A Little History… Myths and Spirits in Modern Myanmar

A tiny bell tinkled in the light whisper of wind outside the inner temple, the faint music audible inside the small prayer room despite the crush of bodies kneeling prostrate in front of the gilt Buddha. After paying my respects to Buddha, Buddhism, and Burma inside the room, I continued circling the tall zedi, the Burmese word for stupa. My friend’s young daughter, M, instructed my niece Ana on Buddhist history and prayer rituals. They bowed their heads together, the sounds of their low murmurs contained to their tiny circle of instruction.

coconut offering at mt. popa bagan incense bagan burma

I peered at the carved creatures adorning the outside of the temple, and it struck me I how much Buddhism and spirituality is a consistent and daily part of Burmese life. In fact, in terms of ceremonies, merit-making activities, and donations, Burma ranks as the most religious Buddhist country in the world according to scholars who research these things. Myths, animism, and spirituality form the religious core of Myanmar and none of my pre-traveling research prepared me for the deeply spiritual side of daily life in Burma and their faithful fastidiousness.

incense temple bagan

Incense floats through the air as an offering at the Popa Taungkalat monastery near Mt. Popa, Bagan, Burma.

More than 90 percent of the Burmese practice Theravada Buddhism, a fact common in this region of the world since Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Sri Lanka report similarly high percentages of Buddhism. Burmese society differs a bit though because they embrace the merit-making tenant of Buddhism. Meaning the religious engage in good deeds, offerings, and charity work to build merit on their path toward enlightenment…a task is not undertaken lightly.

Religion devotion suffuses the country and is the most obvious layer of spirituality in Burma. But when I looked closer at the temples and shrines, Buddha is but one part to their spirituality. Spirit worship and beliefs that pre-date Buddhism are still alive and fully integrated into modern Buddhist worship, as evidenced by the mythical figures and twisted faces of part-animal creatures standing guard on every temple, in street-side shrines, and throughout the countryside.

mount popa temple bagan burma

The Popa Taungkalat monastery is home to the 37 Nats in Burmese spirituality and sits the Pegu mountain range near Bagan, Myanmar; it takes 777 steps, fending off monkeys, and a dose of ambition to reach the top of this volcanic plug that formed a pedestal of sorts that sticks out of the mountain’s sloping hillside.

Ana and I wandered the temples in Bagan and Mandalay, examining the odd additions to seemingly Buddhist temples. Why are there twisted images of strange creatures? Who are those upright people guarding the temple high at the top of Mt. Popa?

For me it came down to why? Why are these images here? I have long noticed but never researched the many Spirit Houses outside businesses, shops, and houses in Thailand.

Well, it comes from the same, basic and ancient animist beliefs. Animism predates Buddhism, Christianity, and the majority of the world religions. And it’s funny, I have spent nearly a year in Thailand over the past two years, and yet, until Ana and I traveled through Burma and saw the fervent devotion, it hadn’t occurred to me to look more closely.

spirit house thailand

A colorful spirit house at a small outdoor coffee shop in Chiang Mai, Thailand protects the establishment.

In Burma, these statues, and animals on the temple are Nat, which are at their simplest form spirits. The Burmese believe in 37 different primary Nat, while Lower Nat are regionally influence, and often, only a small community worships that one spirit. The stories behind each Nat are fascinating and remind me of the Catholic Saints I learned about in youth. And, that’s likely a bit controversial for any strong Catholics, but the Nat all have a human story behind them—a person who lived and died (often violently) but is ultimately appeased for protection through worship and honor.

naga spirit siem reap cambodia serpent angkor wat siem reap.

There is a King of the Nat, Thagyamin, who is based on of Indra, a Hindu deity. Then, the Nat descend from there with spirits to protect the mountains, forests, trees. The Nat cover every aspect of human life: hearth, animals, crops, safety. The animist beliefs integrate into daily worship for many rural Burmese, as well as the various ethnic groups.

