November 29, 2020

Taung Byone Nat Festival: A Gay Time On The Long Road Out Of Mandalay

Myanmar’s Village Festival That Reveres The LGBTQI Community

The purple, lime green and yellow shirts flow with the movement of the dancers on the road out of Mandalay. Gigantic speakers that are strapped to rusty cars propel music over the revellers onto the green muddy rice paddocks.

Today the world is full of colour, the bright blue sky opens to the sun that lights the path for us and over two hundred thousand people making our way to Myanmar’s Taung Pyone Nat (Spirit) Festival that’s held every August or September.

This is a festival like no other, it’s the theatre, the glamour and the seeing an entire community brought together to worship transgender spiritual leaders, or the nat kadaw.

The festival is held in the tiny village Taung Pyone just north of Mandalay, Myanmar’s second largest city and we’re far from alone.

Squashed into the back of Bus-Trucks are crowds of people who thump over the potholes while throwing wads of cash onto the road. They aim for the silver rice dish held by the dances. None land where it’s directed.

The notes float, some towards the paddocks, the rest land on the hot tar waiting to be swooped up by a dancer who breaks ranks to dash between the passing traffic.

There’s an intense buzz in the air that builds the closer we get to the tiny village. The party has begun, and will rarely stop, day or night for the next week.

Where the road stops is where the traffic jam grinds to a halt. A breath, to walk, savoring the air that’s saturated, even though the clouds have just begun to fall away with the end of the rainy season.

Too late for more air, we’re swept into the crowd of thousands of revelers holding children, their partner, the arm of their frail parents or are just alone.

It’s a time for family, the old and the young and all are dressed the for heat, still no-one cares if the sweat falls down your neck. That’s thrill of today, to party, to pay homage to trans men and women, in the hope of being blessed for the coming year.

The boom boom of the drums tells us the gates of village are ahead. We can’t see it as each of us is squashed together all pushing gently against our sweaty bodies.

Market sellers push hats of green woven leaves towards us. We ignorantly walk past, are these a sign we’re tourists, we’re gay, we’re not gay, or maybe Buddhists? We ignore them, not wanting to send any signals. Later we find out the green hats, no, they’re nothing more than a sunhat.

The further we are swept up in the swell of the crowds the music gets unbearably loud.

The hairs on my arms unexpectedly stand on edge, something feels wrong. Even above the noise we hear young men hooting in a menacing way.

There’s an instinct of survival, these must be hooligans, I try and look inconspicuous. Ridiculous! I’m taller, dressed like tourists carrying expensive cameras and spotted.

“Take photo, take photo” they demand and laugh dancing in formation in front of the camera. Nervously I show them the shot and they burst out laughing and they dance into the crowd.

Oh my God, this is the best gay festival, right here, in a tiny village north of Mandalay. The openness of sexuality is refreshing, exciting, as is the community that reveres the spirit.

It was over a thousand years ago Myanmar’s first King, Anawratha, began the festival as atonement.

He’d execution of two of his generals, two brothers who’d led their men into battle but chose to ignore the King’s command to make a brick for a pagoda, instead they headed out to party.

Angry, he chopped off their heads, and the next day suffered with overwhelming regret. As restitution for their execution, King Anawratha began the Taung Pyone Nat Festival.

The deeper we move through the streets we get swept into the a human flow that’s heading towards the air is thick and still as we walk into the bright lights. Crowds gather, watching, waiting.

On the stage floor rows of men sit on the floor, their ruby, canary yellow and purple lace hats are tweaked perfectly in the shape of a fan.

We wait, not knowing what is about to happen. The scene is set by a hsaing waing; a traditional Burmese orchestra of gongs, drums and the high-pitched squeak of a reed pipe.

Now nat kadaw, an older woman, dressed to the hilt, enters serenely with her entourage of helpers. She walks towards a women and child taking her face into her hands.

As her forehead leans towards the lady and child, her hands come together in prayer. This is the spirit we’re here to see. This the blessing on those who seek wealth, forgiveness and peace.

Further into the festival village, is a younger nat kadaw, dancing with an extremely loud backing track; later we come across two trans nat kadaws and their entourage; they pause to be photographed, smile, and move on to the tent where they will feature.

Finally, another trans mat kadaw, dances in a group of followers, drinking from a whisky bottle. She’s seeking nat kadaw, a state of trance to channel a nat’s spirit.

Overview: Taung Pyone Nat (Spirit) Festival

Benefits: It’s fabulous fun, light, bright and friendly

Warnings:

It’s hot, particularly in the theatres, or in the crowds walking through the streets

There were no visible toilets.

There are limited places to sit comfortably, but a few make do restaurants.

The noise levels get intense.

This is Myanmar, a side we never expected to see. The blessings are made on each person who approaches the nat kadaw. In return a gift of money is pinned to her dress; an exchange of shared fortune, of understanding and a culture of love.

We see the event, without a true understanding of what is happening; however, it is the experience of the nat kadaws that we came to see, and the people of Myanmar in a festival spirit.

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