Burma defines itself as a Buddhist nation, a Theravada one at that, as it has been for roughly the past millennia. But within the folds of the country’s often-intermeshed history and myth, there is a silent but quite ubiquitous realm – a spirit realm dominated by the cult of the nat. A nat is essentially the spirit of a dead person, a ghost with personality and distinctive animistic qualities. That it is separate from the institutional religion is without doubt, but its relationship to mainstream religion and society is very ambiguous.
Kyal Thee (pronounced chey tea) is a Burmese musician who performs in variety shows, featuring song, theatre, dance and comedy, in exile in Thailand. He says that every show since the time of the famous musician U Po Sein (1877-1952) has had to start with a reverential dance to the nats. He performs as part of a troupe called Thee Lay Thee (‘Four Fruits’, in Burmese) but all such troupes do the ritual dancing that is required at the beginning of ceremonies and performances.
Typically, these performances take the form of morality tales. The nat spirits are believed to have knowledge from the supernatural realm they inhabit, and thus the nat dancers, such as Kyal Thee, function as intermediaries – personifying the otherwise formless spirit, with access to a supernatural information network. Kyal Thee performs as Ko Gyi Kyaw, the ‘super nat’. Before each performance, he dresses in a particular costume but also gathers the certain foods and beverage that the spirit is believed to enjoy, typically chicken and liquor. Ko Gyi Kyaw is known as a big drinker – ‘He’s drunk all the time,’ Kyal Thee explains with a glint in his eye. Such preparations are vital, Kyal Thee says, for one’s mental state changes when performing as a nat. Sitting in the sanitised, spiritless confines of a Thai shopping mall, he says he cannot control his body once it has been inhabited by the nat spirit. His body becomes a vessel through which his audiences can receive messages from the spiritual realm.
Thee Lay Thee is a troupe in exile. Having formed in 1998 in Burma, its members performed without a problem for nearly a decade until the country was wracked by protest in late 2007, during what became known as the ‘Saffron revolution’. At that point, the troupe’s messages started to become increasingly critical of the government, albeit using a humorous approach. As Buddhist monks marched in Rangoon, the protests were met with bullets, and the entire troupe finally fled to Thailand. Today they continue to perform to small but grateful groups of exiles similar to themselves.
The history of religion in Burma is indivisible from politics. Prior to the uptake of Theravada, around a millennium ago, a looser, more animistic form of the religion is believed to have been worshipped in the country. This was called Ari Buddhism, and the illiterate Burmese would follow monks who would, by all accounts, act without the strict life codes of today’s Burmese clergy – abstaining as they do from sex and intoxicants, living in strict monastic confines in which austere acts of deprivation are said to lead to salvation. In contrast, the spirit cults, including the worship of nats, offer a more everyday, less austere form of spirituality.
That Burma is defined by its Theravada faith is not an accident. In roughly 1057, the unifying, perhaps first truly Burmese king, Anawratha, set out with an army from the central Burmese plains at Bagan for the southeast, where the Mon kingdom of Thaton had a novel, foreign entity that he desired: written scriptures for a new Buddhist code to which Anawratha had recently converted, Theravada. Anawratha’s new faith brought about an ‘uncompromising program of religious reform,’ according to scholar Janice Stargardt. This reform was met by resistance from the animistic nat worshippers. Stragardt writes that Anawratha, despairing at his inability to rid the kingdom of animistic tradition, ‘was forced to make a concession to the power of the old practices over the people’.
Anawratha’s answer to the rebellious nat worshippers, some of who were threatening a popular uprising, was to make an official pantheon of nats, 37 officially recognised spirits. The common denominator for becoming a nat is death in an unfortunate manner, often while challenging power or king. As such, the official 37 included some of those Anawratha had slain. For instance, two sons of a prominent Muslim messenger named Byatta, who had married an ‘ogress’ (perhaps a nat medium), had been killed by the king and were allowed to enter the official pantheon; some others who were included had been murdered by being buried alive in a pagoda.
These 37 so-called Great Nats remain officially recognised, though Kyal Thee says that in fact there are hundreds of nats revered and worshipped today. In true Southasian heterodox fashion – and perhaps contrary to the often xenophobic nature of modern Burma, at least under authoritarian or military rule – Kyal Thee notes that ‘many international nats are invited to Burma.’ These include an interpretation of the Hindu goddess Kali as a nat, a manifestation that Kyal Thee says is very popular; as well as a Chinese nat that, despite being associated with the impressive Shwedagon pagoda in Rangoon, is less popular because, for one reason or another, ‘He doesn’t eat pork.’
There is something distinctly unorthodox about nats, an impression that has remained for centuries. One can see why the authoritarian Anawratha took a dislike to their worship. Not only did their existence put preaching into a multitude of uncontrollable hands (as opposed to only those few who could write), but nat worshippers had also threatened the territorial structure of his early kingdom, based in Bagan. For this latter reason, the process of regulating nat worship by defining the 37 ‘official’ nats is also seen as a millennia-long attempt to ‘Burmanise’ a country united by the force of armies. At least since the time of Anawratha, Burma’s history has been one of a lowland kingdom, based in the Irrawaddy plain, trying to reign in rebellious hill peoples through control of language, religion and, naturally, military might. To this day language remains deeply political in Burma, with the government insisting that Burmese be taught instead of local ethnic tongues.
