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Mount Popa ( ; ) is a volcano 1518 metres (4981 feet) above sea level, believed to be extinct, and located in central Burmamarker (Myanmar) about 50 km (30 miles) southeast of Baganmarker (alt: Pagan) in the Pegu Range. It can be seen from the River Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) as far away as 60 km (40 miles) in clear weather. Mount Popa is perhaps best known for the nearby stunningly picturesque Popa Taungkalat monastery atop an outcrop. The Popa Taungkalat (Taung Kalat) Shrine is home to 37 Mahagiri Nats, or spirits. Statues depicting the Nats are at the base of the Shrine.

Name

The name Popa is believed to come from the Pali Sanskrit word 'popa' meaning flower.

Features

Southwest of Mount Popa is Taung Kalat (pedestal hill), a 737 metre (2,417 ft) sheer-sided volcanic plug. A Buddhist monastery is located at the summit of Taung Kalat. At one time, the Buddhist hermit U Khandi maintained the stairway of 777 steps to the summit of Taung Kalat. The Taung Kalat pedestal hill is sometimes itself called Mount Popa and given that Mount Popa is the name of the actual volcano that caused the creation of the volcanic plug, to avoid confusion, the volcano (with its crater blown open on one side) is generally called Taung Ma-gyi (mother hill). The volcanic crater itself is a mile in diameter.

From the top of Taung Kalat, one can enjoy a panoramic view. One can see the ancient city of Baganmarker; behind it to the north, the massive solitary conical peak of Taung Ma-gyi rises like Mount Fujimarker in Japanmarker. There is a big caldera, 610 metres (2,000 ft) wide and 914 metres (3,000 ft) in depth so that from different directions the mountain takes different forms with more than one peak. The surrounding areas are arid, but the Mt Popa area has over 200 springs and streams. It is therefore likened to an oasis in the desert-like dry central zone of Burma. This means the surrounding landscape is characterized by prickly bushes and stunted trees as opposed to the lush forests and rivers Burma is famous for. Plenty of trees, flowering plants and herbs grow due to the fertile soil from the volcanic ash. Prominent among the fauna are Macaque monkeys that have become a tourist attraction on Taung Kalat.


History and legend

Many legends are associated with this mountain including its dubious creation from a great earthquake and the mountain erupted out of the ground in 442 B.C.

Mount Popa is considered the abode of Burma's most powerful Nat and as such is the most important nat worship center. It has therefore been called Burma's Mount Olympusmarker. Brother and sister Mahagiri (Great Mountain) nats, from the kingdom of Tagaung at the upper reaches of the Irrawaddy, sought refuge from King Thinligyaung of Bagan (344-387). Their wish was granted and they were enshrined on Mt Popa. Popa Medaw (Royal Mother of Popa), who according to legend was a flower-eating ogress called Me Wunna, lived at Popa. She fell in love with Byatta, whose royal duty was to gather flowers from Popa for King Anawrahta of Bagan (1044-1077). Byatta was executed for disobeying the king who disapproved of the liaison, and their sons were later taken away to the palace. Me Wunna died of a broken heart and, like Byatta, became a nat. Their sons also became heroes in the king's service but were later executed for neglecting their duty during the construction of a pagoda at Taungbyone near Mandalaymarker. They too became powerful nats but they remained in Taungbyone where a major festival is held annually in the month of Wagaung (August). Although all 37 Nats of the official pantheon are represented at the shrine on Mt Popa, in fact only four of them - the Mahagiri nats, Byatta and Me Wunna - have their abode here.

Popular destination

Me Wunna with her sons Min Gyi and Min Lay at Mt Popa
Many Burmese pilgrims visit Mt Popa every year, especially at festival season on the full moon of Nayon (May/June) and the full moon of Nadaw (November/December). Local people from the foot of Mt Popa, at Kyaukpadaungmarker (10-miles), go mass-hiking to the peak during December and also in April when the Myanmar new year called Thingyan festival is celebrated. Before King Anawrahta's time, hundreds of animals were sacrificed to the nats during festivals.

