Taung Kalat: Burma (Myanmar)
One of the most sacred places in Burma is Popa Taung Kalat – an incredible monastery perched on the top of a cliff. Burmese pilgrims come here to worship nats - sacred spirits. Here you'll learn about Nats, the sacred mountain, and even some wonderful legends.
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Taung Kalat Temple
Taung Kalat Temple, the shrine at the top of Mt. Taung Kalat. One of the most sacred places in Burma is Popa Taung Kalat – an incredible monastery perched on the top of a cliff.
Burmese pilgrims come here to worship nats - sacred spirits.
Image by Brian Snelson
Mount Popa is solitary volcano. Taung Ma-gyi - the highest summit of the volcano is 1,518 m high, rising more than 1 kilometre tall above the surrounding dry plains.
The mountain is high enough to have another vegetation zone - in the fertile volcanic soil grows a lush tropical forest, famous thanks to countless fragrant flowers. It is most likely the flowers that gave the name to the mountain - "Popa" in Pali means "flower".
The landscape is refreshed by many small springs and streams.
The last eruption of Mount Popa took place in 442 BC, which is not that long ago by the standards of volcanoes.
Four km to the west from the main summit of the volcano a weird cliff is located - Taung Kalat (pedestal hill).
It rises almost vertically some 170 - 180 m above the surrounding area. The top of this cliff is 737 m above the sea level.
This is a volcanic plug - magma which once upon a time hardened in the former crater of the volcano. This magma has become harder than the surrounding volcano which has eroded away, leaving the magma plug standing.
With Taung Kalat To the Left, 1987
Image by Wagaung
This giant volcano and the smaller Taung Kalat can be seen from far away, even from the Ayeyarwady River 60 km away. Such a prominent, unusual natural landmark has special importance to the local people.
Mount Popa was most likely a sacred place very long ago, before Buddhism, but it grew in importance with the rise of the first states in the surrounding plains when the mountain became a sacred place for the kings of Bagan. Mount Popa was declared to be the abode of the most important spirits - Mahagiri Nats. Today it is national park.
According to the tales before the king Anawrahta (1044 - 1077) hundreds of animals were sacrificed here as a part of nat worship rituals.
Nats are spirits worshipped in Burma - an interesting consolidation of Buddhism and animism. It is possible that nats had been accepted in Buddhism as an earlier animist belief in rural Burma, and that this belief was used by the kings of Bagan to unite the nation.
Nats are very diverse: there are personal guardians, home spirits, spirits of forests or streams. But 37 nats - Mahagiri Nats - are important for the whole nation.
These 37 nats are spirits of people who died a violent death. It is possible that these were real people whose life stories are legends today. It would be an interesting discussion about the fate of Burmese society today, and its link to the worship of defeated, tragically killed people.
Taung Kalat plays great role in these legends and it is considered that the hill is abode to four of these Mahagiri Nats.
View From Taung Kalat
Image by Yosomono
Legend Of Blacksmith
Most ancient events have been recorded in the legend of Maung Tint Dai - Blacksmith.
According to the legends, this mighty man lived here in the 6th century BC (another version - in the times of Bagan king Thinligyaung in 344 - 387).
He was a very strong, and the king wanted to get rid of Blacksmith. The King sent a message that sister of Blacksmith was declared a queen.
When Blacksmith came to the city to congratulate his sister, he was caught and burned alive under a tree. His sister heard of this and in despair jumped in the flames and died.
Legend Of Blacksmith (Cont.)
The half-burned tree became abode of the nats of Blacksmith and his sister, and everyone who walked under the tree was cursed.
The King ordered that the tree be uprooted, and it was thrown in the Ayeyarwady River. People found it and carved images of the brother and sister in it.
The later kings of Bagan started pilgrimages to Mount Popa to worship the nats of Blacksmith and his sister. Since then this mountain has become sacred. The Nat of Blacksmith was declared to be the Domestic Lord of the Great Mountain and ruler of the mountain. He is still worshipped in many families.
Sunrise over Taung Kalat
View from the summit of the volcano.
Image by Brian Snelson
Legend Of The Flower-Eating Ogress
In the 11th century a flower-eating ogress lived on Mount Popa. This lady was called Me Wunna (Mel Wunna).
Mount Popa was frequently visited by the fast-runner Byatta. This fabulous man was in the service of the mighty Bagan king Anawrahta (1044 - 1077). Byatta was running to Mount Popa and back to Bagan (50 kilometres!) some 10 times per day in order to supply the king with fresh, fragrant flowers.
Byatta and Me Wunna fell in love and they had two sons.
Legend Of The Flower-Eating Ogress (Cont.)
When Anawrahta learned about the affair of Byatta, poor Byatta was executed. Me Wunna died of a broken heart.
Both Me Wunna and Byatta are some of the most powerful nats now and they live in Taung Kalat.
The sons of this pair were living in the wild after the death of their parents. Their lives were tragic as well - they were executed for their neglect in the construction of pagoda. The spirits of the brothers are nats as well, though they live elsewhere.
Taung Kalat turned into an important pilgrimage site for Burmese coming to worship nats, and monks still live here.
Many people come to visit, especially during the full moon in Nayon, (the end of May / beginning of June) and in Nadaw – (end of November / beginning of December).
There are several villages at the base of the cliff. Statues of 37 Mahagiri Nats stand at the foot of the cliff and the stairway to the top of the mountain starts through an ornate building.
Pilgrimage Site (Cont.)
This stairway has 777 steps. Those who ascend it are rewarded with a fabulous view. To the north-west opens a view to the distant temples of Bagan, and to the east is the towering forested Taung Ma-gyi summit.
On the top of hill is a complex of beautiful buildings with five gilded pagodas. Many macaque monkeys live here - and are happy to get some food from the tourists.
The site was revived in the early 20th century by the efforts of U Khandi (1868 - 1949) - a hermit and organizer of the development and reconstruction of several Burmese monasteries.
Golden summit - Taung Kalat
Image by Roger Price
There are many beliefs about the mountain - locals tell many stories about ghosts (Weikzars and Zawgyis) seen here.
In order not to offend nats, one should not wear black,green or red, when coming here. Visitors should not bring meat, especially pork.
Thanks to the diversity and richness of plant life, this is important site for herbal doctors as well.
There is also a belief that an army gathered on the slopes of Mount Popa is undefeatable.
Coordinates: 20.9130 N 95.2086 E
No: 341 (list of all attractions)
Categories: Buddhist shrines, Sites of legends
Values: Art, Architecture, History
Address: Asia, Burma, Mandalay Region, southern west from Mandalay, west from the summit of Mount Popa (Taung Ma-gyi), summit of Taung Kalat hill