A Guide to Tourism Destinations and Beyond

Vol. 3 No.2 April-June 2004   

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Magician's Caves

By Ma Thanegi
Photos: Sonny Nyein


Stairs carved out of the stone cliff Visitors to Myanmar are likely to feel surrounded at all sides by pagodas of all sizes and designs, from many of antiquity to some built last year or a few in the process of completion. Most are stupas with glittering spires covered with pure gold piercing the tropical skies and some stand majestically as massive temples on wide plains. Yet tiny ones are perched on seemingly inaccessible cliff tops, and quite a few installed in caves. One of the most famous cave temples are situated across the Chindwin river from Monywa, a big trading town in Upper Myanmar which in turn is a few hours' drive from Mandalay. This is the Po Win Taung pagoda complex. According to legends, the caves were supposed to have been inhabited hundreds of years ago by a Zawgyi, a magician, named U Po Win.Some say the name' is derived from the term that means 'to enter the state of supernatural powers: Whatever the true meaning of the name may be, people firmly believe some magic was made here centuries ago.

Magicians called Zawgyi in the folklore of Myanmar are forest dwelling beings who were once men but by intense meditation had attained supernatural powers. They dress in red, they can fly through air or bore through earth, and they spend their lives searching for herbs to treat suffering humans. They have a magic wand to grind the medicinal herbs and roots and any round flat stone found miles from anywhere are believed to be the Zawgyi's grinding stones.
Caves and entrances carved out of living rock
The earliest inscription of the Po Win Taung complex dates them over seven hundred years ago. There are narrow galleries from 15 ft to 70 ft long,and varying from 10 ft to 25 ft in height. Most are only 6 to 15 ft deep. The images, altars and decorative motifs inside the caves were all carved out of living rock.

A few yards away is another cave complex, Shwe Ba Taung, where narow corridors in the cliffs pass before more caves with bigger images set in high niches.

As'in all other pagoda chronicles, the existence of the images is based on stories filled with myth, among them the tale of an heiress setting aside 500 cart loads of her inheritance to build pagodas; an angel named Sagamai (Lady of the Champac) born in the bud of a Champac tree; kings who fought for her hand, a witch who kidnapped her and this Lady of the Champac finally returning to her celestial home.

Generations of monkeys with pale gold fur has ruled the roost here and if stories were handed down within this Simian family they would know many secrets, which at present they are not sharing with us. 

The monkeys had certainly been present at the construction for among the traditional Kanote motifs of stylised vines, leaves and flowers carved in the hillside around the entrances, the sculptors had put in a few gamboling monkeys, portraits of the creatures who had surely harassed the artisans.

Keinayee half-bird woman painted on the walls of a cave    A harp player of the 16th century     Celestials dance in celebration

The construction may have been earlier but in two of the caves, there are marvelous 16th century period wall paintings to be seen. There are geometrical patterns as borders, more intricate then those found elsewhere. A few unfinished sketches can be seen, and a man is depicted playing a harp that is the exact type as the ones played today in Myanmar classical orchestras. They are no longer in the best of conditions, as they were not well protected from the elements, but they are nevertheless beautiful records of the age.

Palace scenes on the cave walls    Palace scenes on the cave walls

The Shwe Ba Taung complex which is within a short walk of Po Win Taung, is believed carved out from the cliff side at the same time. Natural gorges have been widened for pilgrims to walk from one cave to the other. The caves are higher and without wall-paintings, but the fascinating aspect to the architecture is the way the entrances are constructed. Apparently added or rebuilt during the colonial era, the y are decorated with pillars complete with Corinthian capitals. The arched over the entrances hold such motifs as unicorns side by side with the stylised lions of Myanmar tradition, guarding the shrines in harmony together. The different motifs are each worked with a different pastel colour so it gives an atmosphere of a walk through fairyland.

A huge elephant, larger then life has been caved in relief on one side of a cliff.     

In October or November when the annual festival takes place there are pilgrims by the hundreds gathering here to worship. At other times the two complexes are virtually deserted apart from a few devotees and the rare tourist. The place sleeps with a calm that belies its exciting history of celestials, witches and magical men.

         Stylised Bodhi Tree painted behind a Budha image    Buddhas and diciples     Unfinished work