MYTHICAL CREATURES OF MYANMAR

The Mythical Creatures of Myanmar influence not only Southeast Asian culture but world and literary culture as well.

Asians are some of the most superstitious people in the world and the Burmese are no exception. Local legends and cultural beliefs have been heavily influenced by Buddhism and Hinduism (Myanmar is over 90% Buddhist) so it’s readily apparent where these beliefs come from. Mythical Creatures are found throughout the Golden Land – and with this guide you can spot them for yourself!

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Meilamu and Belu at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon

Myanmar has a number of its own mythical creatures reminiscent of Greek mythology that either resembles real-life or imaginary animals having a single combined form of several animals. Many mythical creatures originated in the life stories of the Buddha.

The most famous of these is probably the Chinthe, a mythological lion who is known for his bravery and stateliness, and therefore considered as appropriate to guard religious shrines. In this page, I’ll explain the mythological creatures that roam the Myanmar landscape and assemble at various Pagodas and religious shirnes.

Chinthe (Lion)

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Shwedagon Pagoda Chinthes

The Chinthe (Burmese: ခြင်္သေ့; Mon: ဇါဒိသိုၚ; Shan: သၢင်ႇသီႈ) is a leogryph (lion-like creature). According to Myanmar legends, lions are noted for their bravery and magnificence and thus considered the best guardians for religious shrines, pagodas and edifices. They are often seen at the entrances of pagodas and temples in Myanmar and other South and Southeast Asian countries.

Chinthe are almost always depicted in pairs and locals believe they serve to protect the pagoda. As this is Myanmar, there is a great story as to why the Chinthe guards the entrances of pagodas:

A princess had a son through her marriage to a lion, but later abandoned the lion.  The lion became enraged and set out on a path of terror throughout the lands. The son, unbeknownst to him that the furious lion was actually his own father, went out to slay him. The victorious son came back home to his mother stating that he slew the lion and was then informed that he killed his own father. The son later constructed a statue of the lion as a guardian of a temple to atone for his sin.

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Ngahtatgyi Chinthe photographed from Chaukhtatgyi Pyay

The Chinthe is revered and loved by the Burmese people and is used symbolically on the royal thrones of Burma. Predating the use of coins for money, brass weights cast in the shape of mythical beasts like the Chinthe were commonly used to measure standard quantities of staple items. Today, the Chinthe is featured prominently on the Kyat, Myanmar’s currency.

Belu (Ogre)

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Male and Female Belu

The Belu (Pan-Kike Belu: Belu with straight fangs which eat humans, generally malevolent; Panswé Belu: Belu with curved or hooked fangs which eat flowers and fruits, generally benevolent) is a giant ogre similar to an oriental gargoyle. It is a common creature in the stories of the Buddhist scriptures representing a huge, cruel, humanoid, shape-shifting and man-eating monster.

It’s not all horror with the Belu, however, as an example of a benevolent Belu is the famed Popa Medaw, the namesake of Mount Popa in Shan State.  Popa Medaw (also known as Queen-Mother of Popa, Lady of Popa or Mei Wunna) is a nat (spirit) of Myanmar. She was a flower-eating ogress of an extinct volcano 50 kilometers (31 miles) southeast of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Bagan.

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According to legend, King Anawrahta of Bagan ordered Byatta, a mythical person of Indian descent endowed with supernatural powers upon consumption of an inanimate Zawgyi (Burmese alchemist), to fetch fresh flowers ten times daily from Mount Popa. Byatta fell in love with Mei Wunna (Miss Gold). They conceived the two brothers named Shwe Hpyin (Inferior Gold) Shwe Hpyin Naungdaw and Shwe Hpyin Nyidaw. Upon the glorification of the two brothers into the 37 Nat Pantheon, the status of Mei Wunna was raised and she became the Queen-Mother of Popa. As her title suggests, she has dominion over Mount Popa.

Magan

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The Magan in Myanmar is a mythical sea monster resembling a crocodile with a prehensile snout and vice-like jaws.

