(updated: 26 Feb 2011)

A Simple Guide to Help Understand
Nats (Spirits)
in Myanmar (Burma)

Copyright 2011, all rights reserved, by Bob Frazee

The volcano, Mt Popa, is the home of the nats, with Taung Kalat,
a Buddhist monastery on the small mountain to the left

Nats are personal spirts unique to Burma and it is not at all
inconsistent to incorporate them within the design of a Buddhist Pagoda.


Jump Station:

[Nat Worship and Ecology]
[Popular Nat Festivals]
[List of Offical Nats]



I have discussed the two major religious practices in southeast asia, Hinduism and Buddhism but you also have to be aware of a third spiritual belief which is very much a part of the spirtual life of people living in Myanmar (Burma) - the nats.

The nats are spirits worshipped in Burma (Myanmar) in conjunction with Buddhism. They are divided between the 37 Officially designated Great Nats and all the rest (i.e., spirits of trees, water, etc). Almost all of the 37 Great Nats were human beings who met violent deaths (refered to as "green death"). They may thus also be called "nat sein" (green spirits). Much like sainthood, nats can be designated for a variety of reasons, including those only known in certain regions. Nat worship is less common in urban areas than in rural areas, and is practised among ethnic minorities as well as in the mainstream Bamar society. It is however among the Buddhist Bamar that the most highly developed form of ceremony and ritual is to be seen.

Every Burmese village has a nat which essentially serves as a shrine to the village guardian nat. A coconut is often hung on the main southeast post in the house, wearing a headdress and surrounded by perfume, as an offering to the Lord of the Great Mountain, also known as "within the house" or "house guardian" nat. One may inherit a certain member or in some instances two of the 37 Nats as mother's side and father's side from one or both parents' side to worship depending on where their families originally come from. One also has a personal guardian spirit called ko saung nat.[3]

Some disagreement in fact exists in academic circles as to whether Burmese Buddhism and Burmese spirit worship are two separate entities or just different dimensions of a single entity. Many Burmese themselves would say it is merely superstition and tend to downplay its role in society. Since the institution of the official 37 Nats was founded by King Anawrahta (1044-1077) of Bagan, albeit with later alterations, it has been argued that this may be interpreted as a process of Burmanisation and establishment of Bamar supremacy in the Irrawaddy valley after the unification of the country and founding of the First Burmese Empire was achieved by the king. Worship of nats predates Buddhism in Burma. With the arrival of Buddhism, however, the nats were merged with Buddhism, with the Buddha considered to be the greatest nat, and with nats presiding at the birth of the Buddha. The merging of native religions with Buddhism is not only not uncommon. Shakyamuni (Siddhartha Gautama) Buddha recognized and incorporated the native Hindu religion of India into his teachings and practice so as to lead to a more comprehensive understanding to his students. It is interesting to note similarities in the native religions which prosper in Buddhism, such as having "lower" and "higher" realms, containing men, gods, demons, and Buddhas. Indeed, there is no such thing as "pure Buddhism," but rather types of Buddhism which inevitably contain characteristics of locality in which it is taught


Nat Worship and Ecology

The widespread traditional belief among rural folks that there are forest guardian nats (spirits) and mountain guardian nats (spirits) appears to act as a deterrent against environmental destruction up to a point. Indiscriminate chopping down of particularly large trees is generally discouraged because of the belief that they are dwellings of tree spirits and that such an act would bring the wrath of the nat upon the perpetrator.


Popular Nat Festivals


The most important nat pilgrimage site in Burma is Mount Popa, an extinct volcano with numerous temples and relic sites atop a mountain 1300 metres high, located near Bagan in central Burma.

Nats have human characteristics, wants, and needs. They are flawed, having desires considered derogatory and immoral in mainstream Buddhism. During a nat festival, during which nats are propitiated, nat mistresses or mediums dance and embody the nat's spirit in a trance. The roles of nat mistresses are often fulfilled by transvestite men. Music, often accompanied by an orchestra, adds much to the mood of the nat festival, and many claim to be entranced. People come from far and near to take part in the festivities in various nat shrines, get drunk on palm toddy and dance wildly in fits of ecstasy to the wild beat of the saing music, convinced that they have become possessed by the nats.

