This collection of mythical legends has grown out of conversations with my non-Myanmar friends, whose one inevitable question during visits to pagodas and temple is:
“What do these figures of spirits, dragons, and ogres represent?”
Such moments are none too easy for me. I look at the faces, seeing only a blurred vision of the colors of their skins, eyes, and hairs; something sticks in my throat.
How could I explain to them – what these mythical figures mean to us Myanmar Buddhists? They are not just figures created by primitive imagination, nor are they pagan idols of the ancient days. They are as real and alive as any human being. They are part of our daily life. We not only see them as static things on the pagoda platforms but also on the stage, singing, dancing, and very much involved in the drama of human life.
We know for certain that these beings wander all about us, though unseen, so I invoke a prayer to them, a silent one of course:
“O please come alive, make yourselves seen and heard – O please be friends with these people as you are with us. Please tell them, O ye Gods whom my ancestors had worshipped in days gone by, that you too have become the disciples of the Buddha along with us and that you have taken upon yourselves to be the custodians of the Buddha’s teaching that is why you all are on this pagoda platform”.
“O please make these people understand that you are fellow beings like the humans on this endless journey on the round of rebirth and that there is every chance that we must meet in the past lives – and above all please tell them that you, though unseen, share the continuity of life with us humans”.
My incantation does not make the dragon uncoil itself nor the ogre steps down gracefully like a panther on the prowl, nor the figures of the celestials fly up and soar in the air. But they become alive, nudging me to tell their story, and pressing me to go on and on, and often prompting me when I strut and fret my story-telling hour, which my good friends tell me, is the finest hour. Then come the questions and comments.
- “Are those stories written down?”
- “Some of them, in Myanmar language, and mostly in the disparate form. Most of them are handed down from generation to generation. The best parts are from the oral tradition”.
- “Someone should compile them and put them into English”. Of all the vanities of human wishes, I am vain enough to think that someone must be me.
A Wonderland of Legends
Here you are, dear visitors!
Meet my friends of the Spirits World
Once I began, my world became more and more peopled mythical beings and spirits of all shapes and sizes, Nats, as they are called, in Myanmar language. In Pali, the original language of Buddhism, they are called devas. They are also of various levels of power and goodness, as they are of various shapes and sizes. In this wonderland of pagoda legends, no one could but get involved with nats or spirits. One has only to be in Myanmar for a few hours to hear the word nat mentioned.
Nats are everywhere in various guises. Things of nature, like rivers, streams, hills, trees, and forests all have nats guarding them. To the Myanmar Buddhist, nats are real and alive though unseen. On second thought, perhaps sometimes they can be seen, if only one recognizes them for what they are.
I have very good reason to believe that these legends would never have been written down but for the help of nats. One of them I recognize in his manifestation: he has taken the form of a man with boundless energy and enthusiasm, named Ko Htein Win who is more than a big brother to me. He casts his spell on me, often cajoling me out of my tardy ways – a feat no-one less than a nat could have achieved. Under his mystic guidance, I weave yarns out of the moonbeams, often losing myself in the will-o-the-wisp. I hope these legends will give the reader golden hours of enchantment and pleasure.
This hope of giving the readers golden hours of pleasure would not have been possible without illustrations created by someone who is as much, if not more, submerged in these myths. It took a good nat like Ko Htein Win to find that one. He had long been contemplating what we should do, until one day he suggested Paw Oo Thet.
So Paw Oo Thet it had to be, to play his part in this venture of conjuring up the magic of the legends. Only he who is a native of Mandalay, the last royal capital of Myanmar and the center of Myanmar culture, and who grew up amidst the well-loved traditions of Myanmar, could have done this.
Before we proceed further into our wonderland, I would like to introduce briefly some of, the characters who will be met throughout this book.
The King of nats; he lives in the sky regions above. He is the custodian of the Buddha's teaching and is expected to participate in all human activities that are in the cause of Buddhism.
One of the important characters in Myanmar legends. He may be a nobleman or prince who has renounced worldly life to devote his life to contemplation.
BILU or OGRE and OGRESS
These beings also have supernormal powers. They can take any form and often take the human form and get themselves involved in human affairs. The females are also attractive characters in romances.
These are celestials or devas. They are of several levels, starting from those who live in the sky abodes, and to those who stay close to human abodes. This is the guardian of trees, rivers, mountains, and other objects of nature.
This character is a rather complex one. He began as a human male who practiced austerities and contemplation. He collected magic herbs and concocted things like magic stones, wands, and medicines. When he attained the state of a Zawgyi, he took a new form, a glamorous figure in flaming red robes with a magic wand in hand. The human shell he left behind was the size of a seven-month-old baby. It emitted a smell of ripe bananas. If anyone found it and ate it such a person would be endowed with super-strength and invulnerability. A Zawgyi is endowed with supernormal powers, like flying in the air, walking on water, going underground. He can also create things like flying chariots. Above all, he is blessed with the longevity of life that runs into centuries and what is more important eternal youth and vitality. He is a permanent character on the marionette stage.