By: Aye Min

Photos :  Sonny Nyein

Not far from magical Inle Lake and set in the blue hills and high cliffs of Southern Shan State are the Pindaya Caves, filled with hundreds of ancient Buddha images in   every niche and corner and the walls covered entirely with carved images. It is called the Shwe Umin Paya, the Golden Pagodas in the Cave. Just  inside the southernmost  entrance is a 75ft high spire thickly covered with gold leaf. This southernmost cave runs 490 ft, and is packed with  images of wood, marble and metal, donated over three centuries. Some undated ones could have been there far longer. The sense of mystery and fantasy is enhanced by the stalactites and stalagmites that create a spectacular    backdrop for the images.

      The name Pindaya is a Shan word meaning 'wide plains'. A beautiful lake surrounded by houses at the foot of the cliff is Pindaya Town. Geologically, the caves are about 200 million years old with openings facing east, so it was not probable that stone age people lived in them, for they prefer caves with openings towards the south.

Legends tell of a fascinating story of the caves and the lake:  once upon a time, the story goes, a giant spider lived in the caves and one day captured seven fairy princesses, daughters who came  to bathe in the lake. He kept them imprisoned in his cave by weaving a web across the opening. A crown prince out hunting heard their cries and killed the spider with his arrow, and married the youngest sister while the other six flew back to their home in the clouds.

      Other legends tell of King Asoka of India being the original donor. It is said that only  in the early 18th century were these old caves discovered,  as the entrances had been covered with creepers. People gathering firewood on the cliff sides had noticed a dark opening behind the thick vines and on clearing them away were astounded to see caves with walls carved with Buddha images.  The place  immediately became a famous pilgrimage site and  additional images were  donated,  as the early inscriptions testified.
The earliest inscription is on the base of a throne of a decayed wooden image dated,   according to the Myanmar lunar calendar, at 1134, the 3
rd day of the Waning Moon Month of Pyatho, which corresponds to 10 January 1773. It was donated by 'man and wife of        Shin Pin Su (Village)".  The next, also dated 1134, was    completed on the Full Moon of Tabodwai, merit of man and wife Maung Oo and Ma Shwe Hla. (6 February 1773).

Many of the images are set on thrones of wood or stone with the arched back of the throne wondrously carved. These backs are called Tagai, and celestials and dragons as well as flowers cascade along its sides in intricate profusion. The artistic styles are diverse, showing   that the Buddha images were made at different places and at different times.

Many show the marked style of Mandalay craftsmen and others show the vastly different style of Shan artisans. The images also have  different pose of hands and feet of a Buddha image called Mudra, each with a  different meaning. When the image is in a sitting position    with the legs crossed with upturned soles and both hands upturned on the lap and the eyes are downcast, it is Dhyanasana Mudra or meditative pose. If the upturned left hand rests on the lap while the right hand with palms down is placed over the right knee with fingers touching the ground, it is the Bhumisparsa Mudra or Earth Touching pose. It symbolizes  the time the Buddha called upon the Guardian of the Earth to witness his charity over many lifetimes while the evil Mara tried to attack Him. Several

images have an animal just under  the fingertips of the right hand, such as a mouse, a miniature elephant, an owl or a crested lion,  to symbolise the Lord Buddha's compassionate love for all beings.The one important fact of these Pindaya  images is that here and only here in all of Myanmar could people see the largest collection of images known as being in the 'healing' Mudra: there are at least seventy. The 'Healing' or Bithetkaguru Image has  the left hand upturned on the lap of the crossed legs but on it rests a small covered bowl, believed to symbolize a container of blessed  water. The right hand hangs over the right     knee but the palm is turned outwards and the thumb and forefinger (or middle finger) hold a small round fruit Hpan Khar, (Terminalia chebula Retz) known in English as Myrobalan, which is often used in traditional medicine. It is an astringent fruit and   according to old medicinal texts, good for burns,sore eyes, and promotes longevity if one is taken with milk every week. The covered pot and medicinal fruit in combination symbolizes health, longevity,  regeneration of cells, flourishing and growth.  Some of these images are enshrined with two devotees, one on each side,  their hands clasped in prayer. The ill and elderly pray at these images for better health and longer life.The important fact of these images is that here and only here in Myanmar could people see the largest collection of images known as being in this 'healing' Mudra: in Pindaya there are at least seventy. The origin of the older undated images remains a mystery that continues to enchant the  devotees. Its past is lost in the far reaches of time but its present and future, as a great pilgrimage site, remains a certainty.   

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