A folktale from Myanmar, it will acquaint readers with a new word called ‘Nat’. Nats are spirits, good or bad, and they are believed to have supernatural powers. The Buddhists believe that everybody goes through the cycle of life, death and rebirth – all determined by the person’s ‘karma’ or deeds. Being a Nat is just one of the cycle of lives.
Nats need salvation as much as humans and so they help humans by being their guardian spirits. They guard the rivers, mountains, towns, villages, forests, lakes, seas and homes. In Myanmar, the Buddhists believe that the Buddha himself went through several lifetimes as a Nat before he finally became the Buddha.
It is a common sight in Myanmar: people throng the gold-domed pagodas and light candles and incense and offer fresh flowers at the wooden altars of the Nats under huge trees. Their forms are similar to those in India. They are shown mounted on the ‘hintha’ bird that is called Thurathati. It is believed to be a Burmese transformation of the Hindu Goddess Saraswati).
Once upon a time there was a poor orphan boy called Soe Than who lived in a small village in the Chin hills. He earned his living by working as a labourer.
In his spare time he would sit under the shade of a huge teak tree and using twigs, would draw pictures of the mountains, rivers and people that looked very life-like.
Soe Than did not have any money to buy a paintbrush but people who saw his paintings were filled with wonder and appreciation. Soon his fame as a painter grew.
One day while working at a farm, he felt very tired and though it was only afternoon, fell asleep. In his dream he saw Zozhi, a Nat spirit.
The Nat spoke to him and said, “Soe Than, people appreciate your painting talent and so I wish
to give you a paintbrush. Use it anyway you want.” Saying this the Nat put a brush next to the boy and vanished.
When Soe Than got up from his sleep, he found a golden brush lying next to him.
To test the magic of his dream, Soe Than painted a plate and filled it with fish, prawns, rice and fruits – everything he wanted to eat. To his surprise, the plate and food turned real as if by magic. Soe Than was delighted and ate the food with great relish.
He then painted a set of new clothes – a loungyi (the unstitched garment men drape waist down) and shirt. Lo and behold, these, too, became real. Soe Than took off his old torn clothes and wore his new ones.
The next day Soe Than went to the village and gathered all the poor people. With his golden brush he painted food – hot steaming rice, fish curry and all kinds of fruits, which he fed them. The people blessed him and wished him happiness.
Soon his fame spread as the boy with the golden brush. The king’s adviser also heard of Soe Than’s incredible ability to paint. But when he approached the orphan boy to paint his heart’s desire, Soe Than refused and did not even raise his brush.
In anger the king’s adviser ordered his arrest. Soe Than was flung into a dark dungeon without food or water. But Soe Than was not worried – every day he would paint his food and water and eat it.
One day the king’s adviser secretly watched how Soe Than painted and ate his food. Losing control of himself, he ordered his soldiers to kill the boy.
As soon as he heard the footfalls of rushing soldiers, Soe Than knew that they were coming to kill him. He took out his brush and painted stairs to escape. The painted stairs became real and Soe Than escaped!
When the soldiers began chasing him, Soe Than painted himself a horse and galloped away. But the soldiers continued to give chase and came after him on their horses, trying to lasso him.
Every time a lasso was thrown, Soe Than painted one in return. Ultimately a lasso thrown by Soe Than pulled the king’s adviser down from his horse and killed him instantly. The remaining soldiers got scared and stopped the chase.
Afraid that the king would not let him live in peace, Soe Than left the village and went to a far off town. All day long Soe Than painted and sold his work to earn a living. He painted animals that did not have any limbs.
One day by mistake, he painted a monkey with all four limbs. The monkey turned real and started troubling people who passed under the tree. When the king heard of this, he called Soe Than to the palace and ordered him to paint a bank for him.
Soe Than painted a vault for him. The king was not happy and asked him to paint more vaults. So Soe Than painted many vaults one on top of the other. Unfortunately, the building collapsed and became a ruin.
A fascinated king took Soe Than to the town outskirts and told him to paint a huge ocean. Soe Than painted an ocean and soon the whole area was filled with a huge body of water.
Next day the king asked Soe Than to paint a huge boat. Soe Than obeyed and made a large sailing boat. The king climbed in and so did many others. But the king was not happy. He ordered Soe Than to make a storm, like the kind no one had ever seen before.
So Soe Than painted grey clouds and a storm as the boat slowly made its way to the sea. But the king was still dissatisfied. He ordered the boy to paint the storm stronger. Unknowingly, the boat kept moving towards the deep sea and after some time overturned. killing the king and the other occupants.
Soe Than disappeared with a Zozhi who came on a white steed and carried him away. No one knows to this day where Soe Than is. Well known ‘sayadaws’ (head monks) give their own explanations, but no can ever explain where Soe Than actually is.