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Irrawaddy River
MAY 2006
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Irrawaddy River @ National Geographic Magazine
By Kira Salak
Photographs by Steve Winter
The Irrawaddy River in Myanmar is a source of continuity and hope in a country at odds with itself.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

Numerous spirits live along the river, and worshipping them has become big business. Traveling the lazy way for the rest of my trip—by motorized boat—I stop near a small village called Thar Yar Gone to witness a nat-pwe, or spirit festival. Inside a large thatch hut, musicians play loud, frenetic music before a crowd of rowdy onlookers. On the opposite end of the hut, on a raised stage, sit several wooden statues: nat, or spirit, effigies. I pass through the crowd and enter a space underneath the stage, where a beautiful woman introduces herself as Phyo Thet Pine. She is a nat-kadaw, literally a "spirit's wife"—a performer who is part psychic, part shaman.

Only she isn't a woman—she is a he, a transvestite wearing bright red lipstick, expertly applied black eyeliner, and delicate puffs of powder on each cheek. Having traveled to the village by oxcart, smears of dirt covering my sweaty arms and face, I feel self-conscious before Pine's painstakingly created femininity. I smooth my hair and smile in apology at my appearance, shaking Pine's delicate, well-manicured hand.

The cult of the nats is Myanmar's ancient animist religion. In the 11th century, King Anawrahta established the Theravada school of Buddhism as Myanmar's primary religion. When his attempts to eliminate nat worship, considered a form of occultism not accepted by Buddhist scriptures, proved fruitless, he decided to adapt it instead, creating an official pantheon of 37 spirits to be worshipped as subordinates of the Buddha. The result is that many Buddhist temples in Myanmar now have their own nat-sin, spirit house, attached to the main pagoda.

Though people still worship spirits outside the official pantheon, the 37 enjoy a VIP status, with traveling troupes of dancers, singers, and musicians reenacting the human stories of the spirits' tumultuous lives and violent deaths. But nat-kadaws are more than just actors; they believe that the spirits actually enter their bodies and possess them. Each has an entirely different personality, requiring a change in costume, decorations, and props. Some of the spirits might be female, for whom the male nat-kadaw dons women's clothing; others, warriors or kings, require uniforms and weapons.

To most Burmese, being born female rather than male is karmic punishment indicating grave transgressions in former lifetimes. Many Burmese women, when leaving offerings at temples, pray to be reincarnated as men. But to be born gay—that is viewed as the lowest form of human incarnation. Where this leaves Myanmar's gay men, psychologically, I can only imagine. It perhaps explains why so many become nat-kadaws. It allows them to assume a position of power and prestige in a society that would otherwise scorn them.

Pine, who is head of his troupe, conveys a kind of regal confidence. His trunks are full of make-up and colorful costumes, making the space under the stage look like a movie star's dressing room. He became an official nat-kadaw, he says, when he was only 15. He spent his teenage years traveling around villages, performing. He went to Yangon's University of Culture, learning each of the dances of the 37 spirits. It took him nearly 20 years to master his craft. Now, at age 33, he commands his own troupe and makes 110 dollars for a two-day festival—a small fortune by Burmese standards.

He outlines his eyes with eyeliner and draws an intricate mustache on his upper lip. "I'm preparing for Ko Gyi Kyaw," he says. It is the notorious gambling, drinking, fornicating spirit.

The crowd, juiced on grain alcohol, hoots and shouts for Ko Gyi Kyaw to show himself. A male nat-kadaw in a tight green dress begins serenading the spirit. The musicians create a cacophony of sound. All at once, from beneath a corner of the stage, a wily-looking man with a mustache bursts out, wearing a white silk shirt and smoking a cigarette. The crowd roars its approval.

Pine's body flows with the music, arms held aloft, hands snapping up and down. There is a controlled urgency to his movements, as if, at any moment, he might break into a frenzy. When he talks to the crowd in a deep bass voice, it sounds nothing like the man with whom I just spoke. "Do good things!" he admonishes the crowd, throwing money. People dive for the bills, a great mass of bodies pushing and tearing at each other. The melee ends as quickly as it had erupted, torn pieces of money lying like confetti on the ground. Ko Gyi Kyaw is gone.

That was just the warm-up. The music reaches a feverish pitch when several performers emerge to announce the actual spirit possession ceremony. This time Pine seizes two women from the crowd—the wife of the hut's owner, Zaw, and her sister. He hands them a rope attached to a pole, ordering them to tug it. As the frightened women comply, they bare the whites of their eyes and begin shaking. Shocked as if with a jolt of energy, they start a panicked dance, twirling and colliding into members of the crowd. The women, seemingly oblivious to what they are doing, stomp to the spirit altar, each seizing a machete.

The women wave the knives in the air, dancing only a few feet away from me. Just as I am considering my quickest route of escape, they collapse, sobbing and gasping. The nat-kadaws run to their aid, cradling them, and the women gaze with bewilderment at the crowd. Zaw's wife looks as if she had just woken from a dream. She says she doesn't remember what just happened. Her face looks haggard, her body lifeless. Someone leads her away.

Pine explains that the women were possessed by two spirits, ancestral guardians who will now provide the household with protection in the future. Zaw, as the house owner, brings out two of his children to "offer" to the spirits, and Pine says a prayer for their happiness. The ceremony ends with an entreaty to the Buddha.

Pine goes under the stage to change and reappears in a black T-shirt, his long hair tied back, and begins to pack his things. The drunken crowd mocks him with catcalls, but Pine looks unfazed. I wonder who pities whom. The next day he and his dancers will have left Thar Yar Gone, a small fortune in their pockets. Meanwhile, the people in this village will be back to finding ways to survive along the river.

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