Update: 2008-10-01 08:32 PM +0800


Folk Elements in Burmese Buddhism


Maung Htin Aung. Printed and published by U Myint Maung, Deputy Director, Regd: No (02405/02527) at the Religious Affairs Dept. Press. Yegu, Kaba-Aye P.O., Rangoon, BURMA. 1981.

Set in HTML by the staff of TIL and edited by U Kyaw Tun, M.S. (I.P.S.T., U.S.A.). Not for sale. Prepared for students of TIL Computing and Language Center, Yangon, MYANMAR.

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Contents of this page
Lord of the Great Mountain
Great mountain
Mighty men
Need for a new religion
Mr. Handsome and Ms. Golden Face (brother and sister)
Worship of the Lords of the Great Mountain established as a national cult
Author's notes

UKT notes
Burmese and Mons Burmese era Earthquake and rise of Mount Popa Forest of Refuge

UKT: This page has been modified extensively, and the reader is advised to refer to the originals before using its textual content paying attention to the accuracy of the source and the page numbers.
   The reader is reminded that since I am descended from both the Burmese and Mon ethnic stocks, I am writing this text as an introduction to my own life story. Moreover, since the story is about Upper or Central Myanmar centering Mount Popa from whence my paternal Burmese ancestors originate, I am treating it as a message to my own grandsons both born outside the country of my birth - Myanmar.

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06. Lord of the Great Mountain

Great mountain

Mount Popa {poap-pa:} is not very high. It is about three thousand feet in height and it stands on a level plateau of some eight hundred feet. The plain on which the plateau stands itself is about a thousand feet above sea level. However, Mount Popa seems to be a great mountain because it stands solitary, almost in the centre of the plain of Myingyan. It has stood sentinel over the varying fortunes of the Burmese people, whose first settlements in the middle Irrawaddy valley were in the Myingyan plain. It is an extinct volcano whose subterranean fires first saw daylight some two hundred and fifty thousand years ago, but whose raging fires died out only in historic times. According to the Burmese Chronicles, in 442 B.C. there was a great earthquake and Mount Popa 'rose like a cone from the plains'. There is a crater at the top of the cone, but one side of the crater had been blown away during one of the volcano's many eruptions. The crater is about a mile in width and about two thousand feet deep. The presence of volcanic ash makes the soil fertile, and the high ground catches the moisture from the clouds. Therefore, while the Myingyan plain itself is parched and bare of vegetation, Mount Popa is covered by a green forest. Even nowadays there are many flowering trees, though in ancient times the slopes of the hill were wholly covered with flowering trees which led to the hill being called 'Popa' which, in Sanskrit, means 'Flowers'. Thus to the early Burmese it was the 'mountain of flowers', and it was also the 'great mountain,' the 'golden mountain'. [{p062}]

Throughout human history people of all races have pictured their gods and goddesses as living on a mountain. The Buddhists believe that their gods and goddesses live on Mount Mayu, just as the Ancient Greeks believed that their gods and goddesses dwelt on Mount Olympus. In the same way, the early Burmese came to believe that Mount Popa was the home of their gods and goddesses. They came to believe, too, that beautiful ogresses, who lived not on flesh but on flowers, played hide-and-seek in the groves of Mount Popa, and that on its slopes there wandered magicians and alchemists in search of potent herbs and roots. In the flower-forests of the hill, moreover, there actually lurked robbers and outlaws. Anawrahta himself, while striving to regain his father's throne usurped by another, formed his army on the slopes of Mount Popa. Kyansittha, after the defeat of the forces of Anawrahta's son by the Peguan rebels, led the remnants of the Burmese army to Popa Hill to be re-equipped and reorganized. Perhaps at one time the hill itself was worshipped as separate from the gods and goddesses, and it was probably considered to be 'a hallowed ground of victory' whose very touch would give success to 'men of endeavour' in their 'mighty undertakings'.

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Mighty men

'Mighty men of endeavour' {thu-r:kaung:} were greatly feared by the king in the early periods of Burmese history because they were likely to seize the throne with the support of the people. On the other hand, if they were not too ambitious or mighty they would be given high posts in the king's army. One of the main aims of magic and alchemy, in fact, was the evolution of a body which was not only invulnerable but also prodigiously strong. The emphasis was not only on valour but also on physical might. Anawrahta himself had four famous generals in his army, three of whom were physically mighty, the first being a great swimmer, the second a great runner, and [{p063}] the third a great climber. However, the fourth, the great Kyansittha, was not exceptionally strong, but he was the most skilful because he was the most intelligent. Anawrahta himself was not a mighty man and was always careful to demonstrate that his superior intelligence and his god-given lance were more powerful than unusual brute strength.

