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Mount Popa/Taung Kalat, Burma’s Mt. Olympus

Mount Popa/Taung Kalat, Burma’s Mt. Olympus

If you want to visit one of the really fascinating places Burma has to offer Taung Kalat/Mount Popa in central Burma is the place to go. Alas, it is not anymore as much off the beaten track as it was 20, 15, or even 10 years ago, but still unique with a charm all its own. And when I say unique I mean this in the truest sense of the word. Something like this you will not find anywhere else.

Mount Popa is an extinct volcano nearly 5.000 feet/1.520 metre in height. It is located at the northern end of the Pegu Mountains – southeast of Bagan – in Kyaukpadaung Township, Mandalay Division and covered with forest a part of which is only recently grown. The name Popa is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Puppa’ what means flower. Subsequently, Mt. Popa means Mountain of Flowers or Flower Mountain.

Taung Kalat’s history began 554 B.C. when the volcano Mount Popa erupted for the last time. With an ear-splitting bang a basalt rock of gigantic dimensions separated itself from Mt. Popa. The piece came with a mighty thud to rest upside down after flying through the air for roughly 4.5 kilometres/2.8 miles in south-western direction. It is a solitary basalt peak of conical shape rising 737 metres/2.417 ft high into the sky. Its name: Taung Kalat.

Taung Kalat is located some 7 miles/11 kilometres north-east of Kyaukpadaung and 50 kilometre/31 miles south-east of Bagan. So, when you are in Bagan do not miss to visit Taung Kalat/Mt. Popa. The monastery of Taung Kalat situated on top of the rock formation is one of Burma’s most spectacular and sacred pilgrimage sites.

For the Burmese Taung Kalat is all about nats (spirits), their supernatural powers, offering and worshipping. These powerful nats can make or break your life depending on how much you believe in them and whether and how much they like you or not.

Legend has it that King Anawrahta of Pagan (1044-1077 A.D.) had a fast-runner by the name of Byatta (a former seaman of Indian descent from Thaton) who had to fetch fresh flowers for Anawrahta’s palace from Popa several times daily. One day Byatta fell in love with Mai Wunna, the Lady of Flowers, a beautiful flower-eating ogress of Popa. Unfortunately, this was something he had, finally, to pay with his life for because he increasingly neglected his duties over his relationship with Mai Wunna and was therefore executed by Anawrahta.

Byatta and Mai Wunna became a couple and had soon two sons named Shwe Phyin Gyi (Big Gold Pot) and Shwe Phyin Ngai (Small Gold Pot). These ‘shiny’ names they were given because King Anawrahta gave his fast-runner two gold pots for washing the afterbirth of the babies – a big one for the older baby and a small one for the younger (baby). But the two brothers grew up into wild, irresponsible young men who were eventually put to death for neglect of duty at the construction of a pagoda. There are however people who maintain that the two brothers were victims of a palace intrigue because Mandalay Bodaw the brother’s adviser did not inform them that each of them had to offer one brick for the construction of the Taungbyon Pagoda. When Anawrahta found out about this Mandalay Bodaw was put to death and became the nat ‘Lord grandfather of Mandalay’.

Whatever the reason for the Shwe Phyin Brothers’ being executed might have been, you need not feel sorry for the them because they have as the ‘brother nats’ become objects of worship to a lot of people. Most of them keep in their shrine rooms a tray with a coconut, one or two hands of bananas, a strip or two of red cloth and a few other accessories as offerings to the two brothers. Annual Festivals (nat pwes) are also held in their honour at several places in Burma. The most famous Nat festivals are the Popa/Taung Kalat and the Taungbyon Nat festival; other festivals are held in e.g. Pyay and Bago. Taungbyon is located 30 miles north of Mandalay. To take part in the festivals is a must for those who want to experience the very special feeling created by the ambience of a nat pwe and properly study spirit-worship in Burma. The Shwe Phyin Brothers’ rise in status did of course also raise their mother’s (Mai Wunna) status. She is worshipped as the Queen Mother of Popa.

But there is a domestic spirit who is senior even to them. His name is Pabe Maung Tint Dai – Mr. Handsome – the blacksmith. He lived in the age of Tagaung a long time before Anawrahta’s Bagan came into being. He was physically so strong that even the King feared for his own safety and played a ruse to get rid of the strong man. He made one of Maung Tint Dai’s sisters – Daw Saw Me Ya a.k.a. Shwe Myetnha, ‘Golden Face’ – a queen and sent for him promising rich rewards that a royal brother-in-law deserved. When the unsuspecting blacksmith arrived at the royal city he was promptly captured, tied to a golden champa tree (Magnolia champaca, in Sanskrit champica) and burnt to death. When his sister, the queen, saw what happened, she also jumped into the fire and laid down her life at the side of her brother.

Their spirits resided from then on in that champa tree and hexed the people and animals that came under it. At last, the King did not see any other way than to have the tree uprooted and thrown into the Ayeyawaddy River. The tree drifted slowly southwards down the river and got to Bagan during the reign of king Thinlegyaung.

