Respect for nats is an inherent part of Burmese culture, and carvings of
nats are frequently seen. They may be nature spirits, ones from
mythology, or humans who have died unnatural deaths. Included among the
last are those who constitute a pantheon of 37 nats. Nats are
specifically carved to be placed on pagoda platforms and other Buddhist
edifices. As spirits, they require propitiation, and are also regarded,
like humans, as disciples of the Buddha.
During the 12th century the widespread adoption of Buddhism suppressed,
but never replaced, the pre-Buddhist practice of nat (spirit) worship.
Nat worship dates back to proto- and possibly prehistoric times;
originally, it revolved around land, sky and water spirits, and was
obviously linked to agricultural endeavours. But by the Bang era,
historical personages started gaining spirit status, probably in
response to increased cent5ralization of governing power (giving people
martyrs to pay tribute to), and possibly influenced by similar cuts in
Many nats are thought to be descended from people who had died violent,
unjust deaths. These supra-human nats, when correctly propitiated, can
aid worshippers in accomplishing important tasks, the most potent of the
nats make up a well known pantheon of 37, all of whom make Mt Popa their
main spiritual abode. Today this rock outcropping jutting from the plain
near Bagan remains a major point of pilgrimage for many Burmese. A visit to a temple reveals any number of nats housed in shrines dotted
around the temple compound in apparent contrast with the Buddhist nature
of the place. And on sale in the pagoda alley markets are all the
figures in the 37- nat pantheon-and more. These are purchased by the
devout, and when placed in nat kaun (spirit home) shrines in the home,
become the recipients of food, liquor, flowers and other consumables.
Thus are the powerful spirits placated.