Tag Archives: Irrawaddy

Reflections in a Golden Face

26 Nov
Burmese girl at Mandalay  Flower Market

Burmese girl at Mandalay Flower Market

There’s a stanza of Rudyard Kipling’s poem, Mandalay, that reads: “If you’ve ‘eard the East a-callin’, you won’t never ‘eed naught else. / No! you won’t ‘eed nothin’ else/ But them spicy garlic smells, /An’ the sunshine an’ the palm-trees an’ the tinkly temple-bells; On the road to Mandalay…” Kipling wrote these lines in 1892 and in the full context of the poem, these words are being spoken by a soldier who has just come back from a 10-year stint in Burma and is describing his experience to the Kipling narrator who longs for a life in the East with a Burmese girl he left behind when he returned to London. Now, stuck in the cold drab confines of English city life, he reflects on his lost time in Mandalay and slips into the past as he listens to the soldier’s words.

View of Mandalay Hill from palace wall

View of Mandalay Hill from palace wall

Contrary to what may be a popular held belief, Mandalay is not on the ocean and does not have a bay. It is in the north part of Burma located far from the gulf and instead is nestled along the Irrawaddy River. It was the last capital of the Burmese kings and their beautiful teak Mandalay Palace compound burned to a crisp during World War II fighting in the city.  Today, Mandalay is Burma’s second largest city and is a dusty, gem-trading urban sprawl that serves as a crossroads for Burmese minorities from the northernmost corners of the country who come to Mandalay for supplies and work. In the city’s north boundary looms Mandalay Hill — a 760ft tall mound that is sprinkled with many monasteries, temples, and shrines connected by a series of covered stairways and paths which snake around the hill and up to its summit.

O Bein's Bridge - Amarapura

U Bein Bridge (1850AD) – Amarapura

Within 50km of Mandalay lies the former capital of Amarapura (home of the oldest teak bridge in the world – U Bein Bridge) and Sagaing which is a center for international Buddhist study and learning and has hills laden with many monasteries and temples — most famous of which are the Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda and U Min Thonze Pagoda.

45 Buddha images of U Min Thonze - Sagaing

45 Buddha images of U Min Thonze – Sagaing

97ft high Soon U Ponya Shin Budda  (13th century) - Sagaing

97ft high Soon U Ponya Shin Buddha (13th century) – Sagaing

Mandalay contains one icon that beyond all else was the raison d’etre for my visit there: the Mahamuni Buