Making Kin with Serpents in Myanmar’s Snake Temples

Several young men reach out and touch a Burmese python as it moves along a tile floor.

Three snakes swim slowly across a bath of fresh water, weaving between vibrant petals of lily, rose, and jasmine. As their undulating bodies make gentle waves, a silver bowl bobs across the water’s surface. Extended arms eagerly place bank notes into the glistening vessel while hundreds of eyes remain fixed on the dancing serpents. A resonant voice recites rhythmic excerpts from the sutta, holy Buddhist texts, wishing for the health, wealth, and happiness of the crowd.

The dancing serpents are Burmese pythons (Python bivittatus), and they make their home among a sea of golden spires and marble images of the Buddha in the dusty outskirts of Mandalay, Myanmar’s last royal city. Showered in giftsfruits, flowers, and Buddhist flagsthe snakes are entrusted with an important task: to guard a sacred buried treasure. There are rumors that this treasure, or thaik, contains priceless jewels from kingdoms past, bricks of an ancient shrine, and relics of Gautama Buddha buried deep beneath the temple’s foundations.

A burmese python in a pool surrounded by pink and white flower petals.

A Burmese python peers above the water during a daily bathing ritual. Photo by Nicole Tu-Maung, 2018.

Those who worship at this temple have never seen the treasure, yet many describe feeling its presence throughout the landscape. Deep within the earth, it emits a radiant power known as dago, a quality which enlivens all sacred objects in the Buddhist imaginary. By virtue of this holy treasure, supernatural power becomes embedded in place.

A Snake Temple Rises

According to local legend, a meditative monk first discovered the treasure in 1976 while wandering through the dense, tropical forest. Seeking respite in nature, he came across the ruins of an ancient temple. In the midst of the decay, his eyes landed on three Burmese pythons coiled around a crumbling statue of the Buddha. For the monk, the carnivorous beasts resting motionless on the serene image of the Buddha was a clear indication of the dago of the land.

A large sculpture of Buddha sitting atop a platform with two snakes on either side.

An awning surrounds an image of the Buddha and his Naga guardians in Yankin Hill, Mandalay. Photo by Nicole Tu-Maung, 2018.

Skilled in the supernatural arts, or lawki-pyinna, the monk concluded that the pythons were manifestations of nats, animist spirits of Buddhist cosmology. He interpreted the snakes as guardians of a thaik and recognized them as protectors of the sanctity of the Buddhist religion. He shared his findings with the wider monastic and lay community, who exalted him for his ability to perceive the occult. Soon after his discovery, wealthy donors and devotees from the local village helped to build a temple that would house the snakes and protect the thaik. The construction of the temple created a new space for the perpetuation of Buddhism and its teachings as well as a place for the community to gather.

The three snakes found by the monk were the first to live in the temple but are now deceased. Since their deaths, members of the Buddhist laity and even devout members of the Myanmar military have brought dozens more to the temple, seeking to strengthen their ties to the thaik and demonstrate their devotion to Buddhism.

Today, thousands of devout followers visit the temple each week from villages and cities alike. A bustling economy of traders, restaurant owners, and drivers has assembled around it, enjoying the generous income brought by the large number of visitors to this once small, unassuming village. This vibrant temple of spirits and serpents has become known colloquially as a Mway Paya—a Snake Temple.

Buddhism in the Age of Capitalism

This Snake Temple is one among several located on the outskirts of Yangon and Mandalay, Myanmar’s two most densely populated metropolitan areas. Each of these Mway Paya houses some number of Burmese pythons; some temples have only a single python while others may have dozens. Tradition associates the spirits embodied by the snakes with the Naga, a mythical serpent of Buddhist and Hindu lore.

Though influenced by nat worship, an ancient Indigenous animist tradition, Snake Temples first appeared in Myanmar’s religious landscape only in the late 20th century. An emerging capitalist market characterized Myanmar’s history during this period and took root in urban areas before expanding throughout the country. The emergence of these novel temples and the practices that they promote represent the ways that Buddhism in Myanmar has commingled and converged with capitalism in particular spaces over the last few decades.

According to traditional doctrine, Buddhism values renunciation and the sharing of communal resources. In contrast, capitalist ideas about success are predicated on the accrual of personal wealth and private ownership. Doctrinally speaking, Buddhism and capitalism should be fundamentally incompatible. And yet, because snake temples offer novel forms of worship in which practitioners can seek and acquire material wealth through religious intervention, they reconcile the discord between these two belief systems.

A burmese python with gold paint on its head coiled on top of a person's crossed legs.

A Burmese python, marked with gold paint, lives in a Snake Temple west of Yangon. Photo by Nicole Tu-Maung, 2018.

The voluntary possession ritual, or winn-puu, is one form of such intervention. During this practice, a follower seeks to become temporarily possessed by a spirit, specifically one that is embodied by a snake on site. The possession is usually accompanied by the donation of money, fruits, and flowers, and allows an individual to connect and communicate with a spirit. Typically, the devotee asks the spirit to help them attain wealth in the mortal realm through the use of supernatural abilities. In exchange, the human promises their continued dedication to both the spirit and the Buddhist religion as a whole.