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Need for a new religion

The kingdom of Pagan was, in the beginning, merely a cluster of nineteen villages. Under King Thinlikyaung {th-l-kraung}, who according to the Chronicles flourished in A.D. 344-387 but who possibly reigned later than these dates, the villages felt strong enough to form themselves into a city, and thus Thiripyissaya {thi.ri.pic~sa.ya} came to be built on the bank of the river Irrawaddy. It was the forerunner of the city of Pagan. At that time the religion of the people must have been very similar to that form of animism now practised by the remoter hill peoples of Burma. Nat spirits were worshipped everywhere in the country but each village restricted its worship to its own local Nats. It would seem that both the king and the people were looking for a Nat which would be worshipped all over the country, and which would become a national Nat, to be distinguished from a local Nat. In other words, they were looking for a new religion which would bind the various tribes of the kingdom into a nation.

UKT: Dr. Htin Aung's conjecture that "the religion of the people must have been very similar to that form of animism now practised by the remoter hill peoples of Burma" is questionable. His view was probably due to the view of the British colonial historians who summarily set aside the accounts of the Burmese chronicles such as the Glass Palace Chronicles on the history of the Pyus as without creditable evidence. Since metal works have been found around the original 19 villages, the culture and technology of the people must have been high.


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Mr. Handsome and Ms. Golden Face (brother and sister)

At that time, according to the Chronicles, there was another kingdom to the north, the kingdom of Tagaung {ta.kaung:}; here, a great tragedy had occurred. On the outskirts of the city of Tagaung there lived a mighty blacksmith, whose son became even mightier. This son had a perfectly proportioned body and came to be known as Mr. Handsome {maung ting. t}. Even as a young boy Mr. Handsome was a great eater, but when he attained [{p064}] full manhood it was said that he ate a quarter-basket of rice fn064-01 at every meal. When he took over his father's smithy he wielded two hammers; with his right hand he held and iron hammer weighing fifty viss, and with his left hand he held another weighing twenty-five viss. When Mr. Handsome worked his smithy and when he used his hammers against the anvil, the whole city quaked and trembled. (It seems obvious that this account of Mr. Handsome preserves a memory of the various earthquakes in prehistoric and historic times which occurred in north Burma, especially when Popa was still active.) The news of this mighty man reached the king of Tagaung, who, fearing rebellion, ordered the arrest of Mr. Handsome. The blacksmith was warned in time and took to the forest.

UKT: viss {peith~tha} -- the Burmese unit of weight equal to approximately 1.6 kg.

The disappointed king now stooped to treachery. Now Mr. Handsome had a younger sister who was very beautiful. The king raised her to be his queen, and after some months told her, 'I no longer fear your brother because he is now my brother also. Invite him to Tagaung and I shall make him governor of the city.' The sister believed the king and sent messengers to Mr. Handsome, who came to Tagaung, unsuspectingly. But he was at once seized by the king's soldiers and tied to a Saga  tree {sa.ka:pin} fn064-02 on the bank of the Irrawaddy. The king, together with his queen and his court, now came on the scene, and he ordered that a huge fire be lit at the feet of the helpless blacksmith. As her brother writhed in agony in the fire the queen suddenly shook herself free from her maids-of-honour and rushed into the fire to die with him. The king, who had learnt to love her, tried to save her by pulling her back by the hair. But it was too late. Only her beautiful face was saved, as the rest of her body had burnt even in that short space of time. Later on, when she was worshipped as a Nat spirit, this was remembered and she was affectionately called 'Golden [{p065}] Face' {rhw-myak-nha} . Thus the brother and sister died and they became Nat spirits and made their abode on the Saga tree. In their anger against the treacherous king the two spirits killed all the animals and human beings who came under the shade of the tree. The king was frightened and ordered that the tree be cut down and the trunk floated down the river. After some days the trunk of the Saga tree reached the new city of Thiripyissaya, where King Thinlikyaung and his people waited, for the account of the two Nat spirits had reached them. Here was the opportunity to establish a new religion or at least a new cult. The king's carvers soon carved out of the tree trunk images of the brother and sister, and then covered them with gold.

