It was a hot, dusty evening in Mingun, a bean- and onion-farming village in central Burma, and for the last half hour U Nan Win, a 74-year-old spirit medium, had been putting on women’s clothes. In order to charm the spirits in the elaborate two-and-a-half-hour dance he was about to perform, U Nan Win would have to dress as they once did, in the flamboyant manner of warriors and feudal nobility.
His female students had already applied his makeup: powder, rouge, and lip gloss. As he stood before them, he wrapped a long skirt, hot pink with an iridescent peacock brocade, around his knobby hips—a lifetime as a nat kadaw, or spirit wife, had whittled him to sinew and bone. His dance would be demanding, even more so if a nat chose that night to possess him. In the middle of a crowd of hundreds, U Nan Win might find himself starting to shake, his body taken over by one of those long-dead lords, his feet sweeping unbidden arcs across the floor, his hands tracing loops around his head, his eyes, gone glassy and bright, cartwheeling back into his head.
But first: a lace-fringed jacket and matching belt, a crimson sash, a bedazzled shawl, a tall pink headdress, a ring on every other finger. Conscious of the nervous gazes of his students, U Nan Win cracked a joke, his grin exposing teeth eroded and red from chewing betel nut, and the women laughed in unison, fawning like bridesmaids over a bride.
A warm breeze was coming off the nearby Ayeyarwady River, by which people had been arriving all afternoon in skiffs and narrow fishing boats. At the shrine to the Mingun nats, U Nan Win’s male students piled the offering table with bananas, coconuts, fried fish, bottles of Mandalay Beer and Johnnie Walker, and stacks of Shark Energy Drink. A five-man orchestra, seated on podiums fashioned like golden crowns, doom-doomed drums and careened flutes up and down warm-up melodies. The audience streamed in: mothers and grandmothers, cute little kids, teenage boys wired on betel and beer. This was the last night of Mingun’s weeklong nat pwe, and the party, having started early, awaited its star guest.
The cult of the Thirty-Seven Nats is unique to Burma. A loose form of spirit worship has existed in this part of the world for countless centuries, but in the eleventh century, King Anawratha, the father of the Burmese nation, found himself in a reforming mood. A zealous Buddhist convert, Anawratha tried to outlaw his people’s popular folk religion—and succeeded instead in institutionalizing it. Acknowledging that the old beliefs wouldn’t die, he assembled a royal court of the spirits, bringing many of the best-known nats into the temples he’d begun building around Bagan and making them vassals to the Buddha. “Men will not come for the sake of new faith,” Anawratha reputedly said. “Let them come for their old gods and gradually they will be won over.” A thousand years later, Buddhism and nat worship exist side by side, one represented by gleaming, golden-spired pagodas and sprawling monasteries, the other by small shrines in homes and villages and along the sides of dirt roads. This highly local communion with the spirits erupts into huge, raucous festivals (or pwes) on particular days of the lunar calendar.
Between the living and the green dead there exists a quid-pro-quo relationship, and if you want to make sure your pleas are heard, you go to a nat kadaw.
There is a pantheon of spirits in Burma, and at its top are the Thirty-Seven Nats, mytho-historical figures from the country’s ancient past. Stories about the Thirty-Seven often portray them as rebels and mischief-makers, nobles who willfully disobeyed their king and suffered death at his hand. In Burma, it’s long been believed that those who die violently continue on in the spirit world. Theirs is a “green,” or raw, death, and many of the Thirty-Seven are said to have expired in truly gruesome ways. As spirits, they can be wicked, acting up and meddling in our world. But if a nat is properly placated with offerings, he or she may grant a whole range of minor and major favors, from success in marriage, good luck in business, and a bountiful harvest to the blessing of a motorbike and safe transit across a rickety bridge. Between the living and the green dead there exists a quid-pro-quo relationship, and if you want to make sure your pleas are heard, you go to a nat kadaw.
“No one can be long in Burma without hearing of the Nats,” Sir Richard Carnac Temple, a British soldier and amateur anthropologist, wrote in 1906. Today, no one can be long in-country without hearing of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s famed opposition leader, or that Burma has recently embarked on a process of democratic reforms after fifty years of totalitarian rule by a notoriously paranoid, repressive military that rivaled North Korea’s leadership in its secrecy and isolation.
The military junta took control of the country in 1962, and following its disastrous “Burmese Way to Socialism,” the nation that had once been Asia’s rice bowl, renowned for its universities and lush, prodigious countryside, descended into economic stagnation and extreme corruption.
