From the Dirt to the Clouds: Around Mount Popa, Bagan, Myanmar

Temple on Taung Kalat as seen from the road below, Mount Popa, Myanmar

Temple on Taung Kalat – Pedestal Hill 
Popa Taung Kalat Monastery sits high on top of a volcanic plug in the Mount Popa National Park. Traditionally, the Mount Popa area is the most important home of the Nats – Burmese spirits.

Nats (နတ်‌), or spirits, have been a central part of Burmese life since time immemorial.

Nats are everywhere in Myanmar: they are in the trees, the wind, the stones and the waterways. They act as personal and village guardians, but can be troublesome if not properly propitiated. Every Burmese village has a shrine to curry favour with the local Nats; ritualised offerings are hung in houses; amulets are worn; and car rear-view mirrors are festooned with talismans to ward off mischief. Festivals to appease the major Nats are held regularly.

Part of a rich heritage of early animist religions in the Burmese countryside, Nat worship predates Buddhism. When King Anawrahta of Bagan (1044–1077) first introduced Buddhism into Myanmar, he tried to ban the worship of the old spirits. However, his attempts backfired, and Nat worship was simply driven underground. Clever enough to recognise his failure, he decided to incorporate a hierarchical pantheon of 37 Great Nats – also known as the Mahagiri Nats – into the local Buddhist practice. The chief of these Nats is Thagyamin Nat (the Indian god Indra, protector of royalty) and the others are ghosts or spirits of dead Burmese heroes, many of whom were killed prematurely. All of these principal Nats are known nation-wide. They have their own personalities and histories; many have their own ceremonies and festivals. Nats are not saints or angels. They have the same human characteristics and flaws as they had in life, and they are often angry or jealous of the living. So, while the Burmese might ask the Nats for good fortune, they are also concerned with appeasing them to avoid harm.

Mount Popa, a long-extinct solitary volcano standing out from the dry plains of Central Myanmar, has long been designated home of the Nats. Four kilometres from the main peak is one of Myanmar’s most sacred places: Taung Kalat (Pedestal Hill), an incredible magma plug rising straight up some 170 – 180 meters from the surrounding rock and jungle. The Popa Taung Kalat Temple, a Buddhist monastery and pilgrimage site, including shrines to all 37 Nats, perches precariously on the summit.

I was travelling in the Mount Popa National Park area with Photo-Tour Leader Karl Grobl and local guide Mr MM. We didn’t climb the 777 steps to the monastery – much as I would have liked to. According to sources (including: Wondermondo: Popa Taung Kalat and National Geographic Voices: Mount Popa), the temple and shrines are fascinating and the views are stunning…

What we did do, however, was equally fascinating: starting with a visit the Mahagiri Shrine at the foot of Mount Popa.

Front of the Mahagiri Shrine, Mount Popa, Myanmar

Mahagiri Shrine
Hawkers, with their baskets full of offerings for the spirits and snacks for the pilgrims, congregate out the front of the colourfully decorated Mahagiri Shrine – a temple at the base of Mount Popa dedicated to the 37 principal nats.

Young burmese girl with flower garlands, Mahagiri Shrine, Mount Popa, Myanmar

Flower Seller
Inside the Mahagiri Shrine, a young girl sells garlands, intended as offerings to the spirits.

Three mannequins dressed as Nats, Mahagiri Shrine, Mount Popa, Myanma

Three of the 37 Nats
King Anawrahta of Bagan designated an official pantheon of 37 Great Nats.

A mannequin hand with folded 200 and 50 kyat notes, Mahagiri Shrine, Mount Popa, Myanmar

Nats are very human in their desires: gifts to them include alcohol, cigarettes, goods, flowers, and money. Money they have blessed is considered especially lucky.

A woman and two Rhesus macaques on the Stoop of a Popa home, Myanmar

Locals on the Stoop
Rhesus macaques have run of the town of Popa.

Rhesus Macaque eating banana, Popa, Myanmar

Rhesus Macaque
Although very cute, the monkeys expect their share of “offerings”.

