IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 25 | Theme Burmese Heritage

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The Cult of the 'Thirty-Seven Lords'

The cult of the 'Thirty-Seven Lords', known in Burma as the thirty-seven 'naq'1 is commonly viewed as being a remnant of practices prevalent before Buddhicization, that is to say, as superstitions having their origins in the obscure period predating the establishment of Burmese civilization. This article will argue against this assumption and will assert that this cult cannot be properly understood if it is not considered as a part of the Burmese religious system still evolving with Buddhist society. The socio-religious structure of the 'naq' cult shows that it is neither a pre-Buddhist remnant, nor is it borrowed from India. Close analysis of the actual cult, of its legends of foundation, and of the historical evidence, clearly shows that it is a construct of Burmese Buddhist kings or, in other words, a produce of the localization of Buddhism in Burma.

* By BÉNÉDICTE BRAC DE LA PERRIERE

 

The Irrawaddy valley was first unified under Burmese kingship during the eleventh century. According to legend, King Anawratha is credited with the foundation of the cult of the Thirty-Seven, having first imposed Theravada Buddhism and destroyed the various autochtonous cults of the populations under his power. According to legend, he finally decided to gather the cult figures, up to thirty-six of them, on the state pagoda platform, the Shwezigon pagoda, and to place them under the authority of Sakka, the guardian of Theravada Buddhism in Burma. This story tells us that the emergence of the Thirty-Seven, which is a national pantheon, can be considered the result of the construction of Burmese territory under a Burmese Theravada kingship or, in other words, of the unification of Burma. It also illustrates the symbolic structure of Burmese kingship, in which Buddhism encompasses, among other practices, naq worshipping.

However, the Thirty-Seven that are supposed to have been gathered by King Anawratha from the autochtonous religious practices are not the naq as they are worshipped by Burmese today. These naq are a product of the religious policy of later Burmese kings. The very existence of many of the naq worshipped today is ascribed to a period well after Anawratha's reign. The number thirty-seven does not correspond to the actual number of naq worshipped today, but thirty-seven is a cosmogonic number borrowed from India2. The number stands for a global entity, in this case that of the Burmese kingdom. Thus, if the cult of the Thirty-Seven is indeed a construct of the Burmese Buddhist kingship, the history of its institution will be more complex and progressive than that which is stated in the legend.

FRANS H. JANSSEN
Worshippers of the Thirty-Seven 'naqs' in the shrine of Mount Popa (Central Burma).

 

As for the nature of the naq, they can be described as spirits resulting from the violent deaths of people, the kind of deaths, which according to the Burmese Buddhist conceptions, prevent reincarnation and leave potentially dangerous spirits free to roam about. But the naq are not just any kind of spirits: according to their legend they are typically former rebels or rivals of kings, and their violent and unfair death bears connection to this. Moreover, a king is supposed to have transformed them into potentially positive spirits by having a local cult established around them, that is to say, he had them incorporated them into an image and a shrine, and then appointed them tutelary spirits of a region. In short, the naq are subversive local powers captured by the central kingship. This process of capture continued until the the nineteenth century when local figures of naq were replaced by naq of royal blood.

In this way, the religious policy of the Burmese Buddhist kings concerning local or autochtonous cults is responsible for their unification into a centralized pantheon, as well as for their Burmanization, due to the casting of royal Burmese personalities on particular local cult figures. Another aspect of the Burmanization of the cult of the naq is its position towards Buddhism: although it is conceived as inferior to Buddhism, it is specifically designated as the cult of the 'Burmese Buddhists'. Its depreciation is justified by the infringements on Buddhist values which the naq are supposed to have been guilty of during their past human existence. At the same time, the transformation undergone by the spirits to become naq implies not only their submission to the king, but also their integration into the Buddhist system of values through a hierarchical relationship whose symbolic agent is Sakka (Thi'dja). It is as the protector of Buddhism in Burma and through the function to deliver sovereignty over Burma according to the karmic legitimacy of the pretender to the throne that Sakka appears as the master of the spirits. If the Buddhist legitimacy guaranteed by Sakka is lacking, the naq subversive potential is unleashed. This is the symbolic basis for the hierarchical relationship through which the naq cult has been encompassed in the Buddhist system of values.

On the sociological level, the cult is a result of the interaction between local practices and central regulation and control. Thus, the duality of the cult: simultaneously popular and state sponsored. The local population had to worship the spirit in charge of the region; at the central level, kings were worshipping the entire Thirty-Seven, its inventory officially checked and temples all gathered in Central Burma, the heart of the Burmese kingdoms. During the late Konbaung dynasty, a collection of the Thirty-Seven statues was kept in the palace, and kings were sponsoring the local festivals addressed annually to the naq at their main shrines, especially by sending ritual officers from the court. Although we do not have a lot of testimonies, these court ritual officers most probably contributed to the homogenization of the local rituals.

