© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Mt. Popa in Central Myanmar: the abode of gods

3 minutes to read

Located in Central Myanmar, not far from the world-famous ruins of Bagan, Mt. Popa has been the center of traditional animist worship for millennia. It is believed to be the abode of nat - Burmese spirits, gods, whatever term you prefer - not unlike Mt. Olympus in ancient Greece. Taung Kalat, a sheer rock that is a part of Mt. Popa, is festooned with nat temples like a Christmas tree - walking up the endless stairs, you essentially transit from one altar to another. Surrounding area balances it out with a number of Buddhist monasteries, although quite a few nat shrines are sprinkled around the base of Mt. Popa as well. Another Buddhist pagoda crowns Taung Kalat itself. Large festivals dedicated to nat take place on the mountain twice a year, and smaller ones may occur anytime. Aside from cultural interest, there are superb views, especially at sunset, lots of green nature, and some rare wildlife on the slopes of the mountain

© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Spirit faith

Theravada Buddhism may be the official religion of Myanmar, but for the mundane troubles of daily life, it is rather too philosophic. Following the Eightfold Path releases your soul from suffering in samsara, one man per family per generation ordained in a monastery takes care of the clan's joint karma, but when your buffalo falls sick, a more immediate solution is called for. Nat is the solution. Like in most religions positioned somewhere between sophisticated animism and polytheism, nat worship combines deified ancestors, nature spirits, and personified universal forces. A tree may harbor a nat inside, any person may become a nat after death (although significant spiritual achievements are usually required), but the main pantheon consists of 37 deities. Four of them claim Mt. Popa as their home.

© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Nat pwe

Animist cults seldom bother with binary morality - reward or punishment are the result of one's personal deal with the spirits, not obedience to some absolute set of rules. One great example is Ko Gyi Kyaw: a drinker, gambler, womanizer, lover of life and patron of arts, due to noble parentage and inherited wealth he never had to worry about tomorrow. Instead, he had an easy, exciting, totally hedonistic life, and transformed into a nat after his death. No price to pay! Now offerings to Ko Gyi Kyaw are made by those who wish to acquire great fortune or unique luck without moving a finger. Unlike most nat, who accept sacred flowers and incense, he prefers fried chicken and rice whiskey. But other gods also like a good performance and a fair bit of boozing, and so nat pwe, spirit festivals, are pompous, scenic, and visibly pagan. Transgender nat kadaw (mediums) dance for the deities, transmit pilgrims' prayers, drink, smoke, and dance again. Sometimes one of them gets possessed by a nat, with unpredictable consequences.

© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Practicalities

Mt. Popa is often visited as a day trip from Bagan. This could be done by local transport, but most tourists do not bother and just hire a car or join a tour. However, to explore the very scenic area, enjoy the sunset view, or witness a ceremony, one would have to stay at least for a couple of days. There are about half a dozen guesthouses at the foot of Mt. Popa, most of them quite expensive (the cheapest charged 20$ for a room in 2019). Many of the buses connecting cities in Central Myanmar pass by Mt. Popa, so it is not necessary to start from Bagan. The main festival, worshiping Mahagiri, the supreme god, usually falls at the end of December, while another one coincides with Thingyan - Burmese New Year. Being the abode of nat, the mountain attracts traditional healers and herbalists, who sell their potions during festivals - avoid buying wildlife products, such as bear bile and leopard cat feet. Taung Kalat, the temple rock, is infested with scores of obnoxious macaques - anything that is not attached to your body is very likely to be stolen. As you cannot use footwear in a temple, be ready to march up 777 stairs barefoot on monkey crap.

Mt. Popa, Central Myanmar
Mt. Popa, Central Myanmar
Mt Popa, Myanmar (Burma)

The author

Mark Levitin

Mark Levitin

I am Mark, a professional travel photographer, a digital nomad. For the last four years, I am based in Indonesia, spending here roughly half a year and travelling around Asia for the other half. Previously, I spent four years in Thailand, exploring it from all perspectives.

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