Contents | A Letter to Our Reader | Once upon a time in Bago | Nine-Gems Ring | Khaung Cawi, to honour wives | Sea Gypsies | It's Good to Know | Cheroots | Traditional Chin House | Bandoola Boat | Events Calendar
Once upon a time in Bago...
By Ma Thanegi
Bago lies about 80km north of Yangon, the capital. As yet without high-rises and luxury hotels, it has the look of a bustling and energetic small town with over-loaded trucks rolling through, trishaws scurrying here and there, and busy people hurrying at a pace you don't even see in Yangon. It has all the look of a trading post, but behind the commercial feel of the place, there lie centuries of glorious history. Great kings had ruled there, beginning with Tabinshwehti, a soldier king who ascended the throne at the age of fourteen and united the empire under his rule; his successor Bayint Naung who led it to greatness, and their successors who saw to it that Theravada Buddhism flourished more than ever. It was a prosperous capital of Lower Myanmar, a thriving port with ships sailing up the once-broad Bago river to trade in gold, rubies, perfumed wood, silk and the famous Martaban jars.
Rescued gravestones now kept in safety are records of the foreign traders who had settled in Bago. Neatly cut by local masons, one headstone said that it marked the grave of Hermo String fellow, son of Henry and Anna String fellow, who passed away in the month of November 1742. The name sounds English, although the writing is in Portuguese. Many nationalities had come to Bago, and some left records of their amazement with the splendour they saw. In 1503, Ludovico di Varthems from Bologna saw the king who was son of Dhammazedi, and he wrote about the splendour of the city and the awe he felt on seeing the king's jewels, especially a priceless necklace of sparkling rubies. He had come to trade in coral, for which the king paid him in rubies.
The site of this town, also known by its ancient name Hanthawaddy, has a
charming legend. The place lies next to the Bago River, which once flowed
strongly into the Yangon River and thence to the sea. Once, the area was mostly
under water with only the tip of a hillock rising out of the torrent. A couple
of Hintha birds, waterfowl ith golden neck feathers, were seen resting on
it by two Princes who later founded the kingdom. The dry space was so narrow
that the female bird had to perch on the back of her gallant mate. This gave
rise to the unfounded rumour that Bago ladies would get the upper hand in
marriage; maybe it would be more correct to say that Bago men make good
He also donated a bronze bell weighing 120,000 kg, which some 130 years later
was stolen from the pagoda platform and shipped away by a Portuguese adventurer,
De Britto. The bell fell into a rivulet just out of Yangon; people say it still
rises to the surface every full moon night to worship the Shwedagon.
After her husband the king passed away, she was held a prisoner by his
successor. With the help of the two monks escaped to Lower Myanmar and she then
lived under her brother's protection. When he passed away, she ruled Hanthawady
for seven years.
One of his most important acts was to clean up the Order of any misconduct. Only the most disciplined and dedicated monks were.chosen to remain in the Order. For the ceremony of re-affirming the vows of the purified Order, he built a special Ordination Hall the Kalyani Thein in 1476, fashioned after the famous one in Sri Lanka.
The original one erected by Dhammazedi has long been destroyed, first by De Brit
to in 1599 and subsequently by wars and earthquakes. The rhein, restored in the
mid 1950s, is a sacred place for Buddhist pilgrims.
In the story of the Buddha, from the time that, He vowed to meditate until He
gained Enlightenment, there were seven places and incidences of importance: They
are the Bodhi tree under which He sat and where the Evil One Mara came to
disturb him etc. In Bodhgaya, which is Buddha's birthplace, there are pagodas
erected to mark these
King Dhammazedi sent monks as emissaries to gather information, to make copies
of the pagodas and to measure the distances between the places.
Not too far from the Shwegu Gyi is the earth mound that was once the Eisa Pala Pagoda, marking the spot where Mara's three daughters came to entice the Buddha-to-be. One transformed herself into a young woman, another into a girl, and the last came as a woman who has one child. The Buddha-to-be scorned them all; at this pagoda they were also shown on glazed plaques. These plaques of demons and the daughters are now priceless collectors' items. Most were stolen during the colonial period and are now in museums allover the world.
The Mucalinda pond where the water serpent lived, and the place where the
serpent covered the Buddha with his hood to protect him from rain, were both
represented in this project of Dhammazedi. The stone inscriptions that recorded
the construction of the site are gathered and stored in a locked shed nearby.
Another site worth a visit is the graceful and beautiful Shwe Tha-Iyaung reclining image. It is housed in a huge galvanized iron shed, but the steel pillars and rafters, the rusted iron, and the windows up near the roof, give it a strangely elegant look.
The image was built by King Depa in 994. He had been an unbeliever in Buddha's philosophy, and had tortured, and killed many Buddhists. One day he made queen a lovely and wise young woman who lived by Buddha's Law, and she taught him that the philosophy is of peace and goodwill, and converted him. The reclining image was lost in the lush jungle for years and discovered only in the late 19th century when the earth around it was being dug to build a railway line. The protective shed was completed in 1903 and public donations poured in for the renovation.
The image is 54.88 m long, a painted sign said. Each eyebrow is 2.29m; the
little finger is 3.05m, and the big toe measures 1.83m.