July - September 2002

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
Photo: Sonny Nyein

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.

Hinthagone Pagoda is said to be the original place where the two Hinthas or Ruddy Shelducks alighted. This small knoll was the only piece of land that peaked above teh waters and so small that the two birds had to prech one on top of the other.

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 new Kalyani Ordination was re-built on the original site. This Hall was used to ordain monks into the Holy Order during King Dhammazedi's rule

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 husbands.
Anyhow, the pretty Hintha bird remains a beloved symbol of the Mon people. The very spot is immortalized by a pagoda, the Hintha Gon Paya. One of the greatest kings to rule from Bago was Dhammazedi who reigned from 1471 to 1492. In the space of just twenty-one years, not only did he build many pagodas in Bago but he also re-gilded the Shwedagon Pagoda of Yangon (then known as Dagon) with four times his and his Chief Queen's weight in gold. His mother-in-law, the Queen Shin Saw Pu, had been the first to gild this stupa completely, with her weight in gold, which was about 42kg.The three stone inscriptions he set up on the Shwedagon platform are priceless historical documents.

The Kyaikpun Images just off the the Yangon-Mandalay Highway

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.

The personal history of this great king Dhammazedi is as intriguing as his city.

He was a Mon monk named Shin Dhammazedi and with another, Shin Dhammapala, traveled to the Upper Myanmar city of Inwa (Ava) to do missionary work. There, although they were much younger, they became the revered teachGrs of the Mon princess Shin Saw Pu, who at that time was a queen to a king of Inwa, a union arranged by her brother the king of Bago.

This gravestone prooves that foreigners were already visiting Bago in 1742

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.

When she was 66 years old, she wanted to retire to devote herself to religion; her own living heir was a daughter too gentle in nature, so she decided to crown one out of her two teacher monks.

At a special ceremony, she offered two covered lacquered food caskets to her unsuspecting teachers; one contained food, and the other the Royal regalia.

The monk Shin Dhammazedi received the regalia. The queen explained the situation and asked him to be king and son-in-law. Even as one who only knew life as a scholar monk, he ruled ably and wisely.

These glazed terracotta tiles of Mara's daughters are priceless collectors' items

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 ruins of Shwegu Gyi Pagoda. The base of the Pagoda once lined with glazed terracottatiles

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 same year he built Kyaik Pun pagoda, which has four gigantic Buddha images facing the four cardinal points seated back to back around a square pillar. There is no roof over the heads; it IS said that any attempt to cover the images failed.

Not far from the Kyaik Pun, just before you arrive in Bago, there is an area of both historical and religious interest.

The Shwe gu Gyi Pagoda in ruins

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

The Maha Zedi also built by King Bayint Naung

King Dhammazedi sent monks as emissaries to gather information, to make copies of the pagodas and to measure the distances between the places.

After their return he had a large area cleared near the Kyaik Pun pagoda. There he built copies of the sites in Bodhgaya, making sure to have the correct distances.

The site of the pagoda Shwegu Gyi marks the time that Mara sent his evil demons to frighten the Buddha-to-be as He sat under the Bodhi tree. The original cave temple is now a ruin, destroyed by one of the many earthquakes that troubled this area. The old Bodhi tree still stands next to it. The temple once had glazed tiles with relief figures of the demons, human torsos with heads of tigers and elephants. The ceramics of that age were beautiful greens, blues, and aquamarines, as well as the more common browns, blacks and grays. They can be seen in a museum situated within the compound of the replica of Bayint-naung's palace called Kanbawza Thadi.

Koe Thein Koe Than Pagoda seen in an idyllic setting

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 Shwe Tha Lyaung Reclining Image at Bago

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.

Now most of the area is overgrown, but it is an idyllic spot, peaceful, lush and green.

Bago's history goes further back than the 15th century, to over one thousand years ago when the Shwe Mawdaw pagoda was first erected. By the time Dhammazedi came to the throne it was already 84m high. It suffered a series of damages through earthquakes, and in 1930 the top crashed to earth. This part remains on the platform, with a charming sign saying that the spire had descended to the platform for its devotees to worship. A new top was restored in the mid 1950s; its present height is 114m.

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 renovated Bee Throne Hall of King Bayint Naung's Kambawza Thadi Royal Palace. The throne is so named for the bee motifs sculpted at the base.

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.

If you just know what to look for, Bago is a great little place: maybe little now, but you can never forget that once it was a great, great place.

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



July - September 2002