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nat (နတ်)

A Burmese spirit similar to the Thai chao thi and which can be both a nature spirit and a spirit from mythology (fig.), especially the spirit of someone who met a violent and unjust or untimely death. Of those who died an unnatural death there is a pantheon 37 nats in total. Since they have been both human and spirit they are considered appeasing and disciples of the Buddha, and thus are highly respected and worshipped in Burmese culture. King Anawrahta, who had converted to Buddhism through a missionary, wanted to outlaw the worship of nats, but in doing so had angered his subjects who protested and resisted the ban. Thus, the King allowed the nats to be incorporated into the Buddhist religion and declared the Buddha to be the greatest of the nats, whose official number he limited to 37. All 37 nats in this official pantheon are since known as inside nats and have their spiritual abode on Mt. Popa (map - fig.), an extinct volcano which is over 1500 meters high and an important place of pilgrimage for many Burmese (fig.), while other nats that continue to be worshipped are known as outside nats, such as e.g. Ma Ngwe Taung. The nat Thagyamin (fig.) is considered the leader of all other nats, and is often depicted holding conch in both hands, or a conch in one hand and a yak-tail's fly whisk in the other, and sometimes standing on the three-headed white elephant Erawan. The worship of nats is by and large based on fear of being harmed by them, and the hope that favours would be granted in return for offerings and prayers. The most famous animist festival in Burma is Nat Pwe, the ‘festival of spirits’, celebrated annually in August at Taungbyon, approximately 20 kms North of Mandaley. Devotees typically bring nats offertories called gado bwe, i.e. offerings of hands of bananas and a single coconut, decoratively arranged in a basket or onto a tray (fig.). Nats are traditionally also depicted on lacquerware medicine boxes (fig.), which now are considered antique and have become a collector's item (fig.). The summit can only be reached by a staircase and along the way are several shrines with effigies of nats, but there is also shrine at the base, opposite of the entrance, and another one around the corner, a bit up hill. Mt. Popa also has packs of pesky Rhesus Macaques that patrol the area and follow visitors boldly, hoping to get or steal some food, fruit or drinks. See also Law Ka Nat and LIST OF BURMESE NATS, and TRAVEL PICTURES (1), (2), and (3)