A WONDER WORLD:
By Khin Thandar
Photos: Sonny Nyein
A pagoda complex in Monywa, an Upper Myanmar town 136 km northwest of Mandalay,
rises like a fairy tale temple from the dusty land. A rainbow of colours flash
in the sunlight from the glass mosaic set in the surface of the spires gives it
a magical aura. The main stupa is surrounded by 845 smaller ones, all of them
richly decorated in glass, gild, relief work and a myriad of colours.
Two huge white elephants so lovingly made that they almost look alive, guard the
pagoda gates. Normally in pagodas, it is a pair of lions sitting on their
haunches that guard the pagoda and it is an astonishing sight to see the
elephants here. When you see the workmanship inside, you no longer wonder at the
creativity of the craftsmen nor the support and full rein given to them by the
Moe Hnyin Sayadaw, Abbot of Moe Hnyin Monastery, who commissioned this pagoda
complex in the 1930s. It was said to have taken ten years to complete.
The pagoda is an endless source of wonder for children and all who take a
child-like pleasure in wonderland.
For devoted pilgrims, the main stupa contains Buddha images of all sizes, from
inch-high ones set in rows upon ascending rows on all available wall space, both
interior and exterior. Huge images are enshrined within. Legend goes that the
total number of Buddha images in this pagoda complex is nearly 600,000, or to be
A prayer hall of imposing dimensions stand next to the main stupa, amongst many
smaller pavilions. What gives a festive air to the compound is that the prayer
hall and all other structures are decorated with figures of people worked in
stucco, caught in mid step so that they look about to walk away. Every single
one of the stucco ladies and gentlemen, not to mention, monks, nuns, children,
tigers and even a few stray dogs are painted in soft realistic colours. The wit
of the artisans who created this complex is evident everywhere: in the group of
fashionable ladies of the 1930s taking a stroll and just about to unfurl pretty
parasols; two tigers trying to climb over a wall and looking so real you would
swear their tails twitch; the hind end of a dog just as it sneaked into an open
doorway, both dog and door created from plaster and paint. The 'portraits' of
some of the donors of pavilions stand in their own corners, their full figures
worked in stucco and looking lifelike with faces showing they are highly pleased
at their good merit.
One can imagine the joy and amazement of the public who first saw this on
completion, not to mention the fun the workmen had as they vied to complete one
scene better than the next.
Once, the wide compound and many pavilions and rest houses gave sanctuary to
thousands who fled the violence of World War II. Living there for the duration
of the war, they had to keep to the strict rules of conduct laid down by the
Abbot. Waste of water or fuel was not allowed, the place was kept pristine, and
the children were tutored in their alphabets. Thousands lived out the war years
within the pagoda precincts, watched over sternly by the Abbot and his monks.
The compound contains a large square pool where fish and turtles are allowed to
live free from harm, as is usual with most famous pagodas. These pools are
called Laik-kan, or Turtle Ponds. Pilgrims buy popped rice and watercress from
sellers to feed the already satiated turtles. Here, the pond is decorated with
pink stucco lotus flowers.
There are also a few old wooden pavilions with delicate, fancy fretwork, vying
in charm with the stucco figures, flowers and animals.
One pagoda with a tower is called the Arlain Nga Sint, or the Five Stages Spiral
Tower. Pagodas with such names are built to symbolise the one built in the
heavens, it is said, enshrining the knot of hair that Prince Siddathta cut off
before he discarded his prince's clothing to devote himself to a life of
searching for Enlightenment. The hair had floated skywards, and was caught by
the King of Celestials who built the Sulamuni Pagoda in the sky, which is set on
a spiraling tower with five stages, each guarded by creatures such as Dragon,
Garuda, and ogres. A stone inscription stated that work on this Arlain Nga Sint
Pagoda in the Thanboddhay complex was begun in 1932 and completed in 1936.
You keep on discovering new delights, new scenes, and more stories unfolding
before your eyes. It would take days to really enjoy all the scenes. When your
legs get tired, there are wooden platforms built around huge shady trees where
you can sit, doze or picnic. Friendly squirrels run down from the branches to
beg a few crumbs and friendlier monastery dogs come around to wag their tails at
Around the prayer hall, in special niches there are single almost life-size
figures of kings, queens, ministers and generals holding up sheets of stucco
paper on which were written ethics by which people should live by, such as not
to waste time nor to neglect studies. The stucco people stand there staring at
you with solemn eyes, and no doubt you would come away a chastened and better