A Guide to Tourism Destination and Beyond

Vol. 2


January-March 2003

Home | Contents | A Letter to Our Readers | Mindon's Mandalay | The Thrones of Myanmar Kings | Northern Magic
Folk Toys of Myanmar: Simple Pleasures | Kekku :The Gem in Pa O Land | The Wedding | Events Calendar


Mindon's Mandalay

By Wyn Tin Tu
Photos: Maung Maung Latt (Chit Nyo) & Sonny Nyein


Mandalay is a name that brings a sense of romance and of splendour even to those who has never been there. It is now the second capital of Myanmar and has the most revered pagoda after the Shwedagon, the Mahamuni Image. This image, apart from the face, has been gold-Ieafed so thickly that the torso and limbs have lost their shape.

Mandalay was also the last seat of the Myanmar kings.

The King who built this city from empty land was Mindon, who reigned from 1853 to 1878. In 1856 he was residing in the capital of Amarapura, which he deemed no longer fortuitous.

Many thought him impetuous, but he had his reasons. In 1852, just one year before Mindon deposed of his brother King Bagan and took the throne, Myanmar had lost the fertile southern delta lands to the British. Mindon was unhappy that a war was lost while reigning from Amarapura. Also, in August of 1855, Sir Arthur Phayre returned as an emissary to Amarapura, but he sailed his gunboat up the Myitgne River and right into Taungthaman Lake, thus landing very near to the palace grounds. Mindon did not like the fact that foreigners could come so close to the palace and using a gunboat was an ungracious gesture if not actually a veiled threat.

Mandalay Hill towers above the city

Many Abbots and astrologers were opposed to the move but the king stood firm. The astrologers then had to calculate to the exact times so as to ensure the best fortune. Even the sawing of planks had to start according to astrological readings that were calculated by Brahmin scholars. Many rituals such as the first breaking of the ground were done with due ceremony. The full official name of this old capital was Amarapura Mandalar,and the king decided to take the last word and named the new capital Mandalay.

Starting from scratch, the king was able to design the city to his liking: with wide streets set in a grid pattern, and his palace enclosed within the city walls which streched one mile long on each of its four sides, surrounded by a moat. Inside these walls, the center area was enclosed again for the king's own palaces. Outside of this Royal compound and within the city walls are houses of ministers and nobles, several homes for the aged dowager, minor queens' apartments and barracks.

The Mya Nan San Kyaw Golden Palace.
 The two huge cannons guard the entrance.

All the details were recorded on the traditional palm-leaf manuscripts.

Installing the city wall gates also began at the same minute.

In the city walls are 12 gates, to signify the 12 months. The gates were topped with roofs having seven tiers.The 4 bridges spanning the moat are at the four compass points. Along the wall are 48 pavilions with tiered roofs, to symbolize the 48 weeks of the lunar calendar. The city wall was 600 'ta' long (1.19 mile) on each side, totaling 2400 'ta': the number of the Buddhist era at the time.

To bring glory to the city, four glazed jars were filled with 120 viss (I viss=3.6 Ibs.) of a mixture of sesame and mustard oils, then tightly covered, and buried in the four corners of the wall: "on the 13th, day of the Waxing Moon Month of Kason, precisely at 2 strokes by the clock early on Sunday morning."

The building of the palace too was calculated with symbolism. There were a total of 360 teak pillars in the whole palace, signifying the 360 days of the lunar calendar.

The seven-tiered golden roofs atop
 the Mya Nan San Kyaw Palace

One of the most beautiful palace pavilions was the Glass Palace, which had interior walls and pillars completely covered with glass mosaic. Later, a group of scholars gathered there daily to write the history books by order of the king, and their works were titled The Glass Palace Chronicles. The main Great Audience Hall housed the Thiha Thana Lion Throne and was considered the center of the Earth.

Doorway to the interior. It was heavily
 gilded with gold during the King's reign

In 1859 King Mindon entered Mandalay with pomp and ceremony, accompanied by marching lines of infantry, cavalry, and court officials; rows of ministers and ladies, Brahmins, and learned men; musicians and dancers.

White and gold umbrellas were held aloft, with banners and insignia flashing in the sunlight; elephants and horses pace solemnly to the beats of the Big Royal Drum; the procession marched on pathways of white sand bordered with latticed fences of bamboo. At intervals young trees of banana and sugar cane were planted to decorate the way with their green leaves. Kneeling commoners lined the route, paying obeisance with bowed heads and clasped hands.

But after the British occupation in 1885 and the bombs of World War II, none of the timber pavilions of the palace remain, except for the one King Mindon had used as his private apartments. It has already been moved out of the palace when he passed away and donated as a monastery by his successor King Thibaw. Thus it escaped destruction, and can be seen near the Kuthodaw pagoda. It is an exquisitely carved timber pavilion, once thickly coated with gold leaf inside and out, and so known as the shwenandaw Kyaung, the Golden Palace monastery.

View from the watchtower showing the various chambers inside the palace compound

On dismantling the pavilion, the carpenters had come upon three poems written by King Mindon, about three of his senior queens.

