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In Burma's Spirit World, the Pwe's the Thing

By Stephen Brookes
In Pathein, Myanmar for Asia Times

Preening daintily and cooing baby talk, the chubby transvestite minces across the floor and tosses a handful of candy bars into the crowd. "You're going to find something you've lost," she lisps to an attractive, well-dressed woman who is bending toward her, hands clasped in prayer. The transvestite's voice is high and squeaky, like an infant's, and her eyes are rolling crazily under her false eyelashes. "Something you thought was gone," she whispers, "will come back to you."

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                                                                                          Stephen Brookes
A likely prediction? The praying woman, who disappears back into the crowd, thinks so. As far as she's concerned, it came directly from the mouth of a baby girl named Ma Ne --  who's been dead for something like nine hundred years.

For Ma Ne is a nat  -- one of of the thousands of mischievous, powerful spirits who inhabit Myanmar's spectral netherworld. And the medium,  a 43-year old man who for most of his life has dressed and lived as a woman, is one of the thousands of transvestites around the country who make a living as nat kadaws,  or nat wives -- professional oracles to the spirit world.

Myanmar is a country rich in supernatural beings; ghosts, witches, ogres and demons all wander the landscape, and are a part of almost everyone's daily life. But the most influential of all are the nats, and for centuries -- well predating the arrival of Theraveda Buddhism in the 13th Century --  a rich, complex and highly ceremonial cult has existed around them.

The nats themselves are mischievous creatures, difficult and hard to handle. Most died violent deaths which consigned them to an unhappy afterlife in limbo, where they're considered to be petulant, capricious, violent and jealous. There are thousands of them; no one's quite sure how many, and an exact count may be impossible. But the most powerful make up a group known as the 37 Nats, and each of these is an individual, identifiable person, with his own myth -- often comic, usually bizarre -- surrounding his death.

There's the great King Tabinshweti, for example. When he was alive he united all of Myanmar, but became a nat after being assassinated while sitting in an outhouse, suffering from dysentery. (Dysentery sufferers still pay homage to him.) Another nat was a politician who tried to flee from an angry king by jumping on a marble elephant and using magic to bring it alive. Tragically, the magic somehow failed.

Given their penchant for cruel tricks and unruly behavior, most people consider it best to have nothing to do with them; offer them with gifts from time to time, but otherwise avoid them. But sometimes the nats need to be propitiated, and that calls for putting on an elaborate ceremony called a pwe.  And to arrange that, a medium -- a nat kadaw -- must be consulted.

 

On a drab, dusty road on the outskirts of Pathein, a port city a few hours west of Yangon, sits a ramshackle house with a faded blue sign over the door. The place seems abandoned; a small pagoda and a few shops line the empty street, and a few yards away, a rusting sign proclaiming "Down with the Minions of Colonialism" clanks sullenly in the hot breeze.

But inside, amid a clutter of small golden nat figures, trunks full of silks, and tables cluttered with false eyelashes and make-up boxes, half a dozen delicate young creatures are rouging their cheeks and squeezing into dresses, chattering happily with each other. "Help me with this," pleads one, fumbling with a bra clasp, as others fuss with their hair. All of them are either dancers or nat mediums. And all of them are men.

"I think that, maybe, we were created just for this job," grins Zaw Zaw, the 42-year-old head of the troupe, as he sprays a little perfume on the nape of his neck and adjusts his blouse. "The nats love us. And there aren't a lot of other places where we fit in."

And in fact, while most of Myanmar's nat kadaws are women, for centuries a fair percentage have been homosexual men, transvestites or both. The profession has always provided a haven for those outside the mainstream; for those, in fact, like Zaw Zaw.

"When I was a child, I would dress up and play as a nat wife," he says. "My parents weren't very happy, but there wasn't much they could do about it. And later, the nats came to me in dreams, and told me they were going to take care of me."

Now, heavily rouged and perpetually smiling, he's a happy man. One of the top mediums in Pathein, Zaw Zaw heads a full time group of 26 people, including other nat kadaws, attendants (known as nat kyun, or nat slaves), dancers, a singer and a small orchestra. They perform almost every day, he says, putting on pwes in peoples' homes that often last two or three days. And the fee? "It depends on what they can afford," he says, smiling.

