Mount Popa, a former sanctuary, is one of the most important centers of Burmese pilgrimage. Located 50 kilometers south-east of Bagan, this is an interesting stop on the road to Kalaw and Inle Lake.
We must first distinguish a Mount Popa which is 1518 meters in height, an ancient volcano that is renamed Taung Ma-gyi (mother-mountain) and a Mount Popa Taung Kalat (mountain flower) located to the southwest Taung Ma-gyi and is also an ancient volcanic chimney but less high (737 m). It is the latter that tourists come to visit and the name “Mount Popa” is now its official name.
Mount Popa- cradle of nat spirits (revered spirits of Burma), is the most famous pilgrimage site in the country with regard to the worship of spirits. Pilgrims traveling for hours or even days to come honor the Nats. They flock especially during the full moon of Nayon (May / June) and that of Nadaw (November / December).
Mount Popa is impressive from a distance. It is a beautiful promontory surmounted by a monastery. Ascension to it is through a covered staircase of 777 steps leading to the top where there is a magnificent view of the plain Myingyan. Climbing stairs is done without much effort, attention being retained by the stalls, illustrations of Nats performances and very enterprising monkeys!
Mount Popa is a green oasis in the arid zone of central Burma. Volcanic ash fertilized flanks, promoting excessive growth of lush vegetation. Note that half of the climb must be without shoes! The monastery has two bells. Pilgrims believe that to ring the bigger will attract the attention of the spirits and their secret wishes will come true.
A taboo after a Burmese belief: people who climb Mount Popa should not wear red or black, or swear or speak ill of others, much less bring meat (especially pork), to not to offend the Nats who would then cast a spell on them.
Cult of nats
The Nats are spirits worshiped in Burma. They are human beings who have died violently. The causes of death account for their future existence.
The cult of the nats was created by King Bagan Thinlikyaung (344-387), before the introduction of Buddhism in the country. The king had removed from Irrawaddy a tree in which a brother and sister who have been burned took refuges. From the tree, they carved two statues and installed them on the summit of Mount Popa.
There are officially 37 Nats in Burmese tradition. The worship of nats aims to appease the wandering souls of those who were killed. Burmese create the “houses of the spirits” to end their wanderings and attract their favor. Once sedentary, the nat becomes a protector of his village or region, and is worshiped by the inhabitants to repel bad luck. The worship of nats is mostly practiced by the Burmese ethnic group in the country. Virtually every house and every village have a nat shrine dedicated to his benefactor. Families especially aimed at the nat Min Mahagiri (the “Lord of the Great Mountain”), protector of the home and the first to be venerated. The altar dedicated to him is represented by a coconut (nat oun) covered with a red turban, hung on the central pillar of the house and surrounded by incense.
Today, the worship of nats and Buddhism coexist in Burma. Altars dedicated to the nats are present in the Buddhist places of worship and often temples and pagodas welcome nats ceremonies.
The most important pilgrimage site for nats worshiping: Mount Popa- cradle of nat spirits.