Whereas nat festivals are annual events celebrating a particular member of the 37 Nats regarded as the tutelary spirit in a region, with familial custodians of the place and tradition, and in ancient times with royal sponsorship which included evocative of royal rituals, there are also neighborhood nat festivals (nat "kannahs") where individuals would have a pavilion set up in a neighbourhood and the ritual is generally linked to the entire pantheon of nats. The nat mistresses as an independent profession made their appearance in the latter half of the 19th century as spirit mediums. Neighborhood festivals are more of an urban phenomenon which have evolved to satisfy the need of people who had migrated from the countryside to towns and cities but who wished to carry on their traditions of paying homage to the tutelary spirit of their native place.


List of Official Nats

Background: King Anawrahta of Bagan (1044-1077) tried to enforce a ban on nat worship. When he was unsucessful he designated an official pantheon of 37 Nats and incorporated them into Buddhist worship. His stratagy was to bring the nats to his Shwezigon Pagoda in positions of worshipping the Buddha. By placing Thagya Min, king of the nats, at the head of the pantheon, above the Mahagiri nats, he eventually succeeded. Seven out of the 37 Nats appear to be directly associated with the life and times of King Anawrahta. The official pantheon is made up predominantly of those from the royal houses of Burmese history, but also contains nats of Thai and Shan descent.

I am listing only the more notable so you can understand the cause of their "violent deaths".

Thagya Min, considered King of the Nats, is identified with the Buddhist deva Sakra and the Hindu deity Indra. He is often portrayed atop a three-headed white elephant, holding a conch shell in one hand, and a yak-tail whisk in the other.

Min Mahagiri also known as Maung Tint De, "Mr Handsome", son of a famous blacksmith. His . He was extremely strong, able to break the tusks of an elephant. The King of Tagaung was worried, least he attempt to usurp his throne, so Maung Tint De hide himself in a village. As a stratagem, the king married Maung Tint De's sister, Saw Me Ya,(Golden Face), (see Hnamadawgyi below) to become one of his queens. He persuaded Saw Me Ya to ask her brother to come out of hiding so that he could be given a high office. However when Maung Tint De came out of hiding, the king had him arrested and burned alive tied to a Champac tree. His sister died of burns suffered when she tried to rescue him. The two became evil Nats resident in that tree, periodically feasting on people who happened to come near the tree. The King of Tagaung (Tagaung Min) had the tree cut down and cast into the waters of the Irrawaddy where it floated, coming to rest in the kingdom in Bagan ruled by King Thinligyaung (344-387). The two Nats appeared in a dream had by King Thinligyaung and they told him of their plight. They offered to guard the city if they were given a place to dwell. King Thinligyaung had the trunk carried to Mount Popa, divided into two parts (one for each Nat) and carved with human features. Henceforth Maung Tint De was to be known as the Lord of the Great Mountain. They were also enshrined on either side of the city's Tharabha Gate, Maung Tint De on the right and Shwe Myet-hna on the left. Later kings had golden heads made of the two Nats and had these heads mounted on pillars at Mt Popa (the ones from 1812 are still worshiped at the mountain).

Hnamadawgyi or Royal Sister. Her given name was Saw Me Ya, the elder sister of Maung Tint De. She became the queen of the King of Tagaung. When she saw her brother being burned alive, she leapt into the fire, but only managed to save his head. She died of her burns and became a Nat. She is portrayed standing on a dais upon a black elephant, her right hand on her chest with a plum between her thumb and index finger, and her left hand by her side.

Shwe Nabay was a beautiful woman of Mindon Village who married a Naga. Later, her husband deserted her and she died of a broken heart. Another story maintains that she was actually the wife of Maung Tint De (Mr Handsome). She is portrayed standing, wearing Naga headdress, her right hand on her chest and her left hand by her side.

