Before the arrival of Buddhism, Animist worship of sacred items, supernatural power, and ghosts was common throughout all regions of the Mekong basin. People worshipped ghosts and ancestral spirits in order to support themselves in times of hardship. These Animist worshippers believed that supernatural powers could help resolve problems and protect them from future turmoil. Animism was inherited both from families and from contact between ethnic groups that shared common languages and cultural characteristics. Therefore, it is common to find the same beliefs or worshipping practices in different regions. Today, because of its universal doctrine and accessibility, Buddhism has taken over as the dominant religious influence in people’s life. As a result, the importance of animism has diminished, but continues to remains important in many areas. These beliefs still exist among the highlanders in Lao People's Democratic Republic and in Thailand, and among the Nat people in Republic of the Union of Myanmar.
Nat in Pali language means someone who is supportive. It can be carved from wood, and can be made into different shapes such as gods, goddesses, elders or ogres.
A Nat is the spirit of someone who dies due to a severe cause. It is supportive, and helps its worshippers who communicate with it via a medium. A Nat is a semi-god; higher than a ghost, yet not equivalent to a god.
A Nat is best described in the book “Tong Sae Ku Ni Meeng” or “37 Nats” written by Au Pho Ja. “...To become a Nat, people believe that Nat comes from a person from any races and any social statuses – a king or a commoner, a rich or a poor, a female or a male, a child or an adult. However, that person must be admirable, supportive and kind. His or her death is piteous, evoking people’s pity and shock. People talk about him or her. Then his or her soul becomes a Nat…” In addition, the cause of death of someone who becomes a Nat is unnatural, severe and sad. The people of Myanmar call a Nat who dies because of a violent death a “Nat Seng” or “violently dead Nat.” This type of Nat differs from an angel Nat who dies because of his or her own merits. Nonetheless, not all violent soul become Nats. Each Nat will usually have it’s own touching legend and supernatural power. With all the aforementioned factors, a soul can become a Nat.
In the past, Nat worshipping was constricted by beliefs and traditions set by local communities or families. Today, the majority of Myanmarese people usually pay respect a Nat according to their own personal faith, often tailored to a specific problem or individualized protective prayer. For example, worship of Nat Nang Ga Rai is believed to give good fortune in trading. This Nat is depicted as a woman wearing a buffalo head on her head. The legend of Nat Nang Ga Rai or Pa Ko Mae Dor is from Bago, formerly known as Hanthawaddy. Even though this Nat is not included in 37 main Nats of Myanmar, this Nat is quite popular among the people of Myanmar.
The legend of Nat Nang Ga Rai (Pa Ko Mae Dor)
“...Mrs. Ga Rai was a water buffalo who adopted a prince due to the fact that the prince’s family disappeared during a war. When the prince was grown up, he demanded his throne and once he restored his throne, he did not return to his foster mother at all. Mrs. Ga Rai really missed and wanted to meet him. She madly searched for him until she became a talk of the town. The prince heard about his foster mother’s violent act; he commanded his soldiers to subdue her and he did not dare to tell anyone that his foster mother was a buffalo because of his embarrassment. Eventually, she was killed by an arrow; the prince felt guilty. Therefore, he arranged a great funeral ceremony for her. When people knew about this story, they talked about it and admired the buffalo mother. She then became Nat Nang Ga Rai or Pa Ko Mae Dor…
Thailand – Myanmar: Our Lands are Together. 2017. “The legend of Nat Nang Ga Rai or Pa Ko Mae Dor” [Online]. Retrived from https://www.facebook.com/thailand.and.myanmar/photos/a.253939628129320.1073741828.253855161471100/612208678969078/ ?type=3&theater (9 January 2018)