Political intimidation became commonplace. In 2007 soldiers opened fire on Burmese monks peacefully protesting the regime. A year later, the military, fearing international aid organizations would undermine its power, actively prohibited relief efforts for survivors of a cyclone. Nearly 200,000 died in that disaster. No wonder it is often said that the Burmese people have five enemies: fire, wind and water, thieves, personal enemies, and the government.
The country is still suffering the effects of the regime’s insularity and neglect. Mobile phones are rarer in Burma than in North Korea. The banking system is nascent; the country’s first ATMs started appearing in late 2012, and most Burmese have no access to credit or loans. The purchase of a house or a car requires the buyer to deliver, literally, a truckload of cash. In Yangon, Burma’s largest and most developed city, public transport is so poor that locals often spend three to four hours a day commuting to work. Roads have holes in them big enough to swallow cars.
Perhaps the most curious feature of the junta’s rule was its superstitiousness. In 1987 Burma’s military dictator ordered that larger denominations of the kyat be replaced by notes whose numeral amounts were divisible by and added up to nine (forty-five and ninety, for example). Burmese numerologists consider nine a powerful number, and the generals were obsessed with maintaining their grip on the country through every possible means. Many ordinary Burmese lost their life savings overnight. In 2005, the government moved the Burmese capital from Yangon to the newly built Naypyidaw, which had been hewed out of remote jungle at the estimated cost of $4 billion. It’s commonly held that this was done on the advice of astrologers.
Despite their own traffic with the occult, the generals did not support nat worship. They tried, like King Anawratha—and King Thibaw, King Mindon, and on down the centuries—to dampen animist practices and belief in the supernatural. The people kept throwing their pwes anyway.
In Mandalay City, beginning at five in the morning, thousands of novice monks chant their masters’ lessons. At the revered Mahamuni pagoda, pilgrims come to cover the statue of the Buddha with gold leaves, so many that it looks lumpy, like it’s wearing a sweater. From morning until night, pious men cart around loudspeakers blaring pop music, seeking donations for the monasteries. It’s difficult to miss (or sleep through) the district’s devotion to Buddhism.
Yet central Burma is also a locus of nat worship. At Mount Popa, a sort of Mount Olympus for the nats, I saw how nat worship and Buddhism can coexist. At the base of the mountain, in the center of the village, stands a large, popular nat shrine. Human-sized statues depict the Thirty-Seven, decked out in all the bright finery of feudal lords. After climbing a wet, slippery staircase to the top of Mount Popa, I came to a surprisingly ramshackle pagoda, the view from which was nevertheless stunning; it was the perfect place to reflect on the life and teachings of the Buddha and the pinnacle of all spiritual aspiration, nirvana. Back down in the muddy village, where the business of this world is transacted, I watched pilgrims bring offerings to the nats, who smiled roguishly from their pedestals in silent approval.
All of Burma’s important nats are represented at Mount Popa: There is Min Mahagiri, also known as “Mr. Handsome,” so strong he could break an elephant’s tusk, and so feared by his king that he was tied to a jasmine tree and burned alive. There’s Naga Aungzwá, who assassinated King Narathéngá to please his master, only to be killed himself when the new king took the throne. And the powerful brothers, Min Shin and Shin Nyo, whom King Duttabaung, seeing them as threat to the throne, forced to fight each other to the death. Feudal Burma saw its share of royal vengeance and green deaths.
Contemporary rebels have not fared much better. Thousands of political prisoners were incarcerated for organizing or speaking against the military government. Many were tortured, beaten, or held in isolation for years, even decades. Until 2011 government spies informed daily on dissidents, and even whispered conversations in a teahouse or a visit to a foreigner risked prison or worse. Under such precarious circumstances, nat worship, noisy and public, could be said to have a sharp political edge. To French anthropologist Bénédicte Brac de la Perrière, nat worship has represented a coded critique of power: by enshrining and celebrating mythic, rebellious spirits, she argues, the Burmese expressed, or perhaps sublimated, their discontent in a way that wouldn’t get them killed or jailed.
Spirit wives, or nat kadaws, “translate between those wielding capricious power…and those who fall prey to power,” says Tamara C. Ho, a scholar at the University of California, Riverside, who studies nat worship. The nat kadaw, in other words, is not just a shaman but a kind of spiritual lobbyist for the poor and downtrodden.
