The Lord of the Highway
Since the expressway from Yangon to Mandalay was opened in 2005 there have been terrible accidents, mostly caused by speeding or overtired drivers. As can be seen in the photo that I took some time ago in the parking lot of a restaurant on the expressway.
Very few people, however, know the true reason for this dramatic increase. Before the expressway was built drivers had to take highway No. 1 that runs more or less parallel to it via Bago, Toungoo, Meiktila and Kyaukse – just to name the biggest cities on the way to Mandalay. Even though this highway has seen a lot of improvements it still takes much longer than going on the expressway. Not least because of the trucks that are not allowed on the expressway.
Shortly after leaving Yangon near milestone 20 (just before you reach Htaukkyant) there stands a big Banyan tree (Ficus benghalensis) on the western side of the road. Next to it is a shrine devoted to the guardian spirit Shwe Nyaung Bin Bo Bo Gyi, as he is called in Burmese. (Guardian Lord of the Golden Banyan). Now our reader Harry Hpone Thant is going to tell us the fascinating story of this tree:
People traveling to places beyond Yangon usually stop here to kowtow to the Lord of the Golden Banyan. One or more of the passengers pay respect to the statue of the Nat (the Burmese word is probably derived from the Sanskrit word natha which means lord or master) and pray for a safe journey. And leave a sizeable donation for the keepers of the shrine. The driver moves his car back and forth three times as if paying homage to the guardian Lord. The attending spirit medium (nan htein) would recite incantations for safe and happy travel and a bunch of eugenia sprigs and flowers plus two strips of red and white ribbons (shar pan de) are tied at the car’s grille, presumably to ward off evil and accidents or as a signal to other malevolent spirits on the road to stay away!!!!
My wife usually does this ritual whenever we travel outside of Yangon while I wait in the car with the children, munching on deep fried bean balls and mutton skewers. And when my wife comes back with the garland of flowers and strips of red and white ribbons, just tie them to the car bonnet and safe and happy journey, away we go. Not only that, new owners of cars, whether brand new cars or 2nd hand, bring their new possessions to ‘show’ it to the Lord Golden Banyan. This to also to ensure that their vehicles are safe and avoid accidents.
But how did this ritual evolve? According to an article in a publication by the Yangon City Development Committee, the statue inside once was kept as the guardian spirit of a Shan village that existed here before the Hlawga Reservoir was built. When the British built the reservoir the Shan village was relocated to avoid being submerged. But the villagers left the statue by the wayside. Reasons unknown. Might be that some travelers started this ritual of paying homage to the statue before starting their journey, but nobody can tell.
This shrine was so lucrative for the keepers that even the High Court got involved in who inherited the keeper’s right after one of the families of the original keepers died!! Now, alas, with people taking another route to drive to Mandalay via the new Expressway there is less traffic and presumably income has also fallen. But technology had caught up with our supernatural guardians. Last time I traveled from Yangon to Naypyitaw and the driver took another route via Pale Myo Thit, a new satellite town and the new Expressway.
I asked him: “Do you no longer pay homage to Shwe Nyaung Bin Bo Bo Gyi?” – He said “No worries, I have done that by Viber”.*
Note: There are also many local spirits, travelers praying to assure a safe and accident-free journey – but another time!!!
* Remark by Axel: I wonder if he had paid via online banking, too …
Whether you believe in Nats or not – they don’t care. Our reader Suki Singh mentioned that there was a Naga** shrine in front of the SOS clinic in the grounds of Inya Lake Hotel. It took a manager four years to convince the locals that the shrine should be demolished. When it was finally done, a huge fire broke out in the hotel’s staff house. A ‘shaman’ urgently requested to rebuild the shrine in a clearing in the hotel’s grounds. Since then there have been no more problems.
** Nagas are mythological serpents that dwell in the water. You can see their statues at every pagoda as people believe that their presence prevents fire.