Tuesday, July 25, 2017

A raucous weekend in the country

A Natkadaw, or nat spirit medium, dances at the Taungbyone festival on August 21. Photo: Christopher DavyA Natkadaw, or nat spirit medium, dances at the Taungbyone festival on August 21. Photo: Christopher Davy

Wearing a frilly dress and heavy makeup, the man strides down the aisle clutching a golden bowl in one hand and a golden cock in the other. His audience is made up mainly of old ladies, and when he starts to dance they go ballistic, deploying clenched fists and knobbly elbows in the crush to reach the front of the crowd.

Forget household coconuts and small tree shrines – this is nat worship, Taungbyone-style.

Every year from the eighth waxing day of Wagaung to the full moon, pilgrims, revellers, vendors and cross-dressing performers known as Natkadaw flock to Taungbyone village in Mandalay for an event that’s part carnival, part bazaar and part Rocky Horror religious festival.

At the festival, the nat brothers Shwe Phyin Gyi and Shwe Phyin Ngeh are appeased through offerings of food and flowers, and beguiled by the shamanic dancing of flamboyantly costumed, usually male performers. Elsewhere in the carnival, thousands of people snack on rice and wheat treats and trade in market kitsch: tshirts, faux-gold medallions, imitation automatic weapons and vuvuzela-like noisemakers.

The queues to touch flowers to the nat statues and lay bananas underneath them wind through the shrines, but people also take part in more traditionally Buddhist homage-paying.

“I’ve been coming [to the festival] for over 20 years to pay homage to the Buddha,” says Daw Nyein, a 65-year old woman praying at a shrine. “I come with my family – the trip is over 100 miles (160 kilometres).”

Another shrine is more like a rave, with young men jumping up and down in the outer areas and a Natkadaw dancing down a caged-off catwalk that runs through the middle. The men in the crowd wave bunches of flowers above their heads, occasionally throwing them up in the air. “I’ve been dancing for three hours!” one yells. It’s 11am and the floor of the shrine has already turned into a swamp of flower pulp, sweat and what I imagine is betel nut juice.

The caged-off area is guarded by a policeman, who attempts to regulate the flood of people trying to sit in the inner aisle where the Natkadaw is dancing. The catwalk contains about 20 to 30 people, including five sweaty officers keeping order. As the Natkadaw paces up and down the catwalk, writhing his arms and twirling his props, people shove K1000 notes into his bowl and pin them onto his costume – an offering for the nat spirits. Intermittently he throws bunches of K200 notes into the air and the crowd dive to the floor as one, policemen and civilians alike scrambling for the cash.

“Dancing at this festival is always something I’ve wanted to do,” the Natkadaw tells me afterwards. His name is Aung Shan and he’s been performing here for 30 years. “It started as a hobby. I feel happy when I dance but I’m always afraid of dropping the bowl. I never have, though.”

As the music picks up, his dance gets more energetic and the crowd gets even more excited. At one point, he pulls a policeman into the aisle and starts a sensuous tango, though the cop quickly sits back down, furiously wiping his face and wistfully rubbing his baton.

Taungbyone is a hard beat for the 145 policemen and security guards stationed there.

“Thieves from all over the country come here,” moans U Tin Yu at the police station set up for the festival.

“Look at this,” he says, pulling a collection of meticulously bagged and tagged jewellery out of his pocket. “All of this was stolen today. Drunkenness is not a problem. We just spend the whole day standing still, spotting thieves.”

Outside the shrines, people take refuge in numerous tea shops or hunt for curios. Some shops are just a tablecloth on the mud, while others are larger and come complete with a stereo system. There are also a couple of well-funded cigarette stalls, with giant banners, sideshow games, and girls in tight shirts giving out free samples.

Aye Myint, 45, has a small table with a variety of seeds. Three are used in traditional medicine, while one large, circular seed is used as a toy – nature’s own Pog.

“I’ve been selling these for 40 years,” she said. “I started with my father when I was just a child. We only sell traditional medicine at Taungbyone though, at other times of the year people don’t want to buy.”

At the back of the festival is an animal circus, with two giant snakes and eight chained monkeys. The owner bangs his stick and a monkey starts praying; the owner bangs his stick and a monkey walks with a walking stick; the owner bangs his stick and a monkey stands on a bottle.

“We bought the monkeys from villagers about eight years ago,” said the owner, casually poking a monkey with his stick.

“We travel around the country with them, but this is our first time at Taungbyone. We got the idea after we saw there was a Ferris wheel here. That made us think there was room for our show.”

The somewhat rusted Ferris wheel is the biggest attraction at the festival and is powered by a crew of young, shirtless men who spin it by swinging off the carriages and climbing from spoke to spoke. The effect makes it look more like a human hamster-wheel.

The sideshows and shops are popular throughout the week, but on August 21 – the final day of the ceremony – the vast majority of the crowd masses around the nat shrines.

On the morning, the tree-cutting ceremony takes place – a tradition that involves the chopping down of a sapling and a procession around the festival. During the procession, everyone tries to force their way to the front, with the crowd dissipating only when police come through with whistles and batons.

After the procession, people seek out the stage of their favourite Natkadaw for a smaller, more intimate performance. Many of the Natkadaw have garnered fans and patrons over the years who help fund the stages, the makeup and the fancy dresses, which cost between K400,000 and K500,000. At one of the stages, a man is bowing and whispering his prayers to a Natkadaw. By the end of the prayer he is close to tears, and the Natkadaw places a reassuring hand on his shoulder before resuming his dance.

“He was praying for his business to go well, and to be rich,” says the Natkadaw, U Cho Tuu Taing. “Most people pray to me for good business.”