Mandalay Bodaw (Lord Grandfather of Mandalay), the son of a Brahmin, was killed for not properly supervising Shwe Hpyin Naungdaw and Shwe Hpyin Nyidaw, who were negligent in their duties. (see below) He is portrayed standing on a pedestal with a sword on his shoulder and a hand raised, pointing his finger.

The Brothers with their mother Popa Medaw
Me Wunna with her sons Min Gyi and Min Lay

Popa Medaw (aka Me Wunna) (Royal Mother of Popa), who according to legend was a flower-eating ogress called Me Wunna, lived at Popa. She fell in love with Byatta, whose royal duty was to gather flowers from Popa for King Anawrahta of Bagan (1044–1077). Byatta was executed for disobeying the king who disapproved of the liaison, and their sons were later taken away to the palace. Me Wunna died of a broken heart and, like Byatta, became a nat. Their sons also became heroes in the king's service but were later executed for neglecting their duty during the construction of a pagoda at Taungbyone near Mandalay. They too became powerful nats but they remained in Taungbyone where a major festival is held annually in August.

Shwe Hpyin Naungdaw(Inferior God the Elder), and Shwe Hpyin Nyidaw (Inferior God the Younger), together known as "Brothers" or "Brother Lords", were sons of Byatta, the royal messenger, and Me Wunna, a flower-eating ogress from Mt Popa, during the reign of King Anawrahta of Bagan. They were killed for neglecting their duty to provide a brick each thus leaving gaps in Taungbyone Pagoda, which was built by King Anawrahta. They are portrayed on pedestals, one lying down and the other upright with his sword shouldered arrogantly. Their mother, Me Wunna, died of a broken heart after their father, Byatta, was killed. She became a nat known as Popa Medaw (Mother of Popa).

Tabinshwehti, King of Taungoo (1512-1550), became a drunk and was assassinated by a servant. He is portrayed sitting cross-legged on a throne in full regalia, sword in left hand and right hand on his knee.

Maung Po Tu, a tea trader during the reign of King Minkhaung of Innwa, was killed by a tiger on his way to Shan state. He is portrayed sitting on a tiger, a stick in right hand and left hand on his thigh.

Thonbanhla (Beautiful in Three Ways) was a native of a Mon village called Takunnwan. She was "beautiful in three ways within one day." She was given to King Duttabaung of Pyay, but the queen was jealous of her beauty and told the king that Thonbanhla was actually very ugly and so fat that she could not fit through the city gate. Hearing this, the king refused to marry Thonbanhla who then died in despair. Another story says that she was the younger sister of Maung Tint De (Mr Handsome). She married King Samim Htaw Yama of Utthala and gave birth to a daughter, Shin Mi-hnè, but then died of a sudden illness. She is portrayed standing on an ogre bending over a dais supported by an elephant. She wears a topknot, her right hand on her chest and her left hand by her side.

Taungoo Mingaung, a minor governor of Taungoo and son of Min Yè Theinkàthu, the royal attendant, died of illness. He is portrayed sitting cross-legged on a simple couch wearing royal garments, holding a fan in his right hand and resting his left hand on his knee.

Mintara, the King of Innwa, was hunting in the forest where he met a fairy, and went insane when the fairy disappeared. While he was in this state, one of his followers, Nga Nawk, murdered him. He is portrayed sitting on a throne, wearing his royal garments with a fan in his right hand and his left hand resting on his knee.

Thandawgan, a royal messenger of King Minkhaung of Taungoo, his given name was Yè Thiha. He went into the forest to gather flowers, contracted malaria and died. He is portrayed sitting on a lotus pedestal holding a fan in his right hand and his left hand resting on his knee.

Shwe Nawrahta, grandson of King Minkhaung II of Innwa (1481-1502). His servant tried to assassinate the king, but was caught and put to death. Because of Shwe Nawrahta's involvement in the plot, he too was put to death. He is portrayed sitting with one knee raised upon a simple throne, holding a gu lee ball in one hand and a gu lee stick in the other.

