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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

Melo Pearl

Melo Pearl

The world’s rarest and most precious pearls do not come from oysters, but instead from very large sea snails of the species Melo melo.  Melo melo snails lives in the tropical waters of southeast Asia and range from Burma down around Malysia and up into the Philippines.  The snails are huge marine gastropods which live by hunting other smaller snails along the shallow underwater coasts of the warm Southeast Asia seas.

Melo melo snail (Melo melo)

Melo melo snail (Melo melo)

Melo melo is a very lovely snail with a smooth oval shell of orange and cream and with zebra stripes on its soft body.  The shell lacks an operculum (the little lid which some snails use to shut their shells) and has a round apex as opposed to the more normal spiral spike. This gives the Melo melo snail’s shell a very aerodynamic lozenge-like appearance (although living specimens look more like alien battlecraft thanks to the large striped feet and funnels).  The animals grow to be from 15 to 35 centimeters in length (6 inches to a foot) although larger specimens have been reported.  The shell is known locally as the bailer shell because fishermen use the shells to bail out their canoes and small boats.

Melo melo at Birmingham's National Sea Life Centre (with keeper)

Melo melo at Birmingham’s National Sea Life Centre (with keeper)

Melo pearls form only rarely on the snails and are due to irritating circumstances unknown to science.  No cultivation mechanism exists (which explains the astronomically high prices).  A single large melo pearl can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars or more in Asia.  The pearls are usually egg-shaped or oval (although perfectly round specimens are known) and they can measure up to 20-30mm in diameter.  Not nacreous (like pearls from oysters & abalones), these valuable objects have a porcelain-like transparent shine.  Melo pearls are brown, cream, flesh, and orange (with the brighter orange colors being most valuable).

Melo pearls with Melo melo shell

Melo pearls with Melo melo shell

Apart from the fact that they come from a large orange predatory sea snail, what I like most about melo pearls is the extent to which they evoke the celestial.  It is hard not to look at the shining ovals and orbs without thinking of the sun, Mars, Makemake, and Haumea.  Rich jewelry aficionados of East Asia, India, and the Gulf states must agree with me.  It is difficult to conceive of paying the price of a nice house for a calcium carbon sphere from an irritated/diseased snail, unless such pearl spoke of unearthly beauty and transcendent longing.

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