When you are planning to escape from your daily life at this time of year, there is one place that is considered as the abode of Burmese’s most powerful Nats (spirits of ancient ancestors), Mount Popa. Mount Popa today is one of the best pilgrimage spots in the country.
Mount Popa is an extinct volcano, 1518 meters (4981 feet) above sea level and located in the central part of Myanmar. The Popa region is situated in Kyaukpadaung Township, Mandalay Division, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) southeast of Bagan. The mountaintop offers stunning view of the neighboring plains and the Mount Popa itself. The mountain is the abode of the 37 spirits (nats). This mountain is popularly recognized as the “Mountain of Spirits” as this is a home of many “Nats” (spirits of ancient ancestors). The evidence of this can be found in the form of nat shrines, rituals, ceremonial offerings, annual representative festivals, abundant stream of pilgrims and believers in mysticism. It is the Popa means puppa in Pali, Sanskrit, meaning flower.
History and Legend
Along the southwest end of the mountain, you can see a turret of rocky distinction about one acre wide at the summit with the height of 3000 feet above the sea-level. It is known as the Taunkalat or the “stemmed salver hill”. This is where the home of the spirits is. There is a legend about this mountain and the spirits, which goes back to the time of the King Anawrahta reign.
Although all 37 nats of the official pantheon are represented at the shrine on Mount Popa, actually only four of them- the two Mahagiri nats, Byatta and Me’ Wunna have their abode here.
Many legends are told about Mount Popa. One is about Mahagiri (Great Mountain) nats. The two spirits were brother and sister at the period of Tagaung who live in the upper reaches of Ayeyarwady and sought refuge from King Thinligyaung of Bagan. They wished to grant and they were enshrined on Mount Popa.
The other one tells about Popa Medaw (Royal Mother); At the reign of King Anawrahta who founded the Bagan Empire in the 11th century, a man named Byatta was ordered by the king to gather flowers from Mount Popa everyday. One day he met an ogress known as Me’ Wunna who lived on the mountain and ate only flowers. Byatta fell in love with her and later they had two sons. Byatta was executed for disapproving the liaison and Me’ Wunna died of a broken heart. Both became Nats that still exist on the mountain till now. Their two sons were taken away to the palace and later executed for neglecting their duty during the construction of a pagoda at Taung Pyone near Mandalay. They also became powerful spirits known as the Shwe Phyin Brothers and remained in Taung Pyone where an annual festival is held where the two spirits are worshipped.
Pilgrims from all over Myanmar visit Mount Popa every year as there is a festival on the full moon day of Nayon(June) and the full moon day of Nadaw(December). Typical Nat festival, honoring the 37 spirits by performing ritual dances, songs, performances and offering liquor can be found during the festival time. Before King Anawrahta’s reign, hundreds of animals were sacrificed to the nats during the festival. If you want to visit the festival, you should not wear red or black or bring meat, especially pork as it could upset the resident spirits. People travel from great distances to Mount Popa to assure their good luck for the following years.
Mountain Top and Wildlife
To reach the top, you need to remove shoes and socks and climb the 777 steps to the summit. The stairway to the top is covered. Along the way, you can meet with a large number of monkeys expecting treats. Sometimes they can get a little destructive. You should keep your possessions safe. You will also find shops selling various items including wooden handicrafts as well as bottled flowers that you can purchase to offer the spirits or as souvenirs.
The surrounding areas are dull but the Mount Popa area has over 200 springs and streams. It is therefore like an oasis in the desert-like dry central zone of Myanmar. Plenty of trees, flowering plants and herbs grow due to the fertile soil from the volcanic ash. It is now a designated nature reserve and national park. The Mount Popa area has also been designated as a nature reserve and national park, a perfect place for eco-tourism. The park covers 49.63 square miles area and was established in 1989. Nearby the Mount Popa is the Mount Popa resort, a beautiful and luxurious 5 star hotel complex with an excellent restaurant featuring Burmese and European dishes.
Observing dry zone ecosystem, avifauna species and other wild animals, the Myanmar people’s belief in spirits and panoramic views of the surrounding plains from the mountain top, a visit to Mount Popa will give you an awesome experience. Enjoying the natural beauty of the mountain and studying geological features of an extinct volcano, which erupted 25,000 years ago is worth a try!