UKT: Pictures above were from U Khin Maung Than Traditional Nat Cult whose original source seemed to be Noel F. Singer Thirty-Seven Nats Gartmore: Kiscadale, 1992. Singer's illustrations were quite different from that of Sir Richard C. Temple Thirty-Seven Nats, Griggs, London, 1906. Click to see R.C. Temple's nats.
U Po Kya described the image of Minmahagiri as: standing on belu platform on white-elephant, dressed like a prince with {baung:} head-dress, conical ear ornament, and crossed-sash, fan in left-hand and sword in right-hand. U Po Kya further described the image of sister as: standing on belu platform on black female-elephant, right-hand on chest with thumb and pointer-finger holding a Terminalia citrina fruit {kra.su.thi:}, left-hand hanging down.
   Minmahagiri is also known as {pan:b: maung-ting.t}, the Burmese word {pan:b:} meaning <black-smith>. Notice the hammer in one of hands of the image of the brother in the above pictures.


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It was near the time of the full moon, and according to the English calendar it was December. The fields had been reaped, the harvest had been successfully gathered, and the people were in festive mood. The images of the two Nats were put on golden palanquins and attended by the king himself, they were carried along the road to Mount Popa. Red was the colour associated with Nat spirits and red flags and red streamers were carried by the people taking part in the procession and by the people who lived along the route. Everyone danced and sang, and when the procession halted at villages on the way, food and toddy-wine flowed free. The procession reached the summit of Mount Popa on the full moon day and a golden Nat shrine, newly constructed, awaited the two images. The images were set up in the shrine with great pomp and ceremony, and the king proclaimed that the village on the slope of the hill, Popa Ywa, was given as a perpetual fief to the two Nat spirits. As spirit mediums danced in abandoned joy, hundreds of white oxen, white horses, and white goats were sacrificed to the Nat spirits.

It was the ninth month of the Burmese year, and it seemed so propitious that the month associated with the magic number nine should now be associated with the two Nats.

UKT: Ninth Month -- The names of the Christian year from the month of September to December point out that they are actually the ordinal numbers of the months: September -- the 7th, October -- the 8th, November -- the 9th, and December -- the 10th. That indicated that February is the last, and March is the first month of the year.
   This order of the months bears a striking resemblance to the order of the Burmese months: 1. {tan.hku:}, 2. {ka.hsoan}, 3. {na.yoan}, 4. {wa-hso}, 5. {wa-hkaung}, 6. {tau-tha.lin:}, 7. {thi-tin:kyut}, 8. {tan-hsaung-moan:}, 9. {nat-tau}, 10. {pra-tho}. 11. {ta.po.tw:}, 12. {ta.paung:}
   The Ninth Month of the Burmese year is the {nat-tau} or the "spirit-royal month". This should be compared to the Western tradition of <Haloween> which is celebrated on the 31st of October.

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Both were now given by the king the title of 'Lords of the Great Mountain'. The brother was given the title in a Burmese-Pali form, 'Min Maha-Giri' {ming:ma.ha-gi.ri.}. (Min in Burmese means 'Lord', and Maha-Giri in Pali means 'Great Mountain'.) The sister was given a title in its pure Burmese form, 'Taunggyishin', Taunggyi meaning 'Great Mountain' and Shin meaning 'Lord', However, the sister continued to be affectionately called 'Shwe-Myetnha', 'Golden Face'. The king further ordered that the month be renamed 'Nat-Taw', or 'the month of the Royal Nats', and fixed the full moon day in this month as the date of the annual festival in honour of the Popa Nats. The name of the eighth month of the Burmese year, Tazaung-mon {tan-hsaung-moan:}, means 'the month of the Festival of Lights', and before the advent of the Lords of the Great Mountain the full moon day of this month was the occasion for the offering of lights to the gods of the planets in particular and to all gods in general. But the king now ordained that the festival of lights was to be held one month later, in the month of Nat-Taw {nat.tau}.fn066-01

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Worship of the Lords of the Great Mountain established as a national cult

The kings who followed Thinlikyaung on the throne of Pagan continued the royal patronage of the Maha-Giri spirits and the worship of these spirits became established as a national cult. When the city of Pagan was built in A.D. 849 the figures of the 'Brother and Sister' were carved on the pillars of the main gate, to symbolize the fact that they were the guardian Nats of the city and the people. Every king's first visit to the mountain was considered as important as his coronation, and as the date of his coronation was noted down carefully by palace officials, so the date of his 'climbing the Golden Mountain' was carefully recorded. The Lord of the Great Mountain was believed to make himself visible to each [{p067}] reigning king of Pagan and to advise him on important state affairs. When a monk known as Popa Sawrahan {poap~pa: sau:ra.han:}, who had his monastery in the Popa region, became the king's chaplain and was later elected to succeed him, the Lord of the Great Mountain refused to make himself visible to the new king, since he was not of royal bone'. Some years later the king had a daughter born to him, and when she was of age he married her to the son of the former king and declared him as his heir. fn067-01 Only then did the Lord of the Great Mountain appear and advise the king. This story, given in the Chronicles, might very well be a formalized or popularized account of an actual event; perhaps the king at first refused to recognize the worship of the Lord of the Great Mountain until he became interested in gods and planets and astrology, for he was the king who, a few months before he died, had established the Burmese era for astrological reasons, abandoning the Pyu era.

