UNSpecial N° 616 — Mars – March 2003
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Legend of the Mount Popa

Evelina Rioukhina, UNECE

Are you superstitious? Do you like horror movies? Or even worse: do you dream of the thrill of finding yourself in the company of ghosts? If “yes”, then this is the place for you! In any case, this is an interesting place to learn about, since it belongs to our historical heritage.

The place is situated not far from the cultural and archaeological site of Bagan in Myanmar. It is called Mount Popa. The name is derived from Pali, word meaning flower, so Mt. Popa means a mountain of flowers. It is also known as The Mountain Olympus of Myanmar.And for more than a millennium this place in Asian world has been known as the home of all spirits, called nats.In fact, this is the home of 37 nats who live in a monastery situated in the crater of an extinct volcano at an altitude of 1,518 metres.All these nats live together in a big gallery.They have different images kings, queens, animals or some enigmatic creatures.Some of them are very peaceful,including spirits of trees, rivers, snakes; some of them keep the spirits of people who have met a violent or tragic death, and can therefore wreak destructive vengeance on people who annoy them. These nats have had a very strong influence throughout the history of Myanmar.Mt. Popa was one of the most important places of homage for Kings of the Bagan dynasty (the most powerful dynasty of Myanmar), and the significance of these nats in the life of modern Burmese people is also very high.How did it happen that they all were placed there?And how did it all start? It was not easy to find any solid historical documents in several big libraries about the place, after many months of research at last I was lucky to get exclusive historical chronics with a legend of the Mount Popa.

Legend has it that King Anawrahta of Bagan (11th century AD) had an Indian fast-runner by the name of Byatta who had to fetch fresh flowers from Popa at a distance of about 30 miles 10 times every day! Byatta fell in love with Mai Wunna Miss Gold a flower-eating ogress of Popa and from this union two sons were born. These twobrothers grew up into wild, irresponsible young men and were executed for neglect of duty in the construction of a pagoda. It so happened that after their execution, their spirits begged the king for mercy and he granted them certain rights and territories to rule. The Taungbyon Festival is held every year in their honour a few miles from Mandalay.And thousands and thousands of people throughout the country worship the Shwe Phyin Brothers. The rise of their stature raised the status of their mother who is also worshipped as the Queen-Mother of Popa.But there was a domestic spirit who was senior to them, Maung Tint Dai (or Mr. Blacksmith).He lived in the age ofTagaung (6th century BC), long before Anawrahtas Bagan.He was physically so strong that even the king feared for his own safety and played a ruse to get rid of the strong man.The king announced that he had made one of Maung Tint Dais sister a queen, and sent for him promising rich rewards that a royal-brother-in-law deserved.When the unsuspecting Blacksmith arrived at the royal city, he was promptly captured, tied to a golden champa tree and burnt to death.When his sister the queen heard what had happened, she also jumped into the fire and was consumed by the flames.Their spirits resided in that tree and put a curse on the people and animals that came under it.At last, the king had the tree uprooted and floated down the Eyawadi River. The tree drifted down the river slowly and reached Bagan in the reign of Kind Thlgyang.When the king heard about it, he had the tree salvaged and sculpted into the figures of the unfortunate brother and sister and enshrined them at Popa.The king also visited Popa once a year to pay his respects to the two spirits.That was how Mt. Popa came to be the centre of nat or spirit workship in Myanmar.The Blacksmith became to be known as the Domestic Lord of the Great Mountain as he was (or is!) the ruler of Mt. Popa and is worshipped in many homes all over the country.His worshippers never offer candllight to him out of consideration for the way he met his death long ago, believing that he wouldnt want to see fire again.

Besides the Domestic Lord of the Great Mountain and the Shwe-Phym- Brothers Mt. Popa is believed to be a special abode of other nats and the haunt of other supernatural beings, like Weikzars and Zawgyis. Each of them has special powers, a special legend, a special story, and perhaps what is one of the most romantic, enchanted and exotic regions of Myanmar, deserves to have a book written about it!

The danger of the place is that it lies in the centre of the so-called Dry Belt, the region well-known for its very low rainfall and scarcity of water. The result is that it is surrounded by semi-desert areas which are expanding all the time and threatening to degenerate into full-blown deserts. Hence, Mt. Popa covered with trees is like an oasis in desert-like Central Myanmar – a green highland amidst yellowish-brown plains. Mt. Popa stands out like “an emerald in a gold setting”. But it has not always been lush and green with trees as at present. There was a time when the mountain was virtually denuded of trees for timber and firewood. This was dangerous not only for this historical heritage, but also for the exceptional flora of the place, the forest of Mt. Popa contains the rarest spices of medicinal forest products. Mt. Popa itself is not in the list of cultural or historical of ecological heritages (undoubtedly, it should be!). Fortunately, today this historical heritage is preserved. The tourist infrastructure is not yet developed, and after a period of isolation the country is just opening its doors to broad tourism. On the other hand, there is still a moral barrier for many of us to visiting this country. I do hope that the day will come when all those who, like myself, have long been fascinated by it, will be able to discover the marvels of this country. And those who are lucky enough to visit Mt. Popa will perhaps discover new secrets of the mountain or learn new legends about its nats.