The annual journey by pilgrims keeps history and beliefs alive
Kyaw Zaw Oo
Myanmar is often described as the land of pagodas
and legends. Some say "come to Myanmar and point your finger at any
direction you like – you will always be pointing at a pagoda." And
each pagoda has its legend handed down from one generation to the
Each pagoda has an annual festival, and at
such festivals vendors arrive from all directions to sell their wares.
Long winding rows of temporary stalls built of bamboo and thatch blossom
forth with colourful goods. The profits earned by the stalls are a
source of income for the upkeep and repair of the pagodas.
The annual festivals of some famous pagodas
are celebrated for about a month by a continuous influx of visitors.
Except May, June and July, pilgrimage teams are visiting the pagodas
throughout the country.
Famous religious destinations are Shwedgon
in Yangon, Shwesettaw in Minbu Township of Magwe Division, Maha-Myat-Muni
Buddha Image, Taung-byone and Mount Popa in Mandalay Division, Kyaikhtiyo
in Mon State and Alaungtaw Katthapa in Sagaing Division. Among them,
Shwesettaw, Mount Popa and Alungdaw Kathapa have already been designated
as wild life sanctuaries. And the way to Taung-byone nat festival
reveals a typical Myanmar rural area. At the head of the list of pilgrim
tours of the year is the greatest ‘nat’ festival of Taung-byone,
held in Taung-byone village, 8 mile north of Mandalay.
In addition to Theravada Buddhism, common Myanmar
people believe in 37 traditional nats or deities. Among them,
two brothers spirits known as Min Gyi and Min Galay are said to have
been granted a permanent home at Taung-byone village by King Anawrahtar
in the 11th century. After ‘Taung-byone and upcountry itineraries’
in August, there comes the Malun rice-donation celebration in Mandalay
in September and people travel there visiting religious destinations
all along the way.
In November, pilgrimage agents arrange package
tours to the famed Taungyi hot-air balloon festival with visits to
pagodas along the way in central Myanmar and Shan State. By November,
people start visiting Kyaikhtiyo Pagoda in Mon State. The pagoda is
well known for its position atop a large boulder, precariously perched
on the edge of 3600-foot high Lontin mountain about 100 miles
east of Yangon. Some enjoy taking the eight-mile footpath journey
up and down the densely forested hills, however most pilgrims take
a bus ride up to the nearest camp and walk the remaining mile to reach
As Bagan was the heart of the 11th century
Myanmar Kingdom, over 2000 pagodas and stupas can be found there.
A cave in Alaungdaw Kathapa wild life sancturary is said to be the
place where a relic body of an arahat or an austered monk who had
achieved enlightenment. People go there to present some alms-food in
respect for the monk. Leisurely time off work, beautiful scenery along
the way and the religious fulfilment on seeing the pagodas are some
of the reasons why Myanmar pilgrims travel a long way to visit their
They usually visit many pagodas even though
they are going to a certain religious monument to pay homage. Even
though they are going to the hot-air balloon festival in Taung-gyi,
they visit the pagodas on the way to and from and in the vicinity of
Taung-gyi. Although Theravada Buddhism is professed by more than 85
per cent of the country’s population, Animism is deeply-rooted in
customs and beliefs of common Myanmar people.
A famous haunt for Myanmar holidaymakers is
Mount Popa, with its pantheon of Myanmar nats or deities, represented
in sculptures in many parts of the mountain. Each deity has its own
background story and many stories are inter-related. These nats
are nothing to do with devas mentioned in Buddhists Scriptures.
Mount Popa is an extinct volcano, situated 40 miles south of Bagan,
Myanmar’s ancient city and living treasure-house of Buddhist architectural
beauty. The mountain rises to 4981 feet above sea level.
The chief deity of Mount Popa, Min Mahagiri
or Lord of the Great Mountain, has dominion over every family ‘who
has a roof over their head’, according to legend. Once a year there
is a large outing organised, and thousands of pilgrims make the journey
to the mountaintop at that time.