The nats rule at Mount Popa, but back in Mandalay City Buddhist orthodoxy—the countless monasteries, monks, and alms drives—reasserts itself. The owner of my hotel, a retired engineer who’d lived and studied in Singapore, solemnly instructed me in the five precepts of Buddhism: don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t drink, and refrain from sexual misconduct. Yet even the most pious of Burmese Buddhists know the stories of the Thirty-Seven. After some prompting on my part, my hotelier told me about the Taungbyone brothers, among the most famous of the Thirty-Seven Nats. After eating the body of a dead alchemist, the brothers gained supernatural powers and wreaked havoc through Anawratha’s kingdom, along the way neglecting to contribute bricks to the king’s latest pagoda. Then they ran beneath a clothesline draped with sheets that had been used in a childbirth, at which point they lost their powers and were beaten to death, with a bamboo stick, by Anawratha.
He told me that most nat believers also follow the Buddha and even worship a few Hindu gods—anything to win a little favor from the spirit world.
“Wow, that’s a crazy story,” I said, struggling to understand the myth on even a metaphorical level.
“Yes, believing in the nats is not just crazy,” my hotelier said, “but very, very crazy.”
Educated urbanities look down on nat worship as the religion of country bumpkins. “The people, they believe everything,” said Hton Win, the guide I hired to take me to Mingun. A compact, reserved man, he had a way of smiling shyly whenever I brought up the nats, as if it embarrassed him to speak on the subject. He told me that most nat believers—and in this group he included the poor, the greedy, and the gullible—also follow the Buddha and even worship a few Hindu gods—anything to win a little favor from the spirit world.
In Mingun, upriver from Mandalay, the nat shrine sits at the center of a market that sells sweets, toys, woven bamboo baskets, farm tools, and oxen harnesses. The nat festival also includes a funfair, with darts and ring toss games and prizes of cheap cookware and packets of laundry detergent. One stand sold glossy posters: Burmese TV stars, Korean boy bands—and airbrushed images of Shwan Zar Mi, the most famous of today’s nat kadaws and a national heartthrob. “The girls, they like him,” Hton Win said.
I’d been told this was a warm-up day for the festival. But people were pouring into the shrine, making their offerings to the village nat and to Ko Gyi Kyaw, a notorious spirit known for his love of gambling, boozing, womanizing, and cockfighting. Two women sat cross-legged on a platform, tucking 500 and 1000 kyat notes into the clothing of the nats and arranging the silver platters of bananas and coconuts brought in by the villagers.
A small group came into the shrine and sat in a circle, surrounding themselves with a pink rope. Two people moved into the center, an older man—this was U Nan Win—and a young medium with a tender, grave expression. They passed a tall crown back and forth, solemnly, anointing it with drops of water and sprays of perfume, an intricate ritual that ended with the younger medium leaving his offering, cash, in a British airmail envelope (a holdover from the colonial era) at the foot of the shrine.
The next day we arrived about midday. There were sporadic rain showers, but the heat was still wilting. The nat kadaws and their entourages lounged in open bamboo huts, surrounded by displays of nat figurines and stacks of booze and energy drinks, enough to fuel a frat party or two. The group I’d seen the day before in the shrine invited us over for tea and palm wine, gulped right from the coconut shell.
U Nan Win’s students were all in their thirties or older but shared an awe for their master, who sat off to one side in a padded lawn chair. I asked U Nan Win how long he’d been a medium. He looked down at me with his red grin, his face powdery and super-expressive, like an old vaudevillian. He said he’d been dancing since the spirits first “loved him”—the other mediums I met all spoke in flatly sexual terms about the nats—when he was fifteen. He’d never worked another job and was putting his three children through university on the offerings and earnings he collected for dancing and teaching. He had clients in Australia and Singapore, and a famous Burmese romance novelist came to him every year with offerings for the spirits. “How do you think she got so famous?” he asked me.
A banner with U Nan Win’s face on it hung over the hut, and self-promotional plastic fans, advertising his services, were ubiquitous. Still, there was a gravity about him that none of his students possessed. I asked him what exactly he felt when he was communicating with the nats. He intuited the meaning behind my question: Was it true? Was he just a glorified showman taking money from the superstitious—or could he truly inhabit, or be inhabited by, that other world? He leaned back in his comfy chair, regal and unruffled. “It is important to believe,” he said.
In a small bamboo house, marginally sturdier than the other village huts, I fell into conversation with U Aung Soe. His family owned the parcel of land that the Mingun shrine sat upon, which afforded him a plusher lifestyle than that of his neighbors. His young children kept bringing him 100 kyat notes: they were charging for use of their toilet. U Aung Soe also got a cut of the festival’s total earnings, as did its organizers. As Hton Win somewhat eagerly pointed out, the money, food, and drink brought by pilgrims to the shrine as offerings didn’t just get sucked up into the heavens.