The original duality of the cult can still be seen today when analysing the rituals of the local festivals or nappwè. The local population of the naq's domain is still bound to pay homage to him as embodied in the statue settled in the temple by the kings, according to the official foundation story; general prosperity is expected in return. Simultaneously, ritual specialists from all over Burma gather to pay homage to the naq. They stand for the court ritual officers during the time of the kingship, just as in their hierarchical organization of a chief of naq heading a number of 'ministers' and 'queens'. In fact, they are continuing the process of homogenising rituals that started under the kingship.

The ritual specialists are spirit-mediums, or naguedo, which means 'spouse of naq'. Their main professional practice, beside their participation in the festivals, is to officiate for private people in the nague'na bwè, or ceremonies that they address to the Thirty-Seven naq. The ceremonies for the Thirty-Seven rely on the presence of spirit-mediums who are able to call all of the thirty-seven spirits into the ritual space. Successively during the ritual, the spirit-mediums, who learn how to embody any of the thirty-seven through practice and under the guidance of an already established spirit medium, give the spirits a bodily form. The spirit-mediums, both men and women, are elected by a spirit accordingly.

Let us return to the festivals that remain the main context in which the cult and its practices are reproduced. They are annual festivals that last up to ten days and are distributed in such a way that the spirit mediums are able to attend most of them. Such a practice is comparable to pilgrimages inside the heart of classical Burma. A naq festival provides the occasion for allowing the transmission of knowledge about the cult. In its local setting, the legend is told during the evenings both by the spirit-mediums and the local learned people, and it is re-enacted through fully developed rituals, much more expressive than the sketchy figures of the possession dances during the ceremonies for the Thirty-Seven. The memory of the cult is thus transmitted, as well as transformed, during these events.

Meanwhile, the festivals also allow for confrontations between ritual practices, namely those of different spirit-mediums' circles and those of the ritual specialists, whose knowledge is rooted in their various local ritual practices. This confrontation produces the space that allows change to occur in the rituals. It is important to emphasize that this variability is actually an expression of the main sociological relationship constructed by the cult: the encompassment of the locality into the global entity.

Spirit of opposition

The case of the Maundon-Zidaw festival shows us how these different factors interact to transform rituals. The festival is addressed to a female spirit, the Lady of the Running Water. According to legend, she was one of the king's spouses at the time she was convicted as a witch by the other king's wives. As the king was in love with her, he spared her life and sent her instead to collect taxes in an oil-producing region. In another version, she is said to have drowned in the river, and the king took her body out of the river and settled her as tutelary spirit of the place. In yet another version, she disappeared out of anger. This figure of her spirit is one of opposition to the kingship, and of sorcery.

The villagers also tell the story of the apparition of the statue of the Lady. Four generations ago, the ancestor of actual temple custodian - who was a woodcutter - heard the Lady in his dreams telling him that her statue was in the forest together with a therapeutic ritual object specific to this spirit known as the 'life box'. He found the objects, brought them back to the village, and thenceforth paid his respects to the Lady on each anniversary of the discovery. This celebration has become the actual festival. The local legend serves as evidence that this festival and its main object, the statue, are rather recent developments of the local Lady cult. As a matter of fact, it seems that in many of the festivals the statues were introduced rather recently in the local rituals, say, during the nineteenth century. However, the official story is that they were settled in the temples when the cult was founded by the king, much earlier.

The homogenization of local rituals is still an ongoing process The relationship linking the local naq rituals to the general rituals of the cult of the Thirty-Seven is one of mutual interaction, as the festivals serve also as roots for the general rituals, and as such serve as the memory of the cult. The spirit-mediums are the agents of this interaction. That which allows for change in ritual forms is the fact that the structure of the festivals is dual. On the one hand are the ritual institutions, such as temples and images whose foundation is attributed to the kings and who are inherited by the local community, and on the other hand are the ritual functions that are distributed in the spirit-mediums' communities according to the ideology of divine election. The gap between the symbolic logic of the cult that puts the will of the naq at the focal point and the institutional logic that makes the respect of the tradition ('yôya or thammezin in Burmese) compulsory allows for different roles to be played. *

Notes

1. Naq is the descriptive term used for spirits. To the Burmese it evokes the spirits belonging to the pantheon of the Thirty-Seven.

2. Thirty-Seven refers actually to the thirty-two deities of the Tavatimsa ruled by Indra with the four orients guardians: the total amount, thirty-seven, is the number borrowed by the Burmese to form their national pantheon.


Dr Bénédicte Brac de la Perrière is affiliated with Laboratoire Asie du Sud-Est et Monde Austronésien, CNRS, Paris, France.

E-mail: brac@cjf.cnrs.fr

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 25 | Theme Burmese Heritage