In Hindu mythology, can be depicted as a half-terrestrial animal in the frontal part (stag, deer, crocodile or elephant) and half-aquatic in its hindquarters (usually a fish or seal tail, though sometimes a peacock or even a floral tail is depicted). Also known as Makara, it can take many different forms throughout Asia. In Hindu astrology, Makara is equivalent to the sign of Capricorn, tenth of the twelve symbols of the Zodiac.

Pyinsa Rupa

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The Pyinsa Rupa is a creature made from the amalgamation of parts of five different animals: elephant, bullock, horse, carp and toenayar (dragon). An alternative belief is that it consists of lion, elephant, buffalo, carp, and hintha. It is the official mascot of Myanmar Airways International.

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Sarmaree

The Sarmaree is a large long-haired wild or domesticated ox. This vain creature greatly values its hair.

Manote Thiha

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A fabulous mythical creature with a man’s torso and a lion’s hindquarters which is always depicted in a squatting posture on forked haunches.

Nagar, Nayar, Toenayar (Dragon)

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Nagar at the Kyain Thit Sar Shin Pyay

The Myanmar version of a dragon, the Nagar (also known as Nayar or Toenayar) is roughly a snake with a dragon head. The serpent-like mythical creature has no legs (yet sometimes depicted with four legs – Naga), can breathe fire and turn objects or creatures to ash just by looking at them.

Nawa Rupa (Rakhine Version – Byala)

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Byala at Mrauk U in Rakhine State

An amalgamation of nine animals in one creature (similar to the Pyinsa Rupa mentioned above), the Nawa Rupa (Nawayupa) is a national symbol of Rakhine State (formerly Arakan State). The locals believe this symbol brings good luck and is commonly found throughout the ancient kingdom of Mrauk U.

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Hintha Bird

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Hintha Bird pillar at Inle Lake

This ‘grotesque’ form of a duck is believed to have golden feathers and be able to fly great distances. Legend has it that they live in large flocks. A symbol of the Mon people, they believe their former capital Bago (Pegu) was founded on a site where a pair of Hintha Birds had dwelt.

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The Hintha Bird is a popular legend throughout Myanmar, especially in Shan State. Inle Lake’s iconic cities-on-the-water are lined with Hintha Bird and a good-sized barge decorated in gold flake and in the shape of the mythical creature sails the lake every year.

Keinayee-Keinayar (Kinnara, Kinnari)

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They are a pair of very tender, gentle mythical birds with a human head and torso. Keinayee is male and a celestial musician while the Keinayar female is renowned for her dance, song and poetry. They represent a symbol of true love. Though they are associated with Shan as well as Kayah States, only the Kayar (Karenni) people believe that they are descended from Keinayee and Keinayar.

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Kyrenni (Kayah) State Flag featuring a Kinnari
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One of the famous Kinnari at Wat Phra Kraew Pagoda in Bangkok, Thailand

Burmese Buddhists believe that out of the 136 past animal lives of Buddha, four were Kinnara. The kinnari is also one of the 108 symbols on the footprint of Buddha. In Burmese art, kinnari are depicted with covered breasts. The Myanmar Academy Awards statue for Academy Award winners is of a kinnari.

Karaweik Bird

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Karaweik Palace in Yangon hosts traditional dancing, a restaurant and many local events

This is a mythical creature of a bird that supposedly possesses a pleasant and melodious cry. Traditionally, a barge in the shape of a Karaweik was used in formal ceremonies as a royal commuter boat. The Karaweik Palace at Kandawgyi Lake in Yangon is perhaps the most well-known symbol of the Karaweik Bird. Considered a sacred commuter bird, the ancient Burmese kings used a boat shaped like the Karaweik.

Manussiha

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The Manussiha (Burmese: မနုဿီဟ; Shan: မၼုၵ်ႉသီႇႁႃႉ) is a combination of Pali manussa (man, representing wisdom) and siha (lion, representing strength). A half-lion half-man mythical creature that is symbolic of a guardian and usually found guarding the four corners of a pagoda, it has a human head and torso and lion hindquarters. It is comparable to the sphinx. The mythological figure are said to be more than two thousand years old.