So what can explain the continued popularity of nat worship? In the eyes of many, the everyday characterisations and representations (such as fortune-telling) that nats reflect are not a priority within the spiritual emphasis of the Buddha and the Theravada faith. For this reason, anthropologist June Nash has described Theravada in Burma as an ‘incomplete religion’. At the same time, nat worship is a form of mysticism that seems ingrained in the lives of many but is simultaneously often denied, its systems too vague for simple explanation.
In our conversation, Kyal Thee initially claims that he does not even believe in nats. This is perhaps less surprising than it might at first appear, as it follows what anthropologists studying Burmese religion have also experienced. ‘A respected and learned Burmese told me that [nat worship] was superstitions that were not really followed by Burmese Buddhists,’ wrote French anthropologist Bénédicte Brac de la Perrière. ‘As I pointed at the fact that we did sit just under a nat, that of the domestic shrine of the house, he made the usual answer in this case that it was something he could not refuse to his wife. However, we never sat again under the domestic nat shrine.’
As also suggested by de la Pierre’s story, it seems that in Burma everyone’s grandmother or aunt believes in nats – but not them, at least not at first. This could slowly be changing, but under ambivalent circumstances. Kyal Thee’s Ko Gyi Kyaw – the ‘super nat’ – is a good example, as his hedonism is apparently popular with young men, who often cite their reverence as an excuse for drinking or going to cockfights, as Ko Gyi Kyaw is said to enjoy. Simultaneous with this is the emergence, in post-Internet Burma, of a new generation whose musical tastes and expressions are less easily reined in by the government. Popular electronic musicians such as DJ Jay and DJ Tha Soe – presumably middle-class urbanites – have adapted these classical expressions of reverential music for the likes of Ko Gyi Kyaw found in spirited, yet rustic and ‘backward’, revelry into dance music – reminiscent of the place that nat worship holds in everyday life. In many ways, youth-oriented music genres have sought to tap into the same societal impulses as Ko Gyi Kyaw has been doing for a millennium.
Nat worship is certainly not confined to the common public or the lowly rank and file. The head of the Burmese junta, General Than Shwe, is said to be deeply superstitious, as was Ne Win, who seized power in 1962 and ruled until 1988. Both of these dictators were said to have regularly consulted spirit mediums for advice on longevity and smiting enemies such as Aung San Suu Kyi.
Of course, exact reports along these lines are difficult to verify, but some bizarre decisions have been explained as due to advice from the spirit world. The most prominent recent example of this, of course, was the sudden decision to move Burma’s administrative capital from Rangoon to the scrub plains of Naypyidaw. Consultations with mediums is also said to have been behind the sudden public appearance, on 12 February 2011, of Than Shwe and his generals in women’s clothing. The common ‘explanation’ for this behaviour (which was not the first such incident) is that the spirits had predicted that Burma would someday be ruled by a woman, and that wearing women’s clothes would somehow counter this.
For the truly bizarre, however, Ne Win’s behaviour is hard to beat. The brutally austere, nominally ‘socialist’ dictator de-commissioned bank notes that were not divisible by nine – his lucky number. He is also rumoured to have bathed in the blood of an Irrawaddy dolphin, an endangered species, in an attempt to maintain his youthfulness. Such beliefs and prescriptions adhere to the same principles of yadaya, an ancient system, concerned with altering fate.
Meanwhile, how does an uncompromising general ensure that a spirit medium does not come out with an ‘unsavoury’ message? Kyal Thee claims that this does happen, but insurance against this is left up to troupe leaders whom he claims will be hired specifically because they can be ‘trusted’, presumably because of a good record of being uncritical. In any case, whenever dealing with fortune-telling and mediums, much is left open to interpretation. The spirit mediums might warn of something uncomfortable, and the generals will seek ‘professional’ advice from another fortune-teller or other mystic on how best to ward off this potential future, often combining the spiritual with the mathematical. In the past, this is said to have included when and what prison sentences are given to rebellious pro-democracy democrats. For a while after the 2007 uprisings, prominent agitators were sentenced to very specific sentences at very specific times. Min Ko Naing, for instance, received 65 years in jail, a decree handed down 11 in the morning on 11 November – 65 because the two numbers (6+5) equal 11, and 11 because this is thought to be the number for vanquishing enemies.
Kyal Thee has never been sentenced back in Burma, unlike one of the leading lights of his performing troupe, the imprisoned comedian Zarganar – who Kyal Thee will play in the upcoming Hollywood film about Suu Kyi, The Lady. But too afraid to go back to his homeland, Kyal Thee says his passport has almost expired and the embassy will almost certainly not renew it. He thus has two choices: stay illegally in Thailand, risking detention and deportation, or apply with a good chance of success for resettlement elsewhere. Taking the latter course, however, would mean no more audience, no more troupe, no more music – no more magic.
~ Joseph Allchin is a journalist working in Southeast Asia, covering Burma and the region.