The Nan Myint or watchtower

The Chief Queen Sekya Devi of the Southern Palace he praised as noble and wise. She bore no children, and was a very kind lady, a true princess of full Royal blood. She often advised the king who adored and respected her. She was learned in astronomy and spoke two foreign languages, presumably English and French. She alone was allowed to dress the king's long hair every morning until her death, and then he combed his hair himself, unheard of action for a Myanmar king. No other queen was allowed to move into her palace after she passed away, and no one elevated to her position.

The queen of the Northern Palace was his childhood sweetheart, a commoner by the name of Khin Thair, a poetess in her own right and was more known for her talent than as her role as queen. She was the king's first love, and they had married long before he became king.

Two lions guarding the stairs to Mandalay Hills

He wrote that her graying hair was simply coiled around a comb, and she wore no gold but only onyx earrings in her ears. She had on yellow silk, and no perfume. "So simply adorned, but what charm has she," he wrote. "If the Celestial King wants me to exchange her for an angel, no, I will not. Always she is precious to me."

About his fierce-tempered Middle Palace Queen Hsin Byu Ma Shin he wrote, "So beautiful, like an angel, but with such a foul temper, in one hour she sulks many times.There are so many petty things that makes her sullen, she would try the patience of the King of the Celestials himself."

King Mindon's tomb at Mandalay

King Mindon probably had been aware that there would be a marital storm should the poems get into the hands of the queen of the Middle Palace, and had hidden them. It was this shrewish wife who massacred the other princes to put her son-in-Iaw Thibaw on the throne after good Mindon passed away. King Mindon was a religious and kindlymonarch, and with broad views of modernity and diplomacy. In 1858 he received a diplomatic mission bearing a letter of friendship from President Buchanan of the United States to whom he replied in kind. In 1856 he sent a mission to Europe, which set up good relations with the French. In the second mission of 1872 he sent a minister the Kinwun Mingyi U Kaung.The minister's journal of his travels is still a very popular book, reprinted many times.

Mindon received many foreign ambassadors as well. He was particularly pleased when Colesworthy Grant an artist accompanying one British emissary painted a life-like portrait of the king's white elephant.

Some coins minted during Mindon's time

King Mindon later hired two Italian painters to work in the palace and encouraged Royal artists to learn from them.

King Mindon organized the Fifth Buddhist Synod in 1871, and afterwards had 729 marble slabs inscribed with the full Buddhist texts and set up in the compound of the Mahalawka Marazein Kuthodaw pagoda, which he had donated. He built a great many temples and numerous monasteries in and around Mandalay and gave strong support to the improvement of the Order of Monks. An all-teak monastery he donated still stands near the Mandalay Hill. Another of his many merits was the Kyauk Taw Gyi Great Stone Image Pagoda at the foot of Mandalay Hill. The stone image is 27 feet high, carved from a single block of unbIemished white marble from Sagyin, a quarry not far from Mandalay. On 16th May 1865 the god king himself came to paint in the eyes of the carved Great Image before it was opened to the blic.

He knew that western-style education was a key to keep up with the fast changing world. So even as a staunch Buddhist, he gave land and gold to an Anglican missionary Dr. Marks and a French Bishop Bigandet to start schools. He sent his own sons, nephews and sons of nobles to learn English at Dr. Mark's. He also sent over ninety scholars to study abroad. When they returned, he set up rice mills, a Royal mint, two munitions factories, metal works, cotton mills, a sugar refinery, timber mills, a glass factory and an indigo producing factory.

The Mint now in ruins

His younger brother the Crown Prince Kanaung, who was later assassinated, oversaw most of the factories. His plan to produceunderwater mines was put to a stop by an Abbot who protested against the testing by refusing to eat, as he said water creatures were being killed. Both the king and the crown prince knew that foreign invaders would use naval forces, but bowing to the wishes of the Abbot they had stopped the production.

In 1867 he introduced new income tax rules. Before, the fiefdom holders taxed the people, and took their share before they send the rest to the king's treasury, which was not a reliable system. Mindon's new laws taxed everyone according to income and family members. Nobles were no longer given fiefdoms for good service, but bonuses out of the treasury.

King Mindon built old people's homes, 10 hospitals, with in- and out-patient departments, and had three doctors always on duty.He set up telegraphs with Morse code in the Bamar language.

In 1871 the king donated a new 'umbrella' gold tip and enough gold leaf to cover the whole stupa of the Shwedagon pagoda of Yangon, at that time under British rule.

In 1875, to make sure his subjects were well informed he became the first Myanmar publisher of a Bamar language newspaper called the Yadanapon. It appeared four times a month, dated according to the Myanmar lunar Calendar.

Mandalay as a royal capital left wonderful historical accounts, most of which was due to the glory and wisdom of its founder, King Mindon.

Home | Contents | A Letter to Our Readers | Mindon's Mandalay | The Thrones of Myanmar Kings | Northern Magic
Folk Toys of Myanmar: Simple Pleasures | Kekku :The Gem in Pa O Land | The Wedding | Events Calendar



A Guide to Tourism Destination and Beyond

Vol. 2


January-March 2003

Copyrightę 2003 by DPS. All rights reserved.