As soon as king Thinlegyaung received the message about the tree he had it salvaged and the trunk sculpted into the figures of the unfortunate brother and sister by his master wood carvers. Once the statues were completed the king enshrined them at Taung Kalat and from then on he visited Taung Kalat/Popa with his retinue once a year to pay his respects to the two spirits. That was how Mt. Popa/Taung Kalat came to be the undisputed centre of nat (spirit) worship in Burma.

The blacksmith Pabe Maung Tint Dai a.k.a. Mr. Handsome, is since being enshrined with his sister on top of Taung Kalat ruling Mt. Popa and Taung Kalat. He is bearing the title ‘ Domestic Lord of the Great Mountain’ and worshipped by many households all over the country. However, worshippers never offer candlelight to him out of consideration for the way he met his tragic end long ago; they are convinced that he does not want to have anything to do with fire anymore.

Besides being the centre of nat or spirit worship in Burma, Mt. Popa is worth a visit for another rather unexpected, but very important reason – it is since about 25 years shaping up as a battle-station in the fight against environmental decay, which is threatening to engulf our mother earth in the near future.

Mt. Popa lies smack in the centre of the Burma’s dry belt, a region well-known for its scanty rainfall and scarcity of water. The result is that it is surrounded by vast areas of semi-desert, which are expanding continuously and are threatening to develop into full-blown deserts if nothing is done against it. Hence, the with trees covered Mt. Popa is an oasis in the desert-like central Burma; a green highland amid yellowish-brown plains and stronghold against desertification. In 1991 I was told that 99 springs were once here but that many of them had dried up due to deforestation. However, some of them are re-vitalised since an area of 49.63 square miles (129 square km) has been designated as Popa Mountain National Park in 1989.

Standing out like an emerald on a gold setting, Mt. Popa has inspired feelings of awe and romance since time immemorial. One of the earliest extant Burmese poems which are very small in number is a very beautiful one dealing with it. The mountain was generally held in great respect by the people even before the advent of the Domestic-Lord-of-the-Great-Mountain and the Shwe-Phyin-Brothers as it has been believed to be a special abode of nats and a haunt of other supernatural beings like Weizzars and Zawgyis. The Burmese still say: “Love the Buddha, fear the nats.”

You are heartily invited to climb with me the 777 steps up to the holy grail of Burmese nat worshipper on top of the platform. Let us go.

769 puff, 770 puff, 771 puff, 772 puff, 773 puff, 774 puff, 775 puff, 776 puff, 777 puff; after 30 minutes uphill we have climbed the last step and have, finally, made it up to the summit.

Beginning at the main entrance with two lion-like mythical creatures (chinthes) that are guarding it and then climbing the partly pretty steep stairs leading up to the Taung Kalat temples and pagodas situated right at the mountain’s top we have passed countless shops lining the steps. They are selling e.g. clothing, wood carvings, Tanaka, fruits, monkey food, flowers and souvenirs of all kind. One of their main articles are Zagawa (yellow magnolia) blossoms in clear glass bottles of different sizes in which the yellow blossoms are preserved with ‘Popa water’. It is said that this water is preserving the blossoms eternally and this might be true because my bottled Zagawa blossoms are looking (after removing the dust from the bottle) still fresh after more than two decades.

And all the way up we were accompanied by Popa monkeys. We were lucky because I was warned from my previous visits. That’s why we did not try to hand-feed them (like the people who are living here do because the monkeys know them well), had our shoulder bags (in which we had put our hats) closed and have kept safe distance so they did not steal anything from us and did not injure us.

These monkeys are Macaques (old world monkeys) that constitute a genus ‘Macaca’ of the subfamily ‘Cercopithecinae’. No one should ever forget that they are still almost wild animals, just enjoying getting easy food but are otherwise as unpredictable and dangerous as their wild-roaming fellow-macaques; especially when they are carrying babies. If you are not careful they are stealing everything from you that is not firmly fixed; from things that are hanging out of your pockets, baskets, shoulder backs, etc. to hats, caps, cameras, food items that your are holding in your hands, or sun glasses or glasses. If you try to hold on to your possessions they may fight you; you better let go of them. They are extremely fast and cheeky. Do not underestimate them ever.

Having arrived at the top we are now ready to visit and see the impressive small temples’ and pagodas’ exterior as well as interior while strolling along the narrow walking passages. There are to see the Popa main pagoda, other larger pagodas, mini pagodas/stupas, shrines of several sizes and of course the Taung Kalat monastery. Also the great Min Mahagiri Offering Hall with the 37 nats (spirits), the Mt. Popa Bo Min Khaung Statue, the Mt. Popa bronze bells and several beautiful Buddha images made of marble and bronze (gold?).