Through the practice of winn-puu, the human and spirit work together to perpetuate Buddhism and further the individual’s economic goals. Essentially, winn-puu does the work of coupling piety with profit. According to religious historian Niklas Foxeus, novel Buddhist practices like winn-puu are present at Buddhist temples more broadly, cultivating a form of prosperity Buddhism. By hosting such practices, Myanmar’s Snake Temples create a space where Buddhism and capitalism can develop a common ground. Here, practitioners reimagine Buddhist cosmologies to accommodate a changing social and economic landscape.

Making Merit, Making Kin

In the sacred spaces where pythons and people move, meditate, and live together, Snake Temples forge new connections between the mundane and the spiritual worlds. Humans, snakes, and spirits are inextricably tangled in a web of Buddhist cosmologies and local histories that, in turn, are grounded in the physical foundations of Snake Temples. These novel spaces of worship, built in the midst of capitalist expansion, weave new human-animal spiritual relations that hold the potential to strengthen the ties between Buddhism and its community of followers.

Burmese pythons are important participants in the social interactions which take place in Snake Temples. Their bodies serve as the link between the spirit world and the mundane world. The pythons, the nats they manifest, and their devout followers are understood as kindred spirits, bound to one another from some past lifetime in the endless cycle of birth and rebirth fundamental to the Buddhist worldview.

Buddhism expands notions of community and forges a system of relations that extends into the past and beyond the present to include more than just humans.

Through the Buddhist lens, death is not the cessation of life, but indicates rebirth into another. With the passing of each lifetime, beings are reborn into other beings—humans, snakes, trees, and others. Throughout the course of one’s cosmic existence, bonds are forged with living things, places, and spiritual entities, resulting in the formations of a complex network of relations. These relations are believed to persist through future lifetimes, creating unity or closeness between individual people, animals, and landscapes. In other words, the life of an individual is part of an entangled association of past lives and other beings. Buddhism thus expands notions of community because the cycle of birth and rebirth forges a system of relations that extends into the past and beyond the present to include more than just humans.

A man reaches into a pool to touch a swimming Burmese python.

A man makes a physical and spiritual connection with a Burmese python at a Snake Temple south of Mandalay. Photo by Matt Venker, 2018.

The spiritual and human-animal relations at Snake Temples represent a form of making kin, or to borrow from Donna Haraway’s use of the concept, these relations produce “something other/more than entities tied by ancestry or genealogy.” Humans, snakes, and spirits are believed to be bound through their cosmic relations, and these relations are reinforced through ritual and religion. Snake Temples illustrate the ways that Buddhist perceptions toward human-animal connections are manifest in lived practices. Though pythons may be viewed as dangerous in many other contexts, these unique religious sites install them as deities. Here, beliefs about the spirit world lead to coexistence with and appreciation for Burmese pythons.

Such beliefs are essential to a world of mass species extinction. The Burmese python, like many other reptiles, is in a position of precarity. The species is declining in its native range in Southeast Asia and is classified as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. The primary causes for its decline include harvest for leather that is motivated primarily by demand from an international market. Like much of the world’s biodiversity, the growth of market economies are in part responsible for the decline of this species.

And yet, the expansion of capitalist economies is also an important impetus for the development of novel prosperity Buddhist traditions such as those visible at Snake Temples. At these sites, pythons are reimagined as spiritual beings which can help humans acquire wealth in the mortal realm so that they can participate and succeed in the market economy. They are integral to the spiritual processes undertaken for attaining economic prosperity.

For this reason, pythons are venerated rather than exploited. Viewed as deities, the snakes at the sites are often referred to using the Burmese word baa, a title that is typically reserved for Buddhist monks. While capitalist growth has the potential to erode human-animal relations, there nevertheless remains hope that new relations will emerge. In the context of Snake Temples at least, the making of kin helps give humans and pythons hope for resilience in a changing socio-economic environment.

Members of a Buddhist congregation place fruits and flowers on a shrine.

Members of a Buddhist congregation place fruits and flowers on a nat shrine in Yangon. Photo by Matt Venker, 2018.

Emerging in a period of capitalist development, Snake Temples demonstrate how new, complex bonds are created between humans and animals to adapt to changing times. These sites enliven and entangle the sacred landscapes and the living beings which inhabit them in a fabric of Buddhist cosmologies and capitalist economies—expanding and contracting with the ever-changing landscape.

Featured image: Young men gather around a Burmese python at a Snake Temple south of Mandalay. Photo by Nicole Tu-Maung, 2019.

Nicole Tu-Maung recently completed her M.S. in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. This article draws from her master’s thesis, titled “The Spirit of a Serpent: Seeing Buddhism, Environment, and Politics through the ‘Snake Temples’ of Myanmar.” She will soon begin teaching and research as Faculty of Science at the Parami Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences in Yangon, Myanmar. Twitter. Contact.