By Pattarawadee Saengmanee
THE LAST royal capital of Myanmar, Mandalay has long been considered a melting pot of culture as well as its religious hub with a reputation for offering the best Buddhist education in the land.
Sitting on the east bank of the Irrawaddy River, Mandalay was founded in 1857 when King Mindon Min moved the capital from Amarapura to the foot of Mandalay Hill, purportedly to fulfil a prophecy that a great Buddhist Kingdom would be built on this land, but more probably to protect it from attack by the British Army.
Mahamuni Monastery is famous for its highly revered daily face washing ritual.
Today, the northern town is a teeming metropolis of 1.5 million and a leading trade hub connecting the upper and lower parts of the country with China and India. It is also a popular tourist destination with hundreds of thousands of visitors coming every year to admire its ancient monasteries and golden temples.
“British colonial rule separated our country into Upper and Lower Myanmar and brought plenty of immigrants from India. We adopted the cultures of China, Thailand and India. The British didn’t settle here though, finding it too hot and humid, so you won’t see colonial architecture. And because this area is prone to earthquakes, we don’t have any wooden houses or high-rises either. Mandalay is Myanmar’s second largest city and a major economic centre in Upper Burma but 60 per cent of its population are still farmers growing mainly corn and rice,” our local guide says proudly.
The U Bein bridge connects two villages on the banks of Thaungthaman Lake.
“Mandalay is the land of monks. Our Buddhist education is the best. Families will send their children to a monastery, where they spend 15 years learning dharma in addition to their lessons. Like many others I learned English at a monastery and not at school. The tourism industry has created a lot of jobs since the country opened up and during the low season, we all go back to farming.”
One of the most popular tourist attractions is Mandalay Palace. Surrounded by stone walls and moats, this royal residential compound with more than 40 buildings was severely damaged by bombs during World War II with reconstruction only commencing in 1989. The old watch tower is a vantage point from which to look out over the landscape. Not far away is the Mya Nan San Kyaw Golden Palace Cultural Museum with its rare collection of artefacts reflecting Burmese craftsmanship of the old days.
Destroyed in an allied bombing raid during World War II, Mandalay Palace was painstakingly rebuilt following the original design.
“The royal residence was constructed by King Mindon between 1857 and 1859 using old teak wood from the old palace in Amarapura. Most of buildings were razed to the ground by allied bombing and only the watch tower survived,” says the guide.
The museum is divided into two halls, the first of which is dedicated to Buddhism. Among the treasure are an ancient shrine of gilded, a carved Buddha image, elaborate carved wood gables from Amarapura and the palanquin used for carrying Buddha statue and Buddhist scriptures.
The second room features the glass bedstead that King Thibaw bought from France and donated to Mahamuni Pagoda in 1884, beautiful handcrafted lacquerware-adorned mosaics and traditional costumes.
Five minutes from the royal palace is Shwenandaw Monastery, with its fine teak carvings depicting the tales of the Buddha.
Built in 1878 by King Thibaw Min, who dismantled and relocated the apartment formerly occupied by his father, King Mindon, it has a four-tiered roof and walls adorned with elegantly sculpted wood. Years of exposure to the elements have worn away the original gilt and glass mosaics, but the temple is still beautiful.
Shwenandaw Monastery has been recognised for its teak carvings.
Also at the foot of Mandalay Hill is the Kuthodaw Pagoda and its hundreds of shrines housing inscribed marble slabs. The pagoda is also called “the world’s largest book”, in honour of the 729 marble slabs inscribed with Buddhist teachings that took more than eight years to complete. The bell-shaped gold pagoda borrows a unique design from Swhezigon pagoda in Bagan and is guarded around its base by four golden lions.
Visitors also climb the steps to the top of Mandalay Hill, home to the Sutaungpyei Pagoda with its magnificent Burmese-style Buddha statues in different postures and a large tiled terrace that offers a breathtaking panoramic view of the city as the sun goes down.
Mandalay Hill is a great place to watch the sun setting over the city.
Our second day in the city starts at 3am with a visit to Mahamuni Monastery, where pilgrims are allowed to witness the revered daily face washing ritual.
Constructed in the 18th century by King Bodawpaya, the temple is home to the sacred Mahamuni Buddha statue – its name means the great image – which was brought from Rakhine State. This 30-minute ceremony starts at 4.30am and sees the abbot washing the face of the Buddha image with thanaka powder-infused water, then brushing its teeth and waxing its ears.
“Burmese people believe the Mahamuni image is alive since it was created by Gautama Buddha,” our guide explains before leading us to the jetty to board a ferry to the old town of Mingun in Sagaing region. The private cruise takes 30 minutes and offers a visual delight of small villages and gold pagodas.
The old town of Mingun is home to the unfinished Mingun Pagoda, the world's largest ringing Mingun Bell and the beautiful white Mya Theintan Pagoda.
The ruins of the Mingun Pagoda are just a short walk from the pier. Built in 1790 by King Bodawpaya, it was set to become the largest stupa in the country but was never completed. A pair of unfinished lion statues, designed as the guardians, were left unfinished when the king died and in 1839, the stupa was badly damaged in an earthquake. Huge cracks are visible in the structure, which visitors are no longer allowed to enter.
“The King spent plenty of money to buy the best bricks for the Mingun Pagoda but the cracks appeared because the foundations are weak,” says the guide.
The world’s largest bell – the Mingun Bell – is a short distance away. Constructed in 1808 and weighing more than 90,000 kilograms, it stands more than six metres high.
Mingun is also home to the white Mya Theintan Pagoda, which was erected in 1816 by Crown Prince Bagyidaw to pay tribute to his first consort, Princess Hsinbyume, who died in childbirth.
Designed to resemble Mount Meru, its base is shaped like waves to represent the seven mountain ranges around the sacred mountains and its top is adorned with gold spires. It was restored in 1874 by King Mingdon following an earthquake and has a Buddha image enshrined in the main hall.
Back in Mandalay we board a bus for the 11-kilometre ride to the old capital of Amarapura, arriving at the famous Mahagandayon Monastery to watch as the 1,500 resident monks form a long line to receive food from tourists.
“Unlike in Thailand, monks hardly ever go around the streets to receive alms. Instead, the faithful come to cook lunch for the monks at the temple,” the guide tells us.
The U Bein bridge connects two villages on the banks of Thaungthaman Lake.
Famous for its enforcement of the Vinaya – the 227 steps of monastic discipline – Mahagandayon is the biggest monastery in the town and was built in 1914 by Agati Thukha Sayadaw then restored by local Buddhist devotees after World War II.
Another landmark of Amarapura is the famed U Bein bridge. Stretching a full kilometre and connecting two villages on either side of Thaungthaman Lake, the bridge was constructed from teak in 1850 and features 1,086 pillars, some of which have been replaced with concrete.
“The level of the lake is high during the monsoon season so local residents come here to fish for crab and prawns. Amarapura is also famous for its quality silk,” the guide says.
The writer travelled courtesy of the Tourism Authority of Thailand as part of its Asean Connectivity |campaign to promote travel between Myanmar, Thailand |and Laos.