Mrauk U – The Forgotten Kingdom

The stones here speak to me, and I know their mute language.

Heinrich Heine

I’m on the dock in Sittwee with my two companions bright and early only to discover we have two hours to wait. The locals are also waiting – swaddled in winter coats and hats. Even though I was already sweating, it was the cool season for them.

I need my hat to keep me warm

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I was really looking forward to the boat trip from Sittwee to Mrauk U. I had visions of hanging out on the deck taking interesting photos of life on the Kaladan River.   I should have known better. The boat was long and barge-like sitting low in the water. But at least the narrow gangplank from jetty to boat was relatively easy to navigate with hands clutching me to ensure I didn’t fall in the water.

Boat to Mrauk U

Inside, the seats, three in a row on each side of the central walkway, were so low to the floor that it was impossible to see out of the windows. Even if the seats were higher, it would still have been impossible to see out. The windows were covered with dark blue curtains – to keep out the sunlight – which every self-respecting Myanmar wants to avoid. In any case, the focus of the locals is not on what is happening outside the windows but on what is happening on the screen at the front.

I sat as far away from the screen as possible and as close to the door (read escape hatch) as I could manage. I wanted to avoid what I suspected would be the typical Asian movie – very loud and with much grotesque violence. But I need not have worried. The Myanmars are into gentler stuff. The movie seemed to be about a man who couldn’t get his act together to claim the girl of his dreams and so appeared a buffoon – much to the amusement of the rest of the passengers.

So, why Mrauk U?

As Sir Edmund Hillary said, when asked why he climbed Mt. Everest, ‘Because it is there.”

Palm trees and pagodas

And Mrauk U has been there for a very long time: even Myanmar Tourism describes it as ‘the forgotten kingdom’. The kingdom of Mrauk U was founded in 1433 by King Min Saw Mon. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was a well-known port with ships from Europe and the Far East able to sail seventy kilometres up the Kaladan River from the Bay of Bengal in order to trade. At one stage, the kingdom controlled half of what is now Bangladesh as well as a large portion of Myanmar. As the city grew to 160,000 people, they expressed their gratitude by building temples – many temples.

A surfeit of temples

Many of these temples have survived, and while the site is not as large or as imposing as Bagan, it has its own charm. Temples of this bye-gone era litter the landscape and you will need to walk across threshing circles and vegetable gardens to reach some of them.

Threshing area

The usual upside-down bell-shaped stupas are much in evidence but many of the buildings use this familiar Buddhist design in unusual ways.

Temples surround the village

Stupas in concentric circles

The first temple I visited was Shitte-Thaung Pagoda where you pay your archeological zone fee of approximately five dollars. It’s well worth it. Shitte-Thaung was built in 1535 and is reputed to be home to eighty thousand Buddhas. And, no, I did not count them.

Shitte-Thaung Temple

Like many temples at Mrauk U, Shitte-Thaung was built on a hill and looks like a fortress. The temple has a main stupa with four smaller stupas, one in each corner. Inside the temple is a main prayer hall containing many Buddha images. A long dark passageway, said to be one hundred metres long, leads from this room into the inner temple. It contains many sculpted figures depicting ordinary Rakhine people as well as scenes from the Jakarta tales (stories of the Buddha’s life). There are also scenes of Hindu deities including Indra on three elephants. At the centre of the temple is the room that contains Shitte-Thaung’s principal Buddha – three metres high and made of gold.

Close to Shitte-Thaung is Htukkenthein temple built in 1571 and looking like a bunker.

Htukkenthein Temple

It is very dark inside and a very long corridor spirals to an inner chamber. I felt like I was circling the innards of an ammonite. There are 140 arched recesses in the walls, each enshrining a stone image of the Buddha. Surrounding the Buddhas are sculpted figures of ordinary people said to have sponsored the construction of the temple. The passageway ends in a five metre high inner chamber shaped like a dome. Daylight from above illuminates the Buddha figure.

Many of the temples are well within walking distance of each other but I wanted to see Koe-Thaung, the largest temple in Mrauk U.

Koe-Thaung lies a couple of kilometres from the village so I hired a horse and cart to take me there. It was a rough ride over roadways that were substantially more rock than anything else.

Koe-Thaung, the temple of ninety thousands Buddhas, is huge and is surrounded by terraces covered with stupas. It was built in 1553. There’s a very appealing interior passageway, dark in some places and light in others where the sun floods in through collapsed walls. The walls are covered with small Buddhas carved into the rock face of the walls. Much larger Buddhas seated on pedestals line the passageway. It’s a glorious, mysterious sight – enough to send shivers up your spine. Such devotion – and much merit – to carve ninety thousand Buddhas

But temples aren’t the only attraction to Mrauk U. The village itself presents a kaleidoscope of ordinary people going about their daily chores. You don’t need to see the friezes in the temples – you can watch rural Myanmar unfold before your eyes. A family cooking their evening meal in the lane outside their house, an old woman curled up on a bench at the end of her garden watching the world go by, a woman drawing water from a well – all are indelible scenes. And all around the village, frequently interspersed with the temples, you can see farmers taking care of their crops.

And then there is the market. It’s very busy – full of life and colour – as people from the surrounding rural areas come to the big smoke of Mrauk U to do their shopping.

There was plenty to keep me busy in Mrauk U but I could not leave the Rakhine State of Myanmar until I had seen the Chin ladies. The Chin tribe, one of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities, used to tattoo the faces of young girls as a sign of beauty. When I visited Mrauk U in December 2014, only seven of these ladies were still living.  I had to see them.  And this involved a trip in another boat.

Click on the image to see more photos.