Rhesus Macaque, Mount Popa, Myanmar

Rhesus Macaque

A burmese man cleans a pool, Popa Taung Kalat in the background, Myanmar

Popa Mountain Resort
We lunched at a wonderful resort …

Saung  - Traditional Burmese Harp, Mount Popa, Myanmar

Playing the Saung
… with traditional burmese harp music …

View over the Temple at the Top of Mt Popa, Myanmar

Temple on Taung Kalat (Pedestal Hill)
… and amazing views of the Buddhist temple that perches on the top of the volcanic plug at the Southwest of Mount Popa.

Each of the 37 Great Nats was, in at least one of their previous incarnations, associated with members of the royal family; Nat worship therefore, affords commoners some protection against misfortune.

As we discovered in a nearby rural village, it does not, however, bring electricity or running water.

Burmese Children at the Window of a schoolhouse, Popa, Myanmar

Children at the Window
At a small school near Taung Kalat …

Burmese  Teacher Marking at the Window of a schoolhouse, Popa, Myanmar

Teacher Marking
… children study and teachers work without the benefit of electric lights or fans.

Burmese Child at the Window of a schoolhouse, Popa, Myanmar

Child at the Schoolhouse Window

Burmese Children in a dark rural Classroom, Popa, Myanmar

Kids in the Classroom

Cow in a thatched Barn, Popa, Myanmar

Cow in the Barn
In spite of the lack of modern conveniences, this rural village is neat and tidy.

Burmese Man in a longhi smoking on the Stoop of a house, Popa, Myanmar

Man on the Stoop
The community has received a recent injection of funding, and some of the buildings are quite new.

Burmese Woman in thatched Barn, Popa, Myanmar

Woman in the Barn
Workers always seem happy to take a moment out …

Hands Chopping Grass through a rusty machine, Popa, Myanmar

Chopping Grass
… from monotonous manual labour …

Burmese Woman in thatched Barn, Popa, Myanmar

A Burmese Smile
… to flash a brilliant smile for the camera.

Burmese man in a wool cap, Popa, Myanmar

Old Burmese Man
A community elder pauses to take stock of the visitors …

Burmese man in a wool cap, Popa, Myanmar

Old Man
… and to pose.

Baby Pigs in the Yard, Popa, Myanmar

Piglets in the Yard
A mainstay of any “rich” tropical community, pigs are the perfect grain-storage units in damp or rainy climates where grains grow mouldy quickly after harvest.

Burmese Village Child, Popa, Myanmar

Young Girl
Not all the children are in school –

Burmese Village Children, Popa, Myanmar

Village Children
– and those running loose in the dirt are happy to have their pictures taken.

Burmese Village boy in a torn t-shirt, Popa, Myanmar

Young Boy

Burmese woman walking away on a dirt path  with water buckets on a yoke, Popa, Myanmar

On the Dirt Path
A woman from the village carries laden water buckets home in the afternoon light.

Although some people say that Nat worship is dying out, this is more true in the developed, urban centres. In fact, the many annual Nat Festivals are still well-attended – and it is easy to see why rural people would want some surety in their uncertain and labour-intensive days.

To the Future (text)It’s a hard life. I hope the Nats can help people make the necessary transitions into the modern world.

‘Till next time.


  • maureen mcgettigan - December 12, 2014 - 1:59 am

    You nailed the story about the nats, Ursula – great photos & very informativeReplyCancel

    • Ursula - December 12, 2014 - 3:23 am

      Thanks so much, Maureen and Karl.
      The people in these wonderful places make photography such a delight, don’t they?
      Happy Holidays!ReplyCancel

  • karl grobl - December 12, 2014 - 2:03 am

    Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful! Great job Ursula!ReplyCancel

  • Dietmut - December 14, 2014 - 4:39 pm

    Nice report Ursula. Bagan a beautiful place, to see so much.
    Warm greetings, DietmutReplyCancel

    • Ursula - December 15, 2014 - 12:33 am

      Thanks, Dietmut!
      Wonderful place, isn’t it? I loved every minute there. 😀ReplyCancel

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