I spoke with another medium, Daw Hle Yin, a woman in her seventies with a raspy chain-smoker’s voice. She kept rubbing her bandage-wrapped knees. Did it hurt when she danced? I asked. She protested. When she danced for the nats, she said, she felt no pain at all.
She told me how the nat shrine came to Mingun. During World War II, when Mandalay, then occupied by Japan, was burning under Allied bombs, a rich man fled the city. He loaded a boat with his belongings, leaving dozens of fellow citizens he might have saved behind, and set out for Mingun. His arrival drew the attention of robbers, who asked the villagers where his boat was anchored. But the rich man had made an offering to the local nat, who made him and his boat invisible, befuddling the thieves and saving all the man’s worldly possessions. The seemingly amoral moral of the story: it paid to do right by the nats.
As I listened, I felt a hand stroke my beard. An arm twined around my waist, and I turned and looked up at a lithe young villager in a skimpy yellow top with glamorous blond streaks in his hair. I’d been told by locals that nat pwes were also “gay” festivals and to expect to see “many ladyboys.” The junta’s attempts to subdue nat worship had an unintended effect: the role of the nat wife was embraced by an already marginalized group. Homosexuality is illegal in Burma and has been since its British colonizers instituted a late-nineteenth-century ban on “intercourse against the order of nature.”
Government restrictions opened a professional vacuum, says scholar Tamara C. Ho. Becoming a nat kadaw offered the achauk—a Burmese term for gay and transgender men—both “a vocation and queer visibility.”
Anthropologists differ in their readings of the gendered aspects of nat worship. Still, nowhere else in Burma, not even in vast, multi-ethnic Yangon, did I see any cross-dressing or open displays of affection between men. In a country marked by socially conservative, austere Buddhist ways, the nat pwe, it seems, provides a rare moment during which the usual rules can be suspended.
“The whole life and spirit of Burma is summed up in the way that girl twists her arms,” the narrator of Orwell’s novel Burmese Days says as he watches a local girl undulating through a pwe in the novel’s fictional village. Here in Mingun, U Nan Win brought one of his students, a sturdy young woman in a bright turquoise gown, to the center of the concrete slab serving as a stage. She limbered up by smoking four cigarettes at a time and taking pulls on a tall bottle of Mandalay Beer. When the music burst out to greet her, she twisted into her dance.
Arms above her head, wrists turned outward, she pivoted and swayed across the stage, wearing a happy, cocksure smile. Her gown rippled with the movement of her thighs and hips, the fluorescent lights setting off a cascade of sequins. She looked like a large, beautiful fish leaping above water, arching and flexing her body before diving into her next step. As she dipped and spun, she seemed surrounded by a shimmering blur. The music grew dense, frenetic, the longhaired orchestra increasingly exuberant. Two vocalists passed the microphone back and forth, and the crowd sang along—old songs about the exploits of the Thirty-Seven. A bunch of teenage boys were going crazy, throwing their hands up like they were at a rave. Behind the offering table, the beautiful ladyboys were vamping, trying to look bored but unable to take their eyes off the dance.
Our nat kadaw took up a silver bowl, asking for offerings and giving those who reached into their pockets long swigs of Mandalay Beer and Johnnie Walker straight from the bottle. I made a few of my own offerings. My head was already spinning.
The rest of the student’s dance was like a boxing match. Her corner men kept coming out to give her fresh smokes and beer and to fix her makeup. By the end, her face was pale and slack, and as her minders surrounded her, she started speaking in tongues, the voice of a properly charmed nat ostensibly flowing right through her. The faithful pushed forward to hear. U Nan Win sat watching, grinning proudly.
Two days later, in Mingun, an air of exhilaration and exhaustion had settled over the village. There was a nat dance already in progress, and rumors were circulating that, earlier, a rogue spirit had entered the body of someone in the crowd. This kind of accidental possession is one of the dangers, and thrills, of attending a pwe. A villager had captured a video of the possession on his cheap digital camera—blurry shots of the crowd, a figure convulsing in the middle. A feverish excitement lingered. Outside the shrine, adolescent boys, red-eyed and woozy, partied ever more wildly.
Among the professionals the atmosphere was more sedate. Some of the nat kadaws and their entourages were already packing up, moving on to Taungbyone, where the largest gathering of mediums in the country is held annually in honor of the alchemist-devouring brothers.
