Day and sunny days with a touch of coolness in the evenings begin with the month of Tazaungmone. By Nat-taw, cold season is in full swing, in lower Myanmar towns like Yangon the weather is just pleasant, not too hot orcold, but in upper Myanmar towns and northern hill areas it is really cold.
Agrarian people in the countryside have a spell of leisurely days now that the fields are golden with ripening grain. The air is filled with music and song as a succession of local pagoda festivals and ritual feasts on in the neighbourhood.
Ritual feasts in honour of nats. Traditional family gods are celebrated during this month. The Myanmar expression nat covers all kinds of celestials and spirits of different levels, starting with the residents of the skies regions above, powerful gods, to lower level of spirits or ghosts wandering homeless and starving.
It is almost incomprehensible to foreigners that animism and Buddhism should exist side by side in Myanmar society and Myanmar personality. For an ordinary Myanmar Buddhist it is natural for him to believe in the existence of nats and to give offerings to them if he wishes.
When King Anawrathta of Bagan established Theravada Buddhism in the 11th, century, images of nats are given niches in pagodas (Shwezigon, Bagan of instance). People were allowed to go on with their traditional offerings to their nats. The non-severing of the animistic ties was helpful in introducing the new faith, Theravada Buddhism. Any form of offering to nats is within the teaching of Buddhism so long as the Five Precepts are not infringed. Hence sacrificial offerings of live animals are against the Buddhist teachings.
One of the basic tenets of Buddhism is that all beings, humans and nats of all levels go round the cycle of lives meeting one another on amicable of hostile circumstances. The state of level of all beings is decided by one’s own deeds, good or bad.
Nats are mentioned in many of the Buddha’s discourses. The Buddha himself, before he was reborn as Prince Siddhatha, later to become the Buddha, was a celestial in the regions high above. When as Buddha, he preached sermons; nats form a great part of his congregation. Nats became his devout disciples.
Consequently, when a Buddhist makes offerings of nats, it is done in the spirit of kinship and loving kindness, as one might do for a friend. Nats are beings like humans going round the cycle of life; they exist on a different plane of existence, but sharing kinship and continuity of life. Many nats are given niches on pagoda precincts because they too are disciples of the Buddha. They are there to look after the welfare of the pilgrims, as many people believe.
It is in this month of Nat-taw that ritual feats in honour of nats are held. Even when the feast is held by an individual family, friends and neighbours join in to share the music, songs and dances.
When a ritual feast is held either by a family or community, professional mediums are called in. These mediums have images of nats. A marquee is built and all the images and accessories and offerings of flowers. Candles and fruits are placed in there on an elevated dais.
A space is reserved for the orchestra, with the elaborate decorations of mythical figures like dragons and pyinsayupa, an animal with the body of a horse, winged like a bird, horned like an antler and scaled like a fish.
Dances are spirited as might be expected, as the mediums are possessed by the nats and the music is rollicking. It is a colourful affair and the audience can join in and people often do.
Ritual feasts are, if anything, clan gatherings with all the romance, mirth and fun. Many of the songs, dances and plays of the Myanmar theatre have their roots in the ritual feasts.
There are often practices that overstep the bounds of propriety and not in keeping with the teachings of the Buddha. Some of the ritual feasts run wild like drinking bouts. Such are frowned upon by good Buddhists. But things go on and will go on so long as people have their need for easts and rituals and above all, to let off steam once in a while.