This piece originally appeared in print in So It Goes Issue 2, Autumn 2013.
It’s the night of the full moon and Burma’s spirit festival Nat Pwe has reached its zenith. Out of the inner sanctum of the central pagoda and surrounding stages, the Nat Kadaws, or spirit mediums (normally gay or transvestite men), dance as their respective spirits symbolically enter their bodies.
By midnight, the walls, floors and surfaces have a wet film of human desire coated further by the night’s sultry humidity. From within the shrine emerge the Nat Kadaws, followed by a procession of middle-aged women, clasping reams of Burma’s Monopoly money. They make their offerings to the spirits by passing wads of clammy currency into the hands of the spirit mediums. They then dance to the music, wrists delicately poised as make-up streams down their sweaty faces, sequins glittering on ornate chiffon attire, their necks adorned with chokers of pearls, their heads topped by diamante tiaras.
The women patrons take the cash and throw it high into the air, the notes fall, twirling like confetti, and the raucous, inebriated onlookers vie furiously to catch the falling, fleeting paper.
It’s an outright assault on the senses, from the colours to the pageantry to the music. Nat spirit music is full of diminuendos and crescendos, a multitude of discordant bells and whistles set to rhythmic basslines, to which drunk but liberated youths jump, wildly flexing their limbs, following the arc of the music. Flanking the pagoda are transvestites looking on or dancing with their lovers. In recent decades, the festival has become a sanctuary for a repressed LGBT population who have few places to meet, party or cavort openly in a deeply conservative Buddhist country.
Throughout the day, thousands of people have paid votive offerings to the two slain brothers, now spirits, in whose honour the festival is held. As the sun sets over the central pagoda complex and the inky, humid night takes hold, the crowds swell with youths from Mandalay coming to get lost in the bacchanalian charms of Nat Pwe.
The tradition and history of spirit worship harks back to the advent of Buddhism in Burma. Just as with the cult of Dionysus and his assimilation into the pantheon of Greek gods, animism
and spirit worship were so strong that instead of state resistance, King Anawrahta designated a celestial host of thirty-seven nats to incorporate these ancient traditions into the Buddhist fold by royal edict, first in the court of Bagan and later Mandalay.
Today the ritual hinges around supplicating these spirits, often to ensure good business. Dionysiac and Nat traditions converge as the faithful fall into a trance. Witnessing this recalls an ancient, forgotten psychological state that resists approach. Unleashed in a state of fervour the possessed collapse on the floor as the music subsides. They roll around, eyelids fluttering to the back of their heads, still revelling in their climax.
The festival also has darker undertones. At the end of a fertility rite, which involves a long procession of Nat Kadaws dancing around a sapling, the crowd converges upon the tree, trying to seize fragments for talismans, tearing the plant asunder. The police and local heavies descend and violence erupts as truncheons beat down. Blood is often shed. Ritual perhaps, but a poignant reminder of Burma’s brutal military past.
As the full moon rises and the night unfolds, I find myself with a group of ladyboy sex workers from Rangoon. It’s a domestic scene, as they get dressed up for the night out. Pink bras and blue underwear hang from a wire line in their wooden hut; all around there is intense chatter and excitement, as a bottle of Burmese whiskey does the rounds. By now I have been groped and offered a blowjob countless times. Then Mi Mi beckons me over, scantily clad in only a Burmese longyi held above the breast line, asking for a kiss upon the cheek. As I reluctantly walk forward, she drops her robe and bends over splaying her other cheeks, pointing out the cock hanging down on the other side. Cue hysterical laughter from all present.
Words: Anthony Neil
Images: Ci Smith Photography