A nat kadaw performs in Taungbyone.
Pic: Douglas Long
THIS week marks the start of one of Myanmar’s loudest and
most colourful celebrations, the week-long Taungbyone Nat Festival
that attracts spirit worshippers from throughout Myanmar as well
as curious tourists from around the world.
Indeed, such is the boisterousness of events in Taungbyone that
tour guide U Myo Thant said the festival can be heard long before
it can be seen.
“Taungbyone is about 10 miles north of Mandalay and the
road gets crowded with people going to festival long before you
reach the town,” he said. “And then when you’re
still five minutes away you can start to hear the sound of traditional
Myanmar orchestras playing nat songs.”
These raucous orchestras – featuring an array of drums,
gongs, cymbals and clappers – provide the soundtrack for
dances by nat kadaw, spirit mediums who provide their followers
with advice and predictions for the future.
The festival – which lasts eight days leading up to the
full moon day of the lunar month of Wagaung (this year from August
9 to 16) – is held to honour the Taungbyone Brothers, Min
Gyi and Min Galay.
shrines like this one abound at the annual Taungbyone festival.
Pic: Douglas Long
The brothers are believed to be powerful spirits who can bring
luck and prosperity to their worshippers, or who can also bring
danger and ill fortune to those who do not show the proper respect.
Normally a sleepy Mandalay Division town, Taungbyone during
the festival is transformed into a crowded fairground packed with
vendors selling food, clothing and other items, as well as with
a maze of temporary shelters where nat worshippers set up temporary
shrines to Min Gyi and Min Galay.
These shrines are decorated with red cloth and feature altars
where offerings to the spirits are placed – everything from
bunches of bananas to bottles of rum and whiskey.
“The whole area is like a circus with dances, music, magic
shows, fortune tellers and tattoo shops. The first time I went
there, it seemed like a different world to me,” said U Myo
Thant, who works as a French and English tour guide.
But he said Taungbyone was more than just a nat festival.
“Many people come to offer food, flowers and shawls to the
Taungbyone Brothers but the festival is also a happy social occasion
where anyone, regardless of race or religion, can enjoy themselves,”
However, U Myo Thant said the festival’s main attraction
was the dozens of temporary performance spaces where traditional
orchestras play and nat kadaw dance in front of spirit shrines.
“The mediums accept offerings from the audience on behalf
of the spirits and in return answer people’s questions about
their futures or about business affairs or social problems,”
He said it was quite enthralling to see the nat kadaw –
often men wearing traditional female garb and makeup – dance
along to the music of a traditional Myanmar orchestra.
“Some spectators watch the performances for only a few
moments and some watch all day long,” he said.
The story behind the festival is every bit as interesting as
the spectacle, and dates back to the days of King Anawrahta, the
monarch of the Bagan dynasty from 1044 to 1077 AD.
King Anawrahta had five knights – Kyansittha, Nga Htwe
Yuu, Nyaung Oo Hpee, Nga Lone Let Hpe and Byatta – whom
he treated like sons and whom he praised for their bravery, loyalty
and bold exploits.
Byatta was given the important task of making the 30-mile trip
each day from Bagan to Mount Popa to gather flowers for the king.
In time Byatta fell in love with a flower-eating ogress who lived
on Mount Popa named Mei Wunna. The couple gave birth to two sons,
Shwe Hpyin Gyi and Shwe Hpyin Galay.
When Byatta suffered an untimely death, Anawrahta adopted the
two brothers, who grew up to become great warriors and fought
side-by-side with the king against the Mongols near the Chinese
On the way back from the battle the king stopped at Taungbyone,
where he decided to build a pagoda. He ordered everyone in his
army to contribute a single brick to the structure. When the two
brothers disobeyed, the angry king ordered them to be executed.
Since the brothers died violent deaths, their souls could not
rest and they became nats. As Anawrahta was preparing to leave
Taungbyone, the spirits of Shwe Hpyin Gyi and Shwe Hpyin galay
appeared and asked him for something in compensation for their
The king, remorseful that he had ordered the executions, built
a nat shrine for them next to the pagoda and decreed that the
local villagers should hold an annual festival to pay homage to
the brothers, who became known as Min Gyi and Min Galay.
U Myo Thant said that the space left by the two missing bricks
is still visible on the entrance arch of the pagoda.
He said foreigners who wish to visit the festival can easily
arrange trans-portation from Mandalay.
“There is no accommodation for foreigners in Taungbyone
so a visit to the festival is best done as a day trip. Visitors
can hire a taxi or go by bus in the morning, spend the day enjoying
the festival, and return to their hotel in Mandalay by evening,”