Burma: ubiquitous spirits

- through Sophie Solere

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Dive among mediums, transvestites and "nats", these spirits wandering on Earth, who protect those who venerate them and punish anyone who disrespects them.

Mot Me Noe has set up his antique sewing machine on the front doorstep of his house in Mandalay, . Dressed in a simple white t-shirt, this 72-year-old Burmese carefully sews a trim on a fabric with golden moiré patterns. “One of my formal dresses,” he smiles. The large adjacent room where he receives his guests is divided into two parts. On one side, statues of the Buddha are placed in the middle of vases filled with flowers, on the other, dozens of representations of "nats" - spirits -, small characters covered with beads and silk ornaments, are lined up behind boxes of cookies, cans of energy drink and bottles of whiskey. The perfect symbol of two spiritual realities that have coexisted and intertwined for almost a millennium and which have forged a major chapter in Burmese popular culture.

Mot Me Noe is a "natkadaw", literally a "wife of nat". More concretely, he explains, “I am an intermediary between the “nats” and customers”. He plays this role of medium during private ceremonies, but also in festivals, the most important of which takes place in Taungbyone, a village a few kilometers north of Mandalay. “I have already officiated in 31 festivals, he said proudly, today I have the title of senior prime minister of Taungbyone. »

The history of the nats merges with that of the royalties which succeeded one another before the conquest of the country by the British in 1885. in Pagan, writes the specialist in religions Juliane Schober (1044). He was the one who initiated the religious reforms to strengthen Theravada Buddhism, but failed in his efforts to cleanse the country of nat worship.”

Nats, which arose in a pre-Buddhist context where religions such as Hinduism and Islam prevailed, are the spirits of people who died in violent circumstances, which prevents them from reincarnating (according to Buddhist tradition) and causes them to wander on Earth, where they cause accidents and natural disasters. Each has its legend and its own character, some being aggressive, others conciliatory. Everyone also has their propitiation rituals which allow its worshipers to guard against harmful developments. Thus, mothers who want to protect their children from disease must offer sweets and hard-boiled eggs to Ma Hnae Lay, a baby spirit who died of a heart attack. Nats are ubiquitous, mainly in the central and southern regions, and occupy places (houses, villages, lakes, hills, etc.) as well as objects (vehicles, machines, etc.).

A particular cult is dedicated to a pantheon of 37 nats. These, writes anthropologist Melford E. Spiro, “not only occupy a prominent place in the Burmese system of supernatural beliefs, but they are also the object of a widespread worship that rivals even Buddhism. » (2)

Prepare for the whirlwind of reincarnations

The question of the relationship of the nats with Buddhism has long been the subject of debate within the scientific community. One school, including Spiro, asserts that spirit worship and Buddhism are two distinct religions. Another school of thought considers, following the example of Bénédicte Brac de la Perrière, ethnologist at the CNRS, that "the Burmese cult of possession of spirits and its singularity in relation to Buddhist practices is in reality a product of adaptation to the specificities localities of Burmese Buddhism. (3) As proof, she continues, the Burmese who practice the worship of nats and “do so to guarantee security and success in their material life are the same who will observe Buddhist festivals and carry out acts of merit to prepare themselves. to the innumerable existences, to which they will have to submit in the whirlwind of reincarnations. »

“Nats are the spirits of people who died in violent circumstances, which prevents them from reincarnating (according to Buddhist tradition) and causes them to wander on Earth, where they cause accidents and natural disasters. »

For Mot Me Noe, there is no ambiguity: “My religion is Buddhism, he says. The nats and Buddhism are complementary”.

Like most of his fellow psychics, he is part of the LGBT community. Formerly, the wives of the nats were… women. From the 1960s, “more people believed that homosexuals held greater powers because of a common belief in their eloquence and dancing skills. Since the 1980s, they have become the majority of mediums”, writes the editorialist Si Thu Lwin (4).

Mot Me Noe is regularly invited to go to private homes where, made up and dressed in sumptuous finery and surrounded by musicians, he gets paid, sometimes handsomely, for dance sessions that allow him to communicate with the spirits. The objective of this "bargaining is to seek the help of the nat in order to gain certain advantages or to resolve crises which affect the client in his private or professional life", writes the anthropologist Irfan Kortschak (5).

Worship of nats among wives generals

The apotheosis for a natkadaw is to participate in the Taungbyone festival. Every year, in August, for eight days, the village – including the local Buddhist temple – is transformed into a gigantic fair with Ferris wheel, magicians, circus acts, cinema… More than 500 people take turns parading through the he one of the forty temples dedicated to nats and in particular the one that houses the two “local heroes”, the brothers Min Gyi and Min Lay. There, huddled together in an overheated atmosphere, they witness the haunting dances of the natkadaws, to whom they offer money, alcohol, cigarettes or precious stones, and which often end in a state of trance. “A fifteen-minute dance in the main sanctuary, explains Nyi Nyi Zaw, journalist at the daily Seven Days, can fetch up to $500. The bulk of this money goes to the temple owner, the rest is split between natkadaws and government taxes. »

The cult of nats has always been “considered with condescension by the Burmese intellectual elite, adds Nyi Nyi Zaw, but for less educated people, it is the only way to acquire confidence in the future”. The Taungbyone festival has survived decades of dictatorship and other political upheavals in the country. “During the military regime, smiles Mot Me Noe, the wives of generals were among the most ardent followers of the cult of the nats, the military therefore never opposed it”. Taungbyone has only been canceled once, in 2017, due to an outbreak of the H1N1 virus. Will it be a second time this year due to Covid-19?

photo of author

Sophie Solere

Sophie Solère is an economic and social journalist who has been interested for years in the environment and interdependence. She works for Buddhist News, a media platform dedicated to Buddhist spirituality and wisdom. By practicing yoga and meditative dance, Sophie discovered the power of spiritual journeys, which offer so many paths to (re)find yourself. She is dedicated to sharing inspiring stories and valuable advice on spiritual practice and the environment with Buddhist News readers.

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