Galone (Garuda Bird)

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The Garuda is a large humanoid/bird-like creature that appears in both Hinduism and Buddhism. It is the mythological king of birds and has a beak, two wings, two hands and two legs. In Burmese astrology, the vehicle of the Sunday planet is the Galone.

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In Hinduism, Garuda is the mount (Vahana) of the Lord Vishnu. Garuda is the Hindu name for the constellation Aquila. The brahminy kite and phoenix are considered to be the contemporary representations of Garuda.

Sar Mayee

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A large long-haired wild or domesticated ox of legend.

Ngamoeyeik

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The famous love story is on display at Meilamu Pagoda just north of Yangon city

A very large crocodile and along with the character of Min Nandar and Shin Hmwe Loon they make the Burmese equivalent of Romeo and Juliet.

Preta

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Preta is the Sanskrit name for a type of supernatural being described in some Indian religions as undergoing suffering greater than that of humans, particularly an extreme level of hunger and thirst. Preta is often translated into English as “hungry ghost” from the Chinese adaptation. In early sources such as the Petavatthu they are much more varied. The descriptions below apply mainly in this narrower context.

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Peik-ta at Meilamu Pagoda

Pretas are mythical creatures believed to have been false, corrupted, compulsive, deceitful, jealous or greedy people in a previous life. As a result of their karma, they are afflicted with an insatiable hunger for a particular substance or object. Traditionally, this is something repugnant or humiliating, such as cadavers or feces, though in more recent stories, it can be anything, however bizarre. Hungry ghosts in the Burmese representation are called Peik-ta.

Spider of Pindaya

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Pindaya (Burmese: ပင်းတယမြို့)  ) is a town in the Shan State of Myanmar. It is located in the west of the state in Taunggyi District. Mainly famous for its limestone caves called Pindaya Caves where thousands of Buddha images have been consecrated for worship over the centuries, it is also one of the towns that host an itinerant market every fifth day.

According to local legend, the term Pindaya is a corruption of the word Pinguya, which translates to “Taken the Spider” in Burmese. The name arose from the legend that there was once a large spider which resided in the caves and it had captured a local princess (some legends say 7 princesses, others say golden birds aka Hintha). The princess was rescued when the giant spider was slain by a prince using a bow and arrow. When the spider was killed, the prince was said to have exclaimed that he had taken the spider, that is to say he killed it. Thus, the exclamation became the name of the region and from it Pindaya received its name.

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Resources:

Mythical Creatures in Burmese Folklore Wiki

Myanmar.cm

Burmacenter.org

Myanmars.net

Phillip Harbor

Author, blogger, photographer, all-around world traveler

01 Comment

  1. TinaMarie

    I believe i have a 4 ft Pyinsa Yupa. wood sculpture WOuld you like to see it

    August 5, 2016 Reply

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Israeli Abroad

IsraeliAbroad (formerly SidepieceDiplomat) was started as a passion project by amateur photographer Phillip Harbor as he travels from Tel Aviv, Israel, to Yangon, Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) and throughout the world. Named for the adventure, the photoblog seeks to give followers a unique insight into life from a nation that was until recently closed off from the rest of the world for more than half a century. This blog is half photo-half information-half experience-driven. Yes that’s more than a whole… and yes that makes about as much sense as anything else you can find on this half of the globe! Feel free to follow us on social media and right here on the blog as we explore the incredible wonders of Myanmar. Updates will come as regularly as possible and don’t forget to share with your friends!

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IsraeliAbroad was started as a passion project by photographer Phillip Harbor as he travels from Tel Aviv, Israel, to Yangon, Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) and throughout the world. Named for the adventure, the photoblog seeks to give followers a unique insight into life from a nation that was until recently closed off from the rest of the world for more than half a century. This blog is half photo-half information-half experience-driven. Yes that’s more than a whole… and yes that makes about as much sense as anything else you can find on this half of the globe! Feel free to follow us on social media and right here on the blog as we explore the incredible wonders of Myanmar. Updates will come as regularly as possible and don’t forget to share with your friends!