Then you take those basic but seemingly separate Nat concepts, and mix in the Nāga serpent spirits and you have the twined and headed snakes and dragons guarding the entrances to temples complexes throughout Southeast Asia, including the ancient temples of Siem Reap.

mermaid burma burmese nat

And to complete the picture, the animist beliefs spawned a rich culture full of myth and folklore that hasn’t made it outside Burma much in the last century because of the country’s rocky politics. Stories passed to children in Burma explain why crows are black (Ana and I read this one to get a sense for their myth culture), and Burmese folklore founded the country’s creative comic characters rivaling the marvel superheroes with their powers and lessons in humanity.

animist worship burma

An odd assortment of carvings, animals, and colors denote this spot for animist worship outside Hpa-an, Burma.

Myth, history, and religion intertwine in modern Myanmar in an odd fusion I’ve only seen echoed perhaps in the spiritual Hindu-Balinese culture in Bali, Indonesia.

Mount Popa, near Bagan in Burma, is a pilgrimage site for the Burmese, and my friends and their extended family opened up their days and took Ana and me along on their journey through Bagan’s crumbling ruins, golden stupas, and mountain-side temples. After passing nearly an hour at the mountain top temple, our group reconvened near a bright golden zedi. We discussed Buddhism, spirituality, and life. Then, when we each murmured our last prayers, the thin plumes of offered incense delicately dancing into the air, I grabbed Ana’s hand for the long descent back to ground level.

buddha hpa-an

A lone Buddha statue and aging stupa are all that is left of an old hilltop temple.

I took one last look at the faded green mountains and crafty monkeys cagily watching us walk; how easy it once was for me to believe the story of the world murmured to me in my cradle, but through traveling, I have listened to so many tales. So many gods, goddesses, and deities. Cultures full o f myths, storytellers, and history. The combination and commonalities across all the cultures — Burmese, American, Balinese — it continually changes shape the more I learn and see of this beautiful world.

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10 Responses to A Little History… Myths and Spirits in Modern Myanmar

  1. eriksmithdotcom June 23, 2012 at 10:01 am #

    Burma is sooo intriguing. I think you do a good job here of showing how unspoiled it can be, especially compared to it’s neighbors. What an amazing experience it must have been for the two of you!

    • ShannonOD June 23, 2012 at 10:56 am #

      The country fascinates, and this year it has really made headlines so it’s been interesting for me to watch what goes on there now that I have a better feeling about the locations and the people involved in all of the turmoil over there. It was a really amazing opportunity for us! :)

  2. drakerimstone June 20, 2012 at 4:47 am #

    ho’

  3. Angela June 18, 2012 at 3:10 am #

    I’m not a super fan of religion, but I’m always fascinated by animist rituals. Despite the spreading of Catholicism, in Sardinia we still retain much of ancient paganism and animism, and I always feel they were much closer to nature and showed much more respect to the planet than we do now.

    • ShannonOD June 19, 2012 at 2:37 pm #

      I’d agree with you on that Angela, organized religion can be really frustrating! It’s neat to know that some of the paganism has been retained in Sardinia; when I visited Ireland, that was one of the things I loved to see — that even with such prevalent Christianity, there were still so many signs of the celtic/pagan past. :)

  4. Andrea Sherrodd June 1, 2012 at 3:13 am #

    Gorgeous photos! Burma looks so beautiful…not what I imagined at all.

    • ShannonOD June 1, 2012 at 8:59 am #

      The country took me by surprise with its beauty and warmth; throughout the country it continually took me by surprise! :)

  5. Ava Apollo May 29, 2012 at 1:44 pm #

    I love your writing style. Thanks for the lesson in Buddhism! 

    • ShannonOD May 29, 2012 at 3:43 pm #

      Thanks Ava! One of my favorite parts of traveling Asia is learning a bit more about Buddhism each time :)

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