UKT: Nat-worship as a National Cult -- From the time of Thinlikyaung of Thiripyissaya {thi.ri.pic~sa.ya}, until the founding of Pagan in 849 AD, the brother and sister of Popa were nats of the mountain. However at the founding of Pagan they became the city-nats. At the present for many Burmese, they have become the household or family nats. In other words they are being recognised as our own ancestors.
   At the present, there are seven in the group headed by the brother and sister. Though the brother and sister were from Tagaung and were Burmese-nats, the other five seemed to be from Prome and were Pyu-nats. The popular story makes them all related as shown in the table on the right, from: Min Rama Thirty-seven Nat Puja (in Burmese) p.11

Lady Golden Sides or Shwnap was a Pyu nat, whereas Minmahagiri was from Tagaung who had become a city-nat in Pagan and therefore a Burmese nat. But now that they were a family, it was natural for the Pyus and the Myanmars to feel as one. Because Thoanpanhla had become the queen of Okkalapa of the Mons, Ma Nhl was half-Mon. Similarly, Shan-nats have been incorporated into the pantheon of nats in Myanmar, and in a way, the nat-worship had brought the various linguistic groups or peoples together.
Guardian-nats of the city - With the founding of Pagan in 849 AD, the brother and sister of Popa the founding of Pagan they became the city-nats.


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Author's notes

fn064-01 One basket of rice weighs about 70 Ib. fn064-01b

UKT: Since, Maung Tint T was reported to eat "a quarter-basket of rice", means that he ate 17 1/2 lb of rice at each meal, or 35 lb of rice a day.

fn064-02 The Indian 'Champa' tree. fn064-02b

UKT: The name of the tree given by Dr. Htin Aung is not specific. It could be:
{tau: sa.ka:sain:} -- Polyalthia simiarum of the family Annonaceae producing green flowers
{sa.ka:sain:} -- Cananga odorata of the family Annonaceae producing green flowers
{sa.ka:wa} -- Michelia champaca of the family Magnoliaceae producing yellow flowers
From a passage in one of the oldest Nat hymns {tho:ka.l} in which the {sa.ka:} flowers of Popa were compared to <gold>, we may conclude that the Popa {sa.ka:} trees were {sa.ka:wa}, but the {sa.ka:} tree of Tagaung to which the blacksmith was tied could very well be {sa.ka:sain:}. which is Cananga odorata of the family Annonaceae.

fn066-01 See the Appendix to this chapter. fn066-01b

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UKT notes

Burmese and Mons

For complete understanding of this chapter, we should remember that the area of the present day Myanmar country was populated by two linguistic groups who use the same Myanmar script. The area of northern or Upper Myanmar was populated by the Burmese speakers and that of southern or Lower Myanmar by Mon or Mon-Khmer speakers. The capital of the Burmese speakers was Pagan {pu.gn} and that of the Mon speakers was Thaton {tha.hton}. The one major linguistic group which probably preceded both Burmese speakers and Mon speakers was Pyu {pyu} who disappeared from the scene about 1000 AD though some of their old gods [nats] still remain today.

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The Burmese Era

B.C. before Christ
adv. Abbr. B.C. 1. In a specified year of the pre-Christian era. -- AHTD

It is recorded that the Burmese first counted their years according to the Buddhist Era or {tha-tha.na thak~ka.rz}. It was abandoned during the Pyu period, and the Pyu Era itself was abandoned in Pagan period. The present Burmese Era is the Pagan Era. As an example, 2512 Buddhist Era coincides with 1330 Burmese Era which began during the month of April 1968 and ended in April 1969. See Chapter 03, Feast of the New Year (ch03-new-yr.htm).

An approximate conversion between A.D. and Burmese Era (B.E.) is 1968 A.D = 1330 B.E. There is a difference of 638.

