at the temple there are breathtaking views of the Myingyan Plain. The summit is a rocky crag crowned with a complex of monasteries, stupas and shrines. It shouldn’t take more than 20-30 minutes to reach the top – but it’s worth stopping along the way to take in the views. Those who visit on the full moon month of Natdaw (which occurs in December) are in for a treat – not only is the weather discernibly cooler but it’s when the annual festival takes place at Mt Popa, which is a riot of colour and costumes. During either May or June, there’s an arguably larger festival during the full moon of Nayon.

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