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Myanmar

 

A Guide to Tourism Destination and Beyond

Vol. 2

No.1

October-December 2002

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TWO ANCIENT CITIES AND A SANCTUARY

By Ma Thanegi
Photos: Maung Maung Latt (Chit Nyo)
 

Nan Myint or the Royal Watch Tower
The tower was left leaning to one side after an earthquake

Inwa, the city of Gems

Old Myanmar texts state that the centre of the Universe is Myint-mo Mountain (Mt.Meru in ancient Pali texts), which has seven mountain ranges and seven seas surrounding it, in which four islands are located at the cardinal points of the compass. Humans live on the Southern Island of Zapudipa, and as for the centre of this earth we inhabit, it is stated as the site of the Lion Throne of the Myanmar Kings. Thus the sovereignty of the king was emphasized, although the center of the Earth can be said to be somewhat mobile, when the palace site was moved from one city to the other.

Most know Mandalay as the last seat of the kings, but there were other important capitals, among them Inwa and Amarapura. Not of lesser importance is Sagaing, never a capital, but with a religious significance that exists well beyond the years and reach of royalty.

The name of Inwa in the old Pali language was Ratnapura, City of Gems. It is on an island formed by the Ayeyarwaddy River, the Myit Nge River and a wide canal. It is a green, fertile area shaded with the Tamarind and Neem trees that grow abundantly. It first became a capital under the rule of Thodominbya in 1364. Those were times of constant warfare, and with the reign of Min Gaung, one of the later kings who came to the throne in 1401, his son Crown Prince Min Ye Kyaw Swar became at fourteen years the commander of the King's battalions.He was wounded in battle and died at the age of 25; even his enemies mourned the passing of this soldier prince, and songs and poems about him are still sung to this day and his name entered the roster of Myanmar heroes.

Maha Aungmye Bonzan Monastery popularly known
 as Mai Nu Oak Kyaung or the Brick Monastery
donated by Klng Bagyidaw and his Queen
Mai Nu was constructed in 1822

The Bamar language, which emerged in the 10th century Bagan Empire, attained its height of poetic beauty during this time. This era of turbulence also produced a spate of new styles of compositions as both laymen writers and learned monks wrote great epics. It was a time of glory, of bloodshed, of literature, of romance, and of heroes.

The greatness of Inwa again reached its peak when the new and last dynasty rose in 1753.

Fine stucco sculptures
at Mai Nu Oak Kyaung

Alaungpaya, one of the greatest kings of Myanmar, became a king but made shwebo instead of Inwa the capital. When his son Hsin Byu Shin, Lord of the White Elephant who was another great king came to the throne, the capital was moved to Inwa in 1763. Not a great deal of monuments remains in this small area,but what was left are exquisite examples of wood and brickwork. The emissaries from Britain  and Europe, who visited Inwa, brought along artists who sketched the palaces and mansions of Inwa and who no doubt saw the other monuments as well.

One is the Maha Aung Mye Bonzan, a monastery donated by the favourite queen Enchanting Myanmar Mai Nu of King Bagyidaw to her most revered Abbot in 1822. This large brick buildjng is decorated with intricate bas-relief friezes of stylized flora and mythical animals. Mai Nu was a commoner and childhood sweetheart of the king.

Bagaya Monastery constructed
in 1834 A.D at Inwa

The present gate at Inwa

The Bagaya monastery built at a later date, is a sprawling all-teak building with high patios and dark chambers; the balustrades, doors and railings are ornately carved in traditional motifs. It has 267 posts of teak trunks holding up the raised floor and the low ceilings. This weatherworn but magnificent monastery stands with lonely splendour in the middle of wide paddy fields, with palms, banana trees and thorny green bushes clustered in profusion around its shady base. Gentle tendrils of wild

Sketch from Sir Henry Yule's Book

vines climb over the doors on which carved celestials stand In high relief; they looked out impassively upon the sun lit bare boards of the empty patio as they had once looked upon kings and retinue. A number of little novices study in this monastery, and their clear voices reciting the holy verses are often heard within the dim, cool inner chambers.

Weather beaten wood
carvings at the monastery

A watchtower is the only building left on the palace site after an earthquake left it standing with a list. There is also a wall of teak trunks, which was once part of a stockade to train wild elephants, to be used in carrying Royal personages or to serve in the army as forerunners of the modern tanks.

Many parts of the thick city walls, which forms the shape of a sitting lion, still stand. As a capital city Inwa was the seat of soldier kings and princes constantly at war. Now the old walls guard peaceful farmlands.

 

Twilight on the U Bein Bridge

Amarapura, City of Immortals

Amarapura became a capital city in 1783 when King Bodawpaya moved his palace to there from Inwa. Then, his grandson Bagyidaw moved the capital back to Inwa in 1819 and in turn the Bagan King who ascended the throne in 1846 yet again moved his seat back to Amarapura. On that last move the lumber from the old palace at Inwa was used to build a bridge across Taungthaman Lake, which is fed by the waters of the Ayeyarwaddy River.

The fresco painting of
Buddha's Footprint

In 1859 the Bagan King's younger brother King Mindon moved the capital to Mandalay, only a few miles away. It is a city that in this modern day had spread wide enough to enclose Amarapura as one of its suburbs.

No palace pavilions remain in Amarapura but there are beautiful temples still standing near the lake.

