Mount Popa Geopark and its Aesthetic Values
by Than Htun (Myanmar Geosciences Society)
Under the National Geopark Committee, National Geopark Executive Committee has been striving to establish, by the collaborative effort of Myanmar Geosciences Society, Forest Department and Geology Departments of various Universities, the first National Geopark in Mount Popa region. With the approval of Union Minister for Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation Ministry and Chief Minister of Mandalay Region, Geopark field party started reconnaissance survey and assessment in Mount Popa Area in December 2016. The geology, vertebrate paleontology, paleobotany, forestry, cultural, and archaeology sites have been selected for sites in a total area of 1964 sq.km, the whole Kyaukpadaung Township, NyaungU District in Mandalay Region.
Mount Popa seems to be a great mountain because it stands solitary, almost in the centre of the plain of Myingyan. It has stood sentinel over the varying fortunes of the Burmese people, whose first settlements in the middle Irrawaddy valley wherein the Myingyan plain. It is an extinct volcano whose subterranean fires first saw daylight some two hundred and fifty thousand years ago, but whose raging fires died out only in historic times. According to the Burmese chronicles, in 422 B.C. there was a great earthquake and Mount Popa ‘rose like a cone from the plain’. There is a crater at the top of the cone, but one side of the crater had been blown away during one of the volcano’s many eruptions.
Thagya Nat, Mahagiri Nat, Popa Taungkalat
The Mount Popa was visited by King Pyusawhti in A.D.167. King Thinlikyaung established a new cult by proclaiming that Popa Ywa was given as a perpetual fief to U Tint De and his Sister, Nat spirits in A.D.352. And King, ministers, and people visited them once a year.
To an early chief at Bagan, Popa Sawrahan 613-40, is attributed the introduction of the present Burmese era (Kacchapancha), starting in March 638. Siam uses it under the name Chulasakaraj. Doubtless, it was drawn up by Hindu astrologers at one of the courts in Burma. Popa Sawrahan’s name suggests wizards and primitive beliefs at the volcanic peak of Popa, and perhaps it was about this time that the noble Mahagiri
myth took its present shape (G.E. Harvey, 1925).
In the flower forests of Mount Popa, moreover, there lurked robbers and outlaws. Anawrahta himself, while striving to regain his father’s throne usurped by another, formed his army on the slopes of Mount Popa in A.D.1044. There are many remanences of traditional furnaces in the western part of Mount Popa, for smelting iron concretions from Irrawaddy sandstone to make weapons for the battle against Bagan King Sukade.
Kyansittha, after the defeat of the forces of Anawrahta’s son by the Peguan rebels, led the remnants of the Burmese army to Popa Hill to be re-quipped and reorganized. Perhaps at one time, the hill itself was worshipped as separate from the gods and goddesses, and it was probably considered to be ‘a hallowed ground of victory’ whose very touch would give success to ‘men of endeavor’ in their ‘mighty undertakings’ (Maung Htin Aung, 1959).
After having many serious problems with his alchemistic experiments and replacing his eyes with eyes of goat and bull, Monk Goat-Bull (Shin Isa Gawna) obtained the Philosopher’s Stone on the top of Mount Popa.
In A.D.1249, Uzanar took thrown and after visiting Nat festival at Mount Popa, Pwa Saw of Kanpyu village became Queen of Bagan.
The Thirty-seven Nats
Throughout human history, people of all races have pictured their gods and goddesses as living on a mountain. The Buddhists believe that their gods and goddesses live on Mount Mayu, just as the Ancient Greeks believed that their gods and goddesses dwelt on Mount Olympus.
In the same way, the early Burmese came to believe that Mount Popa was the home of their gods and goddesses. They came to believe, too, that beautiful ogresses, who lived not on flesh but flowers, played hide-and-seek in the groves of Mount Popa, and that on its slopes there wandered magicians and alchemists in search of potent herbs and roots.
Under King Thinlikyaung in A.D. 344-387, the religion of the Bagan people must have been very similar to that from the animism now practiced by the remoter hill peoples of Burma. Nat spirits were worshipped everywhere in the country but each village restricted its worship to its own local Nats. After reaching Saga tree the new city of Thiripyissaya King Thinlikyaung had an opportunity to establish a new religion or at least a new cult. The king’s carvers soon carved out of the tree trunk images of U Tint De and his sister, and then covered them with gold. The images of the two Nats were put on golden palanquins and attended by the king himself, they were carried along the road to Mount Popa. The procession reached the summit of Mount Popa on the full moon day of the golden Nat shrine, awaited the two images. The images were set up in the shrine with great pomp and ceremony, and the king proclaimed that the village on the slope of the hill, Popa Ywa, was given as a perpetual fief to the two Nat spirits.