{thak~ka.rz} n. - the present Myanmar Era [B.E.] (reckoned from the time Lord Buddha attainment of nirvana in 544 BC, but which incorporates the {dau:dau:ra.tha.} and {hka.hsa.pi~sa.} modifications which eliminated 622 and 560 years respectively from it, so that in effect it can be said to have been reckoned from 638 AD to the present) -- MEDict507

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Earthquake and Rise of Mount Popa

The prediction that one hundred and one years after the death of Buddha, there would be a great earthquake and that Mount Popa would rise, was given by the Buddha himself. SeeThe Glass Palace Chronicle (in Burmese), (GPC-Bur) vol. 1, p.161

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Forest of Refuge

Mount Popa {poap-pa:}, an ancient inactive volcano, about 3000 ft in height, is not very high. However, since it stands on a level plateau of some eight hundred feet, almost in the centre of the plain of Myingyan, it acts as a catcher of rain. Therefore, while the Myingyan plain itself is parched and almost bare of vegetation, Mount Popa is covered by a green forest. Even nowadays there are many flowering trees, though in ancient times the slopes of the hill were wholly covered with flowering trees which led to the hill being called 'Popa' which, in Sanskrit, means 'Flowers'. Thus to the early Burmese it was the 'mountain of flowers', and it was also the 'great mountain,' the 'golden mountain'.

My paternal great-grand father, U Yan Shin (who died round about 1900 AD) (son of one of the two brothers by the names Hpotagaung {hpo:ta.kaung:} and Hpomintha {hpo:ming:tha:}) was a native of the Popa area. He was a native of the village of {nga.tha.yauk}. (There are some in my extended family, who maintained that U Yan Shin was from the village of Pab.) The village of {nga.tha.yauk} was mentioned by U Khin Maung Than on p45, as one of the places in the heartland of the Minmahagiri Nat-worship where animal sacrifices were done until 1555 AD when the custom was banned by king Bayinnaung.

U Yan Shin himself was known in his time as a local hero or Bo Yan Shin, and there are many family stories connected with the Popa area. My father, who was a boy of about six, had told me in detail, about his grand-father's funeral: how the body was prepared for burial with the forehead being gilded with gold-leaf. During the funeral procession, the hearse was carried with four gold umbrellas at each corner. One of the local historians, Hanthawaddy U Ba Yin, told me that the fact that the forehead was being gilded showed that U Yan Shin was a man of title but not of royal lineage. My father also told me what little he remembered of the funeral of his grand-mother, who died when my father was four. The body was buried with a pole known in Burmese as {tn-hkyu} for picking fruits and flowers from high branches  and a basket {pa.laing:} for carrying the plucked items, showing that she was of {taung-thu} lineage. My interest in the stories connected with Mount Popa and the Popa forest are very personal.

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It seems that western-educated Burmese seems to place more regard on Sanskrit than on Pali which is more close to Burmese. It is my conjecture (just pure conjecture) that Māgadi, the forerunner of Pali or its sister dialect, and Burmese are sister-languages of Tibeto-Burmese group. The following is from Pali-English Dictionary of Pali Text Society.

Puppha {poap~hpa.} -- (nt.) [Vedic puṣpa] a flower -- PTS p467
This should be compared to Burmese {poap-pa:} .

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Thinlikyaung {th-l-kraung} : orthography

Burmese and Mons Burmese era Earthquake and rise of Mount Popa Forest of Refuge Sanskrit Thinlikyaung

The spelling and the pronunciation of this Burmese word in Myanmar script has been bothering me for a long time. The third syllable is spelled exactly like the word for <cat> and is pronounced as in {kyaung} without rolling the tongue for the onset. The second syllable {l} can be pronounced either as {li} or {l}.

The most troublesome is the first syllable. The principal consonant is {tha.} and can be represented phonetically (IPA -- International phonetic alphabet) by /θ/ (Unicode number U03B8 -- a voiceless dental thibilant similar to the English [th] in <thin>, which is usually and wrongly described as a 'spirant'. Note that there is no "hissing" sound in [th].). The killed consonant at the end of the syllable (coda) is the Pali-Myanmar consonant small {} which in IPA is /ɲ/ (Unicode number U0272 -- a palatal nasal similar to the Spanish ). However, the vowel {} (not shown in Romabama spelling) is the one that is problematical. It is highly probable that the pronunciation given by Dr. Htin Aung /<thin>/ or IPA [θɪŋ] is right.

The next question that is troubling me is whether the three syllables are three separate words, or two. From the names of the kings of this dynasty ({pyu-ming:hti:} > {hti:ming:yi} > {yi-ming:peik} > {peik-th-l} > {th-l-kraung} > {kraung-du-ric}), we can see that  {th-l} is probably a disyllabic word, and therefore {th-l-kraung} is made up of two words.

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