I spoke again with Daw Hle Yin, the older female medium. She hadn’t been able to dance, after all. The pain in her knees had been too much. Last year, she said, she’d been here with her daughter, who’d also been a medium and had recently died. Daw Hle Yin lived now with her son and used up most of her earnings giving alms to monks. Her labors in the spirit realm were all aimed at building up Buddhist merit, a kind of karmic currency accrued by good works, and a better go of it in the next life. She, like many Burmese, saw no contradiction in this.
I talked to one of the younger mediums, who was twenty-eight and traveling with his grandfather. He told me that Mingun had been a little quiet this year: “Not very good for the pocketbook.” When I asked him if he really believed in the nats, if he truly thought he could communicate with them, he smiled and told me that when he danced for the nats, his mind went completely empty and he “felt like a bird.”
The dance began not from his hips but his shoulders, as though he were a cobra swaying before a strike.
As the afternoon’s heat ripened into evening, the crowd began to swell. There were lots of children—the school in Mingun takes a week off for the nat pwe—some of them novice monks in crimson robes. I sat cross-legged next to U Nan Win’s students, all of us sweating and taking turns fanning each other, the old man’s taut visage flapping all around us. Villagers came forward to adorn U Nan Win’s pink headdress with crisply folded banknotes, ply him with Johnnie Walker, and make their final requests of the nats. Then, finally, it was the master’s turn to dance.
The dance began not from his hips but his shoulders, as though he were a cobra swaying before a strike. He broke out his blood-red betel grin, like he was surprised himself to be performing so nimbly. He moved lightly, up on his toes. His student may have had the fluidity that comes with youth, but the master was lithe and efficient. In nearly sixty years as a nat kadaw, his body had formed itself to the rigors of the pwe. No step wasted, each move precise—yet somehow spontaneous, as if he were being pulled along by forces to which he couldn’t help but submit. The storm of music created by the singers and the orchestra seemed to wrap itself around him. The audience leaned into his dance, three or four hundred people drawn by the body of this sinewy 74-year-old man.
As the Johnnie Walker came around, I felt myself pulled into that pure place of joy that dance opens up, a natural, unthinking state. It occurred to me that there is nothing more spiritual than this, the physical. Buddha sat motionless under a tree to attain enlightenment, but the rest of us must thrash it out on the dance floor.
These seemed prime conditions for a spirit possession. Everyone was high on the nats and other transporting substances. “Mandalay Beer have good taste!” a teenage boy kept shouting in my ear. “Mandalay Beer have good taste!”
U Nan Win held up a stack of 50 kyat notes and started tossing handfuls into the air. It was meant for the little kids, but there were mothers and grandmothers going for it too, a reminder that people here were poor enough to be thrilled by pocket change. U Nan Win launched back into the dance, twirling and sashaying from one side of the stage to the other. We were back in that place again.
Then a woman half-danced, half-stumbled into the inner circle. Her hair was buzzed, as if she were a Buddhist nun gone to seed, and she danced in that way that drunks worldwide do, all flying elbows and broken gyroscope. She had her own stack of money and started tossing it up in the air. One of U Nan Win’s corner men intervened. Then, in the chaos, U Nan Win’s elaborate skirts came undone. The crimson sash, the lace jacket and belt, the shimmering pink shawl—no less than four people had to help him dress again.
It was U Nan Win’s task now to take back the reins of the pwe, but the intrusion had killed his momentum. He kept interrupting his own dance, bringing his female students out several times for Bollywood-inspired numbers and some glorified karaoke with the orchestra. Earlier, Hton Win had given me a term for this: “disco nat.” The night was threatening to devolve into its most obvious social function: a party.
As U Nan Win’s dance, and with it the Mingun nat pwe, wound down, he began genuflecting before the shrine, a final homage to the spirits. The music came to an abrupt halt, the flautist honking more than a beat late, and then suddenly it was done.
Eager worshipers pushed forward to make their last offerings at the nat shrine. The red-eyed, ecstatic teenagers were still chomping betel and swigging Mandalay Beer. U Nan Win was grinning. But the faces of his students were tired. This was a group that had dedicated itself to transcendence. Theirs was the business of this world, and of that other world, where fate isn’t in the hands of a king or a general but with forces elemental and mischievous. This evening the troupe was only able to put on a good show. If life as a nat kadaw is a calling, it’s also a job. The nats could choose to help or not, but U Nan Win and his students, night after night, were required to perform.