Except one of the 37 Nats-namely Thagya Nat, all are spirits of deceased heroes, and in most cases, they also have royal blood or are linked to royalty. Most are associated with historical figures who lived between the 13th and 17th centuries. The 37 Nats are:
2. Mahagiri Nat,
3. Hnamadawgyi Nat,
4. Shwe Nabe Nat,
5. Thonban Hla Nat,
6. Taung-ngu Mingaung Nat,
7. Mintara Nat,
8. Thandawgan Nat,
9. Shwe Nawratha Nat,
10. Aungzwamagyi Nat,
11. Ngazishin Nat,
12. Aungbinle Sinbyushin Nat,
13. Taungmagyi Nat,
14. Maung Minshin Nat,
15. Shindaw Nat,
16. Nyaung-gyn Nat,
17. Tabinshweti Nat,
18. Minye Aungdin Nat,
19. Shwe Sippin Nat,
20. Medaw Shwesaga Nat,
21. Maung Po Tu Nat: a trader from Pinya who was killed by a tiger,
22. Yun Bayin Nat,
23. Maung Minbyu Nat,
24. Mandale Bodaw Nat,
25. Shwebyin Naungdaw Nat,
26. Shwebyin Nyidaw Nat,
27. Mintha Maung Shin Nat,
28. Htibyu Saung Nat,
29. Htibyu Saung Medaw Nat,
30. Bayinma Shin Mingaung Nat,
31. Min Sithu Nat,
32. Min Kyawzwa Nat,
33. Myaukpet Shinma Nat,
34. Anauk Mibaya Nat,
35. Shingon Nat,
36. Shingwa Nat,
37. Shin Hnemi Nat
India seems to have been the first centre of alchemic experiments. From India, alchemy spread westwards to the Arabs, the Egyptians, and the Greeks, later to the medieval Europeans, eastwards to Burma and farther east to China. By the fifth century, A.D. alchemy was being practiced in China and Burma. In Burma, the great period of alchemy was roughly between the fifth century A.D. and the eleventh century, and it became almost a religious cult by itself. But in the eleventh century, its popularity waned with the introduction of Buddhism into the century, for Buddhism frowned upon alchemy. Thus, after the eleventh century, alchemy started to decay, and although the cult has never completely died out, it has long ceased to be in any way a rival to Buddhism.
Alchemy in Burma is known as Aggiya, meaning ‘the work of fire’. ‘Work with fire’ is indeed the essence of alchemy, for the alchemist endeavors to transmute metals utilizing fire. This endeavor to transmute base metals into precious metals is not peculiar to the Burmese alchemist and was the common heritage of alchemists all over the world. But Burmese alchemy has as its background a deeper philosophy- a philosophy so deep and developed at one time that it was almost a religion. The endeavor ‘to turn lead into silver and brass into gold’ is to the Burmese alchemist merely the first step towards a great goal, namely to discover by further experiment ‘the stone of live metal’, or the stone of live mercury’, which is the Burmese equivalent of the Philosopher’s Stone in European alchemy. Again, ‘the stone of live metal’ itself is not the final goal. The final goal is to attain, after more experiments, a superhuman body, and an eternal youth.
When the alchemist has discovered the right metal compounds, the first task before him is to search for a faithful pupil who will bury him in the forest, away from human beings, who will scare away evil spirits and magicians, and who will watch over the spot under which the alchemist lies buried. When the faithful pupil has been found the alchemist makes him dig a hole in the ground and, on entering it, the alchemist will swallow the metal compounds. Then the hole is filled up, and seven days later the alchemist of his own accord and in great joy jumps out of it, for he has become a Zawgyi, a fully developed alchemist. All the supernatural qualities of the ‘stone of live metal’ are now possessed by him in his supernatural body. Then he will enter the forest and come back to the abode of human beings very seldom, if at all.
As the alchemist’s body has become superhuman he can wander at will, flying in the air or traveling underground; physical fatigue is no longer known to him and his body needs no further nourishment. His body will remain youthful until he dies, and death will come to him only after thousands of years. On the whole, the successful alchemist is happy after achieving his heart’s desire, but he also has his troubles. His is an intensely lonely life. He does not have to eat, but occasionally he eats fruit, as he cannot eat meat because of its smell. Therefore, it follows that he cannot stay with human beings for more than a few minutes, as they are eaters of meat and smell too much for him. On the slope of Mount Popa, there are trees whose fruits have exactly the size and shape of the average human maiden, and by his alchemic power, the alchemist puts some sort of ‘life’ into them, so that the fruits become animated. He makes love to them, but unfortunately, as they are but fruit, they soon get crushed and become of no use to him. The majority of the Burmese Buddhists frown upon alchemic experiments as a wanton waste of time and look upon the alchemist as a seeker after gold and after sensual pleasures.
The Cult of the Magus
It is not known whether there was a cult of the Magus in Burma before A.D. 1056. However, the hero of Burmese alchemy, the monk Master Goat-Bull (Shin Isa Gawna), seems to have been worshipped as their patron by those interested in alchemy. The details of his life had been mentioned in Burmese folk-tales was written by Maung Htin Aung in 1948. After having many serious problems with his alchemistic experiments and replacing his eyes with eyes of goat and bull he obtained the Philosopher’s Stone. He announced his intension of leaving the world of human beings the next morning and requested the king to melt all his lead and brass in huge pots in front of the palace at sunrise. When the sun appeared Monk Goat-Bull went first to the palace and then to all the houses, and threw his Philosopher’s Stone into every pot. The stone jumped back into his hand every time, its mere touch having turned the lead in the pots into silver and the brass to gold. The people of Bagan became very rich, and with so much gold and silver at their disposal they built the countless pagodas that still stand at Bagan today.
When he had passed every house, Monk Goat-Bull, still attended by his novice, went to Mount Popa. At the mountain-top, the monk dug up some magic roots and ground them with the Philosopher’s Stone. The ground roots formed themselves into six medicine balls and the monk swallowed three. The other three he gave to the novice and the novice swallowed the medicine balls with nausea. ‘It is clear that you are not fated to share my success in alchemy’, said the monk sadly, ‘and we must say farewell here’. The novice bade a tearful farewell to his master, who gave him a piece of gold as a parting gift.