 

As Zaw Zaw and his troupe adjust their costumes, the musicians outside are setting up their drums and gongs, and an assistant is setting out bowls of coconuts and bananas -- offerings to the nats -- along the edge of the area where the pwe is to be held. There's no stage -- the pwe takes place on mats laid on the ground, and the audience takes seats on the ground, wherever they can find room.

Earlier, a white and red cloth roof had been raised on bamboo poles over the area, and a table laid with nat food: two roasted chickens, one large cooked shrimp, a plateful of dried shrimp and half a dozen bottles of Grolsch Premium Lager. Little colored lights have been strung across the ceiling. And along one side, a collection of golden nat figures has been set up, each about two feet high and distinctly different from the next; among them are scattered masks and hats the nat kadaws will use for prophecying.

 It's the end of the day, and as dusk falls, people happen by, stop and decide to stay. Pwes are never announced to the public, but everyone is welcome, and sometimes hundreds of people will crowd in to watch, drawn by the music and the lights. It's usually women and children who attend; men generally profess to not to care.  

And suddenly, almost casually, the pwe begins. The orchestra has been playing a sort of overture as the crowd assembled, and now the troupe's singer comes out carefully into the center of the crowd, picks up the microphone, and begins to sing.

It's strange, unearthly. The young girl stands almost motionless, her voice penetrating, the colored lights glowing around her. She sings a song to praise the nats and to call them, and one by one the dancers come out of the house, garishly made up and costumed, and kneel facing the wall of statues. The music, slow and rhythmical, turns into a strange and incantatory song as the dancers sway, waving eugenia leaves in the air and offering bowls of fruit to the spirits. It's the handmaiden's dance, the dance of the nat slaves.

One by one, women in the audience come up to him and pin money to his headscarf. He gazes at them mockingly, wavering on his feet, then starts to speak to them, as they clasp their hands and bow. To one he promises good fortune. Another one's husband will get over his illness. He speaks intensely and intimately, growling a drunken rush of words to the women in a low, gutteral voice.

nat_kadaws4WEB.jpgMeanwhile, the attendants stand by, fanning him and passing him a bottle of Mandalay Rum, which he motions for from time to time. He tips his head back and drinks blindly from the bottle, most of it spilling down his face. He leers at the women, gestures for a cigarette, imparts more secrets.     

As suddenly as it started, the trance begins to fade. The music stumbles, and the attendants rush toward him to steady him. He turn to the wall of nat statues, trembles violently with his hands together, and the trance is past.

"Being possessed by the nat is wonderful," says Zaw Zaw later. "You're unconscious just for a moment, then it's like something has taken you over. You know what's going on, but..." He searches for the word. "It's called zan win in Myanmar -- where you're totally caught up in something, totally immersed."

As the pwe continues that night and then picks up again the next morning, the pageantry continues. One after another, more nats possess their mediums: Ma Ne, the baby nat, appears, as does Min Mahagiri, the king of the nats, and the twin Taungbyon brothers. Each has nat its own music, its own dance, carefully preserved down the centuries.

From time to time, the nat attendants, or sometimes the people sponsoring the pwe, will toss handfuls of money or candy into the air, which the audience grabs for wildly.
 
There are ceremonial offerings of food to the nats; chickens are paraded around on the end of short golden swords, and at one point a huge slab of meat is hung from a rope while the dancers swoop and flutter around it, fingers curved delicately out.

And then, as the pwe is drawing to a close, two middle-aged women in the audience suddenly get up and begin to dance. While the nat kadaws seemed professional, even a bit contrived in their trances, these women are different. They're wearing drab everyday clothes, not glittering robes. Their movements are wild, arms thrashing, and the attendants move in carefully to help them, tying strings around their waists so their longyis won't fall off.  

The music picks up, and the dancing intensifies. The women have their eyes closed, and turn their faces up, mouths open, so the attendants can fan them and give them rum. They dance madly with ecstatic expressions, shouting wildly and beating their feet on the ground, motioning blindly for cigarettes and dropping them, falling to the ground, flailing to the wild beating of the drums as the dancing girls dance around them, thumbs curved out, eyes intense.

Suddenly, they stop, and the audience stares at them as they collapse with exhaustion, looking stunned. Something has happened. The crowd is still. The nats have appeared.

 

Posted on Friday, April 14, 2006 at 09:18PM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | Comments1 Comment

Reader Comments (1)

I don't believe in all this stuff but there are certain myths that the most intelligent ones end up believing .
November 2, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterbeco baby carrier

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