  Photo essay on Mrauk U

Mrauk U

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Shwedagon Pagoda – A beautiful winking wonder

Architecture is a visual art and the buildings speak for themselves.

Julia Morgan

Buddhists like to build their scared places at the top of a hill. I’m not sure why. Maybe, it is because each step upwards expiates our earthly sins and carries us closer to a purer state in which we can enter the sacred spot. Kiplings’ ‘beautiful winking wonder’, the Shwedagon Pagoda, sits at the top of Singutarra Hill, which is 167 feet above Yangon. There are four covered walkways with steps that climb the hill; at the top sits a splendid stupa covered with gold plates.

On my first visit in 1999, I carried my karma step by step, up the 167 feet to reach the terrace via the least used walkway at the eastern entrance. I had stayed near Kandawgyi Lake and this was the closest entrance. On this visit, I went looking for the western entryway because it has escalators. (The other walkways now also have lifts but I am claustrophobic and prefer escalators.) All taxi drivers in Yangon know where the Shwedagon is located but not all know where the escalators are. My taxi driver took me to the southern entrance (on Shwedagon Road). Before I dismissed him, I hopped out and asked one of the parking lot attendants to see if we were at the correct entrance. We weren’t. He directed the taxi driver to the western entrance, which seemed a long way round and definitely too far to walk in the late afternoon heat.

Shoes must be removed at the bottom. You can leave them with a minder but I took mine with me in my backpack because I was not sure by which walkway I would descend. Unlike my first visit, where I plodded up the Singuttara Hill, I floated to the top on the escalators and stepped out onto the marble terrace still warm from the rays of the late afternoon sun.  I was immediately in a magical and exotic location.  Gold everywhere.  Pagodas and Buddhas in vast quantities.  And people galore.  The Shwedagon is a shrine that lures Buddhists from all over Myanmar and all corners of Asia.  It vibrates with a quiet peace.

The Shwedagon is the most sacred pagoda in Myanmar. The stupa rises 325 feet above the terrace and is covered with golden plates, not merely gilded with gold leaf. The spire or hti that seems to pierce the brilliant blue sky is covered with a multitude of precious gems. It’s an enthralling place in which to spend several hours, marveling at the architecture and at the devotion of the people. The setting sun burnishes the pagodas and shrines surrounding the central stupa. There are so many Buddhas and all quite beautiful in their own way. I often wonder how the people decide to which Buddha they will pay their respects, for choose you must as there are Buddha statues to last you a lifetime.

As the sun sank, the orange of the sky was matched by the glow of the lamps being lit on the small wall that surrounded the central stupa. Clearly, a temple festival was taking place. The mood was calm and joyful.

Shwedagon Pagoda is an exotic and beautiful place with almost a cacophony of architectural styles. Yet the shrines and pagoda continue to whisper in my memory long after the escalator deposited me at the bottom of Singuttara Hill. It gleams softly in my mind’s eye whenever I think about Yangon – one of the most entrancing Buddhists sights in all of Asia.

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Botataung and Birth Day Buddhas

“Let the site tell you its secrets.”

Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language

 In Myanmar, the sacred is intertwined with everyday life. Sacred buildings, gold and white, rise from the landscape, a testament to the Buddha’s teachings. And the people weave their spirituality into their daily life. It’s not uncommon for families to head to the nearest temple at day’s end to enjoy a quiet time together as well as practice their devotions.

Boatmen on the Yangon RiverI like to go to temples in the late afternoon and early evening so I can see the ordinary folk pay their respects to the Buddha. Botataung Pagoda in Yangon, borders the Yangon River where Strand Road intercepts Botataung Road in the east of the city. It’s an area where ordinary working folk live. At day’s end they leave their occupation and head to the pagoda.

Botataung Pagoda

In Myanmar, a pagoda or paya is the name for a temple complex consisting of a central stupa, which is a white or gold upside-down bell-shaped structure that houses a sacred relic – usually a hair of the Buddha. The stupa is a closed structure and sits in the middle of a marble platform, surrounding which are various other structures where the people can pray and present flowers and candles to Buddha statues.

 

Botataung is unusual in that you can go inside the central stupa and see the golden receptacle that houses the Buddha’s hair.   There’s not much space inside and everything is covered in gold. The devout touch the shrine gently, say a prayer and quietly file out.

Entering the Stupa Slideshow

Hover mouse over image to see caption

The marble slabs surrounding the stupa were warm to my feet at the end of the day. Two little girls were sitting on the marble, waiting for their mother who was pouring water over a Buddha statue.  The elder of the little girls was teaching her sister to pay respects to the Buddha. Hands are placed together, touched to the head and the heart and the head is touched to the floor. The little one was a quick learner but her sister got distracted.  She wanted to copy her mother and pour water over the Buddha.

Learning to be a Buddhist

Click to see images and mouse over to see captions

In a pagoda, Buddhas that represent the days of the week surround the central stupa. Buddhists pour water (as a sign of respect and for good luck and good karma) over the Buddha that sits at the corner for the day of the week on which they were born.   You might be expecting to find seven Buddhas but there are actually eight because the Burmese split births on a Wednesday into morning and afternoon. I’m not exactly sure why but it has to do with the ancient Burmese calendar that has eight zodiac signs for the days of the week.

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One friendly fellow, noticing my interest in the birth day Buddhas, came up to me, pulled out his smart phone and offered to find my day of birth with an app. I’m not sure which of us was the more surprised when his app only went back to 1950!

Days of week Burmese

Still, the encounter did make me curious so I consulted the oracle known as the Internet and now I know my birth day was a Tuesday.  Next time I go to a pagoda, I will head to the southeast corner and look for a Buddha with a lion statue.

You might also enjoy my Children of Myanmar images on Flickr

Children of Myanmar

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