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 how to make wood in little alchemy
, 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.