Burmese superstition says that on Mt Popa, one should not wear red or black or bring meat, especially pork, as it could offend the resident nats, although Byatta and his brother Byatwi were the only Muslims who had shipwrecked and landed in Burma.

Development

It is now a designated nature reserve and national park. Nearby lies Kyetmauk Taung Reservoir that provides sufficient water for gardens and orchards producing jackfruit, banana, mango and papaya as well as flowering trees such as saga (Champac) and gant gaw (Mesua ferrea Linn). A pozzolan mill to supply material for the construction of Yeywa Dam on Myitnge Rivermarker near Mandalaymarker is in operation.

However, there are downsides to the development of the Mount Popa area. Tourism can be both a positive and negative factor for the economic and social development of the area. Since the mountain is so unique from the surrounding lands it attracts much attention from the Burmese citizens. There are many Burmese myths about the mountain, especially the one that said victory for any man who collected their army on the slopes of the mountain was guaranteed. The belief that victory can be guaranteed by visiting Mount Popa is interesting because it shows the cultural identification of life and prosperity with the mountain. The still current popularity of Mount Popa exemplifies the fact that Burmese people still rely heavily on ancient traditions in daily life. It is these ancient traditions that characterize the culture of the surrounding area and beyond. People travel great distances to assure their good luck into the coming years to Mount Popa, host to an immense annual festival which actually takes place in the temple atop the mountain.

The festival involves a transgender medium being possessed by a nat spirit which give him the ability to communicate between the nats and the people. It is these types of festivals, the type that are unique to the region but also incredibly important to the participants, that attracts tourists to Burma. The tourist business is booming in Burma, however this new source of income is not propelling the Burmese population to prosperity. The Burmese tourist trade is actually causing many problems in the country and assisting the military government oppress its people. One major problem of the tourist trade is the religious importance of Mount Popa is being exploited . In Burma the government is more focused on the expansion of tourism as opposed to the defense of cultural practices. There are no security measures in place to keep religious sites, like Mount Popa, away from the detrimental effects of tourism. It has even been asserted that the government turned to promoting tourism in order to fund the oppression of ethnic minorities. It is with the extra revenue that tourism brings that the military government is still able to fund its relocation and other projects.

Sites like Mount Popa are located on many websites describing the “must see” sights of Burma. The military junta is utilizing the novelty of the ceremonies being performed on Mount Popa to entice tourists to visit the religious site without protecting the sites and the local people from the effects of such an increase in tourism. The government has actually been accused of using forced labor in its efforts to promote tourism. However, while there are many negatives to the tourist trade, there are also many people living near Mount Popa who rely on both the religious pilgrims and the tourists to fulfill their economic wants. The town of Kyaukpadaung at the foot of Mount Popa builds its market place around the selling of flowers for worshipers, peanuts for the monkeys that live in the Mount Popa forests and souvenirs for the tourists. . It is this double-edged sword that makes tourism so hard to stop in Burma. While the government funds its operations with such tourism it has also quickly become the livelihood of many of the people living near these tourist sites.

Gallery

Image:Mt Popa.jpg|Buddhist monastery on Taung KalatImage:Mt Popa1.jpg|View from Mount Popa to Taung KalatImage:Mount_Popa.JPG|Mount Popa and the smaller precipice Taung Kalat with its nat shrines atop to the left of picture seen from a distance across a dry riverbedImage:Macaque_mother&child.JPG|Macaque mother and child on Taung KalatImage:Mount Popa 001.jpg|Mount Popa

References

  • Burmese Encyclopedia, Vol. 7, p. 61. Printed in 1963.


Notes

  1. Htin Aung, Maung "Folk Elements in Burmese Buddhism", Oxford University Press: London, 1962.
  2. Fay, Peter Ward "The Forgotten Army: India's Armed Struggle for Independence 1942-1945", University of Michigan Press: 1995.
  3. “Time Asia Inc.” [1] copyright 2006. Last viewed Feb 9, 2009
  4. Ed. Poku, Nana and David T. Graham "Redefining Security: Population Movements and National Security", Praeger Publishers, New York: 1998
  5. Byrne, Denise "Surface Collection: Archaeological Travels in Southeast Asia", AltaMira Press, 2007


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