The 37 nats we can see here are:

1. Thagyamin, Indra or Sakra (King of Nats), 2. Min Mahagiri, Maung Tin Dai, ‘Mr. Handsome’ (Lord of the Great Mountain), 3. Hna ma daw gyi, Saw Me Ya, Shwe Myetnha ‘Golden Face’ (Great Royal Sister of Mahagiri), 4. Byatta (The Royal Messenger to Anawrahta) 5. Mai Wunna (Popa Medaw, Queen Mother of Popa). 6. Shwe Nabe (Lady with Golden Sides, Maung Tin Dai’s wife?), 7. Thon Ban Hla, (Lady Beautiful In Three Ways, Maung Tin Dai’s younger sister?), 8. Taungoo Mingaung (Governor of Toungoo), 9. Mintara (King Hsinbyushin, King of Innwa), 10. Thandawgan (The Royal Messenger to Taungoo Minkaung), 11. Shwe Nawrahta (The young prince drowned by King Shwenankyawshin), 12. Aung Zaw Ma Gyi (Lord of the White Horse), 13. Ngazi Shin (King of Pinya (1343-1350 A.D.), Lord of the five white elephants), 14. Aungbinle Hsinbyushin (Lord of the white elephant from Aungbinle), 15. Taungmagyi (Lord of Due South), 16. Maung Minshin (Lord of the North), 17. Shindaw (Lord Novice of Innwa), 18. Nyaung-gyin (Old man of the Banyan tree), 19. Tabinshwehti (King of Burma between 1531-50 A.D.), 20. Shwe Sit Thin (Prince, son of Saw Hnit), 21. Medaw Shwedaw (Lady Golden Words), 22. Maung Po Tu (Shan Tea Merchant), 23. Yun Bayin (King of Chiang Mai, King of the Yun), 24. Mandalay Bodaw (Lord grandfather of Mandalay), 25. Shwebyin Naungdaw (Elder Brother Inferior Gold), 26. Shwebyin Nyidaw (Younger Brother Inferior Gold), 27. Mintha Maungshin (Grandson of King Alaung Sithu), 28. Htibyusaung (Lord of the White Umbrella, Anawrahta’s father), 29. Htibyusaung Medaw (Lady of the White Umbrella, Anawrahta’s grandmother), 30. Pareinma Shin Mingaung (The Usurper Mingaung), 31. Min Sithu (King Alaung Sithu), 32. Min Kyawzwa, U Min Kyaw, Ko Gyi Kyaw (Prince Kyawzwa), 33. Myaukpet Shinma (Lady of the North), 34. Anauk Mibaya (Queen of the Western Palace, King Kyanzittha’s wife), 35. Shingon (Lady Humpback), 36. Shigwa (Lady Bandy-legs, sister of Mandalay Bodaw), 37. Shin Mi Hne (Little lady with the flute).

However, out of the 37 nats that are displayed here only four, namely U Maung Tin Dai, Lord of the Great Mountain (Mr. Handsome), Daw Saw Me Ya (Sister Golden Face), Byatta and Mai Wunna (Popa Medaw) have their official place of residence on top of Taung Kalat.

And there is, last but not least, the breath-taking view from the top of Taung Kalat on the surrounding area. Since the weather is good today we can see behind Bagan the Yoma Mountain range stretching from north to south along the Ayeyawaddy River.

Before we leave the temple platform I want to tell you who Bo Min Khaung, the small statue of a man on a horse we have just passed on our way out, was or better is. I say, “who he is” and not “who he was”, because the Burmese people deem him a holy man and do strongly believe that he is still alive and on his way to Enlightenment. The state of enlightenment he has so far refused to attain because he wants to live as long as it takes that Arein Madeiya, the new Buddha also called Meitreya comes. Bo Min Khaung used to be a human being just like we are but actually he was not simply a man; he was a Weizzar and worshipped in many Burmese homes. These Weizzars have supernatural powers. What this means to Burmese people may become clear when you understand that the term ‘Weizzar’ means in Pali wisdom. Weizzars, so it is believed, can fly in the air, dive into the earth, walk on water, create multiple bodies, be at many places at the same time, hear sounds that are very far away, can see things that are far, far away or very, very small, read other peoples’ minds, see matters as they really are and not as they seem to be, materialise things out of thin air, and so on. There are people who say that they were told about Bo Min Khaung by people that were close to them (such as their fathers, elder brothers or teachers) who claimed to have personally met him (Bo Min Khaung). Well, to me (not being overly superstitious and/or animist) all of this seems to be somewhat strange but be that as it may, now you know who Bo Min Khaung is.

By the by, Popa also played an important role in the history of Burma as well as in the history and presence of hermits and Ari monks. They were extremely powerful, great exponents of alchemy and magic; worshipped nats and represented a mixture of Animism and Buddhism called Ari Buddhism. However, the form of Buddhism they preached and practised has virtually nothing to do with what is widely known and practised as Buddhism in all its various forms.

I hope you have enjoyed our Taung Kalat/Mt. Popa excursion; I, for one, did.