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The dominant religion of Burma/Myanmar is Theravāda Buddhism.  But there is a pervasive older animism which lies just beneath the surface of Burmese Buddhism.  This ancient folk religion centers around the worship of “nats”, spirit beings which can be found in natural things.  Nats are complex and take on different forms and meanings depending on local custom and belief (although lesser nats tend to be tricksome and irascible).  Human beings can become nats, particularly if they die gruesome violent deaths. The worship of nats takes various individualistic shamanistic forms, but the universal practice throughout the land involves placating the nats with little shrines and offerings of bananas and coconuts.

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The stolid Buddhist monarch, King Anawrahta (1044-1077 AD) was frustrated with the widespread worship of nats and he tried to stamp it out with royal edicts and persecutions, yet people merely worshiped on the sly, replacing their nat statues with coconuts (which could always be passed off as, well, just coconuts).   Anawrahta realized he could not eradicate the people’s folk belief, so he formalized it by introducing 37 greater nats and giving them a chief with a Buddhist name. Additionally he tried to tie the 37 nats closer to Buddhist iconography and practice.  Yet the ancient traditions still persisted and the 37 nats (who endure as a national pantheon to this day) are not entirely convincing as Buddhist devas, which is how they tend to be portrayed).  For one thing, almost all of the 37 died in terrible carnage (which is known as “green death” in Burmese).  Likewise, they don’t quite seem to have the divine perfection and blissful superhuman happiness/tranquility of devas or Bodhisattvas.

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Shingon “Lady Hunchback” from Sir Richard Carnac Temple’s “The Thirty Seven Nats”

For example, this is Shingon (ရှင်ကုန်း) aka “Lady Humpback.”  She was a “maid” of the handsome womanizing King Thihathu of Ava, but it sort of seems like she was maybe a concubine or a sorceress since she accompanied the monarch in battle.  She was on her way back to the capital Ava when she “died”…which also seems like a euphemism (?) for being poisoned (Thihathu was also murdered with arrows at the order of the beautiful evil queen Shin Bo-Me).  After her “death”. Lady Humpback transcended into a nat, but, despite her godhood, she thereafter walked bent over in agony with her arms swaying lifelessly.  If I apotheosized into a Burmese deity. this is not how I would want to be!  Does anyone out there have a more comprehensive version of this tale?  I think I am going to have to go to the New York Public library and look at actual books to find out more, but, even so, I get the feeling the real story might not be written in any language other than Burmese.

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A nat shrine of bananas and coconuts

Mask, Boa, Late 19th/early 20th c., wood, kaolin, and pigment, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Mask, Boa, Late 19th/early 20th c., wood, kaolin, and pigment, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The Boa people (AKA Baboa, Bwa, Ababua) live in the northern savannah region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Today, as in the past, the majority of Boa make a living by hunting, fishing, and subsistence farming. They speak a Bantu language which shares the same name(s) as their tribe. The Boa once had a reputation as fearsome warriors. When Azande spearmen from southern Sudan invaded Boa lands during the nineteenth century, the Boa successfully repelled the invasion. Subsequently, in 1903 the Boa rebelled against Belgian colonial occupation. Even though they were woefully underequipped and poorly armed, the warriors stood up to the industrialized Belgian forces for seven years. After the rebellion, extensive missionary proselytizing caused the tribe to convert to Christianity.

Boa Mask (carved wood, contemporary)

Boa Mask (carved wood, paint, contemporary)

The Boa are internationally famous for making exquisite wood carvings—particularly eerily beautiful masks and harps with human faces. Original carvings from the pre-Christian era are especially rare and precious. These works usually portray ferocious faces painted with black and white checkerboard patterns. Sadly, the ritual meaning of such masks is now unclear–presumably they were sacred to secret societies or used in the magical/religious ceremonies of warrior cults. Since the original religious cultural context is lost, we are forced to regard these masks solely as art objects—and what spectacular art they are! The mysterious black and white patterns, the feral mouths, and the delicately carved owl-like faces all point to a syncretism between humankind and the wider living world. The animistic masks symbolize not just the spiritual forces of the living animals and plants but also the forces of the night, the river, the weather, the ancestors, and the underworld. To put on such a mask would be to subsume oneself in a vast spiritual totality—to convene with vast forces beyond the purview of a single human life…maybe…or maybe they had an entirely different meaning to their makers. They are a beautiful dark enigma.

Mask, Boa, Late 19th/early 20th c., wood, kaolin, and pigment, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Mask, Boa, Late 19th/early 20th c., wood, kaolin, and pigment, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

 

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