The mile-long bridge spanning the lake is known as U Bein's bridge, named after a mayor who bui't this picturesque bridge set high on trunks of teak. Tall thick-Ieafed Mai Sai trees line the shores, under which small shops sell fried fish caught from the lake to the Mandalay residents who come for a cool evening stroll. Nearby is a famous monastic school, the Maha Ganda Vone.

At the other end of the bridge on the opposite side is the Kyaut Tawgyi Pagoda, the Great Stone; for in this temple the huge image had been hewn out of a single block of marble. The walls of the porches are covered with paintings, which show scenes from the life of the people as it revolves around pagoda festivals, visits to the monasteries etc.

The manoakthina
or the mythical half
-human half_lion
guardian at
Taungthaman
Kyauktawgyi

The Nagayon, "Embraced by the Dragon" pagoda is different from all other such temples of the same name, for the dragon embraces the entire building itself, and not the image inside as is usual. This strange temple astounded Sir Henry Yule, in his narrative written in 1855, who wrote that" seen from a distance it perplexed us much...in some points of view it appeared as a Pagoda; in others as one of the ngigantic Lions or griffins. ..the lower part was a temple...encased as it were in the bowels of the gigantic monster, whos elevated jaws and scaly crest formed a spire over it."

The Maha Tulut Bongyaw
 Monastery at Amarapura
from a photograph
by Linnaeus Tripes

The twin pagodas, shwe kyet yet and shwe kyet kya, stand on a rise on the banks of the Ayeyarwaddy. Country people from the surrounding villages come down to the shallow waters near these pagodas to water their cattle, do their laundry, bathe in the cool of evening. It is one of the loveliest spots on the river, with a view of the green Sagaing hills on the opposite side.

Amarapura remained capital only for a few short years. After fierce storms had damaged a roof of a palace pavilion, King Mindon decided that it would be fortuitous to move. Astrologers were consulted, meetings held and a spot was chosen at the foot of a distant hill called Mandalay. With great ceremony the land was cleared and condstruction began in 1857. There va new city rose, with wide streets set in a grid pattern. Mandalay is now the second capital of the country, with a lovely name forever evokes romance and the call of the East.

Sketch from Sir Henry Yule's "Narrative of the Mission to the Court of Ava"
 showing the palace at Amarapura

Amarapura may no longer be a capital city, but now its residents are the best craftsmen of the country, whether they cast bronze, carve wood, cut marble or weave silk. As a capital city it was also the biggest centre of silk weaving in the country with silk skeins imported from China. The Myanmar are staunch Buddhists who do not produce silk as it means taking the life of the worms. Cotton wares were exported to China. The sounds of present day Amarapura are not of Royal pomp and ceremony but the noise of busy labour to produce artifacts that are famed allover the country.

Sagaing, the sanctuary

Across the river from Amarapura lies Sagaing. Here and there on its green hills are the many golden spires of pagodas, some whitewashed stupas, and many massive monasteries built in traditional or colonial styles. Sjnce unknown times this place has been a refuge from those escaping the pains of secular life, and during World War II it gave sanctuary to thousands fleeing the bombing. The town is set near the jetty, but roads that meander up and down the hills lead to monasteries and nunneries hidden in deep gullies, walled in by thick trees, and tucked in behind cliffs. To turn a corner of a thickly wooded lane and come before a magnificent monastery is breathtaking and to look over a valley and glimpse the upper story of another almost hidden by the greenery is magical. The Soon Oo Ponya Shin Pagoda perched on the highest hill gives a panoramic view of the hills, the wide Ayeyarwaddy River, the Inwa Bridge spanning it and across to Mandalay, with its own pagodas twinkling in the sunlight. River craft, from small rowboats to the luxury cruise ship "Road to Mandalay" ply the waters here: the Ayeyarwaddy is the lifeline of the country and never more useful than in these parts.

The pagoda studded Sagaing Hill &
The famous Inwa Bridge across the Ayeyarwady River

The jetty at Inwa with the Inwa
Bridge in the background

Other famous pagodas are scattered all along the roads, and further beyond the hills. Kaung Hmu Daw is a white domed' pagoda, styled after a famous stupa of Sri Lanka. All the pagodas have been standing for three or more centuries, marking places of pilgrimages for Buddhist all across the country.

A Myanmar proverb goes that "When you are young, seek education. In middle life, seek wealth. In old age, seek Enlightenment."

Shwe Kyet Kya Pagoda
 across from Sagaing

It is the wish of most Buddhist as they grow old, that they can jive out their last years in the good Teachings of the Lord Buddha. It is not surprising to see older men, and women, too, leave their families and come to sagaing to at least become a Yawgi, a lay-religious practitioner, if they do not actually join the Order as monks or nuns.

Raza Mani Sula or the
Kaung Hmu Daw Pagoda.


However, Buddha's protection is not only for the old. Some young people by choice come to live their lives in meditation and prayers. Monasteries and nunneries also offer a sanctuary for those who are under going great emotional stress or personal traumas. Solace and compassion as well as rejuvenation of the soul are re-discovered amongst the chants and chimes from the surrounding pagodas and the monasteries.

Pilgrim in the Sagaing Hills

In this way sagaing is a religious sanctuary to the Myanmar people, a place to meditate and reflect on the Buddha's philosophy, which says that only by loosening the attachments to the material life can we gain peace. Those who meditate in sagaing have little material possessions: a few changes of clothing, two meals a day with no solid food after 12 noon until dawn of the- next day. But they have boundless quiet in the shady and cool glades, and they have peace.
 

Enchanting

Myanmar

A Guide to Tourism Destination and Beyond

Vol. 2

No.1

October-December 2002