Burmese ghosts, or nats as they are known locally, are spirits of people who died under tragic circumstances and who have remained earthbound so….what, in English, we would call ghosts. However, in Burma/Myanmar they take on a whole other significance and have shrines, statues, images, festivals dedicated to them. There’s even an ‘official’ list of the country’s 37 major recognised nats compiled by a king of Bagan in the 11th-century.
Although nothing whatsoever to do with Burma’s principal religion, Buddhism, nat worship is firmly entrenched in Burmese minds – particularly amongst the rural population – and pilgrimages are made to important nat shrines by the faithful. Nats, often represented by somewhat kitsch, doll-like, (though often lifesize), figures are far from perfect though and tend to display their former human failings.
You can tell by the corresponding offerings: some nats go for the cash, some flowers and make-up, others appreciate a glass of palm wine whilst some just want to smoke a cheroot! Some are good, some not so good, others mischievous and certain ones troublesome. The offerings and worship are as much to appease the nats and make sure they behave themselves as anything else although of course on a good day they may provide you with a winning lottery ticket number! Nat festivals occur at various auspicious times in the year and can be pretty wild affairs with dancing and drinking lead by a nat ka daw or medium who communes with the nat’s spirit whilst in a trance-like state.
Although each village may well have their own nat and various spirits are considered to inhabit certain mountains, rocks, rivers, even trees – a clear relic of animist times – the country’s main nat hotspot is Mount Popa, near Bagan. This old volcanic cone topped by a Buddhist temple is littered with nat shrines and seems to have seen an inordinate amount of tragic deaths during its history.
It’s certainly a spectacular and atmospheric site though as yet we’ve encountered far more monkeys there than nat spirits. Mount Popa and it’s nat shrines can be visited on our 2 week Burma tour – “…quite like any land you know about”.