August is a slow time for social events in Myanmar. Monsoon downpours keep people indoors, as does the midpoint of the three-month Buddhist Lent, a time for abstinence, self-denial, and religious contemplation. There are no pagoda festivals, no weddings and few live music performances during this time.
A notable exception to this temperance occurs in the town of Taungbyone in central Myanmar, which, for one week each August, becomes the site of the biggest animist festival in the country. The antithesis of moderation, the Taungbyone festival has gained a reputation as a Dionysian pickpocket-magnet characterised by copious alcohol consumption, ear-splitting music and wild dancing.
The throngs of rambunctious revellers who descend on the town go there to make offerings to powerful spirits known as nats, or humans who died violently and were “caught in a limbo between lives”, says renowned author Ma Thanegi in an unpublished book on nats.
“Their anger and bitterness at their fate made them unable to be reborn into the next existence, and they remain as ghosts,” explains the author who has written several English-language books on Myanmar’s culture and travel. These ghosts, endowed with supernatural powers, can punish humans who offend them, or grant favours to those who show the proper respect.
According to Myanmar lore there are 37 central nats, plus a number of others associated with particular regions of the country. The spirits linked with Taungbyone are the brothers Min Gyi and Min Galay, put to death in the 11th century after failing to follow a king’s orders to contribute bricks to the construction of a pagoda. Later regretting the executions, the king granted the dead brothers dominion over Taungbyone, which they are believed to rule to this day.
The central spectacle of Taungbyone is the boisterous rituals, held in temporary bamboo pavilions, at which mediums channel nats into their bodies. Accompanied by the loud, clanging music of traditional percussion ensembles, the dances vary in form and intensity according to which nat is being channelled. Some spirits are relatively sedate while others, such as crowd favourite U Min Kyaw, the renegade patron of drunkards and gamblers, prompt the mediums to spin and sway spasmodically while swigging their way through entire bottles of rum or whiskey. In the midst of the performance, festival goers crowd in to have their fortunes told by spirits speaking through their human hosts.
The majority of nat mediums are homosexual men or transvestites dressed in traditional women’s clothing, a notable idiosyncrasy in a conservative culture in which the gay lifestyle is not openly accepted.
The nat medium role was not always dominated by gay males. In his 1967 book Burmese Supernaturalism, American cultural anthropologist Melford Spiro noted that most mediums at the time of his research were women, with only 3-4% being men. In a sign of things to come, however, he described all of the male mediums that he encountered as “highly effeminate”.
According to Ma Thanegi, it was in the mid-1970s that homosexual men took over the roles of spirit mediums in Myanmar. Although she would not hazard a guess as to why this transition occurred at this particular time, Spiro had earlier suggested that certain types of social behaviour enacted by marginalised sectors of society – including heavy drinking, rowdy dancing and cross-dressing – could be “exhibited with impunity” if prescribed by nats as part of a ritual.
As Ma Theingi put it: “It seems to be a profession made for transvestites, for it gives them the chance while being ‘possessed’ by the nat to dress up in fine satin and silk, act out tragedies, dance and sing.”
One gay medium based in Yangon, who wished to remain anonymous, provided a practical explanation for this demographic shift, based on the understanding that at different times, a given medium can be possessed by different spirits of either sex.
“In my opinion, gay nat mediums are more popular because they are better dancers than straight male or female mediums. We have many male and female nats, so male mediums are not skillful or good enough to dance for female nats, and likewise female mediums are not good at dancing for male nats. For us, we can perform both without trouble,” he said.
Regardless of their sexual orientation, mediums play a demonstrably important role in Myanmar culture, and aside from their popularity at festivals, they are also consulted throughout the year by people seeking help from the spirits.
Well-known medium U Win Hlaing enjoys a steady stream of clients at his home, located on a quiet street in eastern Yangon. On a recent Saturday morning he received three women in his spacious front room, which is nearly bare of furniture except for several elaborate altars decorated with images of dozens of nats.
U Win Hlaing performed a brief ritual to invoke the favour of the spirits then sat on the floor with the women to consider their problems.
One, bearing a property deed, wanted advice on a real estate transaction. The second said she had been related to a nat in a previous life, and although the spirit now afforded her special protection, the supernatural entity often reminded her that he could “call her back” to the family at any moment. The woman, who appeared to be in her 60s, asked U Win Hlaing to petition the nat to allow her to enjoy her human life for a while longer.
The third woman questioned why her son had fallen ill with typhus. Rattling a handful of cowry shells, U Win Hlaing determined that the illness was the result of a curse cast by a woman who loved the boy but whose feelings had not been reciprocated. The medium wrote a “magical” prescription to cure the problem, which the woman carefully tucked into her purse as she left the house.
During the interval before the next group of clients appeared, U Win Hlaing, 60, explained that he had become a medium at the age of eight while attending a spirit ceremony led by his uncle, who was also a medium.
“I was very close to nats in a past life, so I was possessed automatically when I first saw a nat ceremony,” he said, quickly adding that being possessed was not as rigorous as one might imagine.
“Some beginners and amateurs might pass out when they’re possessed, or they might become unconscious or uncontrollable. But when I was first possessed, it only made me feel sleepy, and now I’m so used to it that I don’t have any big feelings about it anymore. I only get goosebumps now, but the nats possess my mouth and control what I say,” he said.
While U Win Hlaing refused to answer questions about the prominent role of homosexuals in the nat medium subculture, he was effusive about his satisfaction with the accompanying lifestyle.
“I’m contented with my life since I’m very interested in other people’s lives, helping them, guiding them. I also like putting on makeup, singing and dancing. Being a successful nat medium has been my lifelong ambition since I was very young,” he said.
As for the Tuangbyone Festival, which this year occurs from August 25 to September 1, U Win Hlaing said he would be there ready to perform along with his fellow mediums from around Myanmar.
“I enjoy all the nat festivals since they are celebrations of my spirit protectors, but the most popular is Taungbyone,” he said. “I feel proud when I dance grandly at Taungbyone in front of my supporters and my protectors.”