It is a prayer room like so many other Buddhist temples throughout the country. A faux linoleum tiled floor partly covered with two large red rugs with white and green patterns. Along the walls stand “offering boxes”, whose transparent walls reveal heaps of banknotes, mostly 1000 kyats (about 0,6 euros). A kitsch place illuminated by the raw whiteness of neon lights and spotlights fixed to the ceiling. At the back of an alcove revealed by a wooden portico sculpted with arabesques and gilded flames, stands a seated Buddha, also covered in gold. On closer inspection, on each side of the statue as well as behind its head, we can see the motionless and dark masses coiled in a spiral of four snakes of pretty size, "pythons bivittatus", better known under the name of Burmese pythons , animals found all over Southeast Asia. Pilgrims follow one another to deposit notes on the shiny skin of the falsely asleep reptiles. We are here at the Yadana Labmuni temple, a few kilometers from Mandalay, the ancient capital in central Burma.
Reptiles in the Buddha's niche
At 11 a.m. sharp, temple employees gently come to extract the pythons from their drowsiness to take them a few meters further into a small earthenware basin. Under the gaze of dozens of devotees, the reptiles slowly curl in the clear water, where white and red petals float. May Myat Noe, a 42-year-old grocery store owner in Mandalay, often comes to pay her respects to the snakes. “Today, I made an offering of 4 kyats (000 euros), she says, hoping that it will bring me more customers. I think snakes were human beings in a previous life. After the bath, the animals are taken out of the basin and, guided by employees, slowly return to the Buddha's niche. Along the way, first timid then emboldened hands of the faithful press forward to touch or caress their skin. “It will bring me luck,” smiles a ten-year-old novice, whose skull has just been razed.
In the mythology of Theravada Buddhism, but also of Hinduism, the naga is considered a sacred animal. Legend has it that the serpent king Mucalinda coiled himself above the Buddha's head to protect him from a violent storm as he meditated under the Bodhi tree.
The pilgrims, whether or not they have attended the sacred bath, will stroll through the other rooms of the temple furnished with hundreds of sculptures of "nagas" (serpents in Sanskrit) in cement. Of varying sizes and colors, some are covered with mosaics of glass, others with semi-precious stones, but all represent a reptile whose head and upper body protect a statue of the Buddha.
Yadana Labmuni is no exception. A few kilometers away, another temple, the Kan Ku Gyi Naga Yone, is also dedicated to the python. About twenty of them doze at the bottom of a dark and damp cell, which looks more like a poorly maintained reptilarium than a place of Buddhist reception. “We bring them out every night, they disperse in nature, assures an employee. Most come back, some don't. In front of the cell, the embalmed carcasses of two pythons who died in 2017 – “sisters”, specifies the employee – are locked in glass boxes. One of them is covered with a layer of gold powder. Other temples in the center and south of the country are home to pythons, they are called "mway paya", the "snake temples".
In the mythology of Theravada Buddhism, but also of Hinduism, the naga is considered a sacred animal. Legend has it that the serpent king Mucalinda coiled himself above the Buddha's head to protect him from a violent storm as he meditated under the tree of the Bodhi.
In Burma, the python acquired an additional supernatural dimension since its name in Burmese, "za-ba-ohn », is made up of letters correlated to numbers, the sum of which is nine, a number that carries favorable omens in the cosmological tradition.
A snake reincarnated as a girl
Each mway paya offers its own legend. U Sumana, 49, the head monk of Yadana Labmuni where he has lived for eleven years, pulls out an old photo from a filing cabinet showing a Buddha statue covered in pythons. "In 1975, a monk came here to build a temple, there was only forest and bush," he says passionately. Two years later, he found three large snakes coiled around a statue of the Buddha, he protected them against poachers and he began to have a special relationship with them; he spoke to them”. At this time, a woman, Daw Mya Nan, 55, and her two daughters arrive to kneel before the monk and receive his blessing. They have just made important offerings to the four pythons of the temple. Daw Mya Nan, from Myitkyina, capital of Kachin State in the north, says she had a dream about XNUMX years ago when she was pregnant with her first daughter. “A snake asked me to go and offer a headdress to the Buddha of this temple that I didn't know at all, I came by car and he guided me through the forest. When I arrived, I met the founding monk of the temple, he was hosting three snakes, one of which had just laid eggs. One of the babies died, he reincarnated as my daughter Shwe Zin Win. »
After the birth of her daughter, she adds, her business boomed. “I had a small bakery and developed a thriving jade counter. This story of the snake reincarnated as a little girl has become so popular that it has been the subject of a comic strip that can be bought at the temple for 2500 kyats (1,5 euros).
The snakes which thus find themselves lodged under the protection of the Buddha are generally brought by peasants anxious by this gesture to accumulate some additional merits for their later life. The faithful who parade in front of the reptiles, on certain days by the thousands, all make a wish for good fortune; prosperous business, academic success, luck in the lottery, better health…
Incidentally, these temples may also play a role in the protection of the Burmese python listed, since a dramatic decline in its population, on the list of "vulnerable" species of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. nature (IUCN). When faith comes to the rescue of nature!