Aung Zwa Magyi, was a commander in the service of King Narapatisithu of Bagan (1173-1210). He was killed by the king when he showed disrespect to the king, who had failed to keep his promise of rewarding him with one of his maids. He is portrayed sitting on a throne, playing a harp and wearing a headdress and a sash.

Ngazi Shin (Lord of Five Elephants), also called Kyaw Zwa, became King of Pinya (1343-1350) after his father Thihathu died. He acquired five white elephants, and died of illness in the eighth year of his reign. He is portrayed sitting on a lotus supported by a five-headed elephant, and shaded by four white royal umbrellas.

Aung Pinle Hsinbyushin (Lord of the White Elephant of Aung Pinle), King Thihathu II (1422-1426) and son of King Minkhaung of Innwa (1401-1422), was killed by an arrow released by his enemy the Sawbwa of Ohnbaung. He was portrayed sitting cross-legged on a throne on elephant back in full regalia, with one of the elephant attendants crouching in front and another on horseback wielding a sword.

Maung Min Shin, the swing rider, grandson of King Alaungsithu of Bagan (1112-1167), son of Min Shin Saw who was deposed. While he was still a young novice monk, he fell off a swing and died.

Shindaw was a young novice monk of Innwa and died of a snake bite. He is portrayed standing on a pedestal with headwear, and a yellow robe. He holds a fan in his right hand and rosary beads in his left.

Nyaung Gyin O, a descendant of the captive King Manuha of Thaton in Bagan. He died of leprosy during the reign of King Anawrahta. He is portrayed standing on a pedestal with a topknot, his left hand raised and holding a staff in his right. Min Yè Aung Din, husband of Princess Shwe Sin Tu, daughter of King Thar Sun of Innwa and his queen, who was daughter of Sawbwa of Monè in Shan State. He died from an excess of opium smoking. He is portrayed sitting on a pedestal with a topknot and holding a harp.

Medaw Shwezaga, the mother of Shwe Sitpin, she died of heartbreak over the sorrowful plight of her son. She is portrayed sitting on a pedestal with her right hand on her bosom and her left hand resting on her lap.

Yun Bayin, (King of the Yun) was Mekuti, the captive king of Chiang Mai, who died of illness during the reign of King Bayinnaung of Hanthawaddy (1551-1581). He is portrayed sitting with right knee raised, right hand holding a sheathed sword across the shoulder, and left hand on left knee.

Htibyusaung (Lord of the White Umbrella) was King Kyaungbyu, father of Anawrahta. He was deposed and forced to become a monk by his step sons.

Htibyusaung Medaw (Royal Mother of Htibyusaung), grandmother of Anawrahta, died of illness. She is portrayed with hair knotted and dangling, sitting on folded knees with hand on her lap.

Min Sithu or Alaungsithu, King of Bagan (1112-1167), grandson and successor of King Anawrahta was assassinated by his son Narathu (1167-1170) who usurped his throne. He is portrayed sitting on a throne with one knee up and his foot on the seat, wearing royal garments.

Min Kyaw Zwa he was the son of the Lord of Pyay and Kuni Devi. He was a drunkard, cock fighter, and excellent horseman. He was killed by the devils who had been his victims.

Myaukhpet Shinma (Lady of the North) was the wet nurse of King Tabinshwehti, and a native of North Kadu. She died in childbirth. She is portrayed on her knees, right hand on her bosom and left hand on her knee. Anauk Mibaya (Western Queen) was queen of King Minkhaung I of Innwa, daughter of Shan chief Tho Ngan Bwa, and mother of Min Yè Kyaw Zwa. She died of a heart attack after being startled by seeing Min Kyaw Zwa (U Min Gyaw) on a magic stallion in a cotton field. She is portrayed with a headdress sitting on a lotus and nursing her baby.

Shingon (Lady Hump Back) was a maid of King Thihathu, and accompanied him to the battlefront. She died on her return to the capital. She is portrayed walking limply with her hands dangling.

Shingwa (Lady Bany Legs) was the sister of Mandalay Bodaw, and killed with her brother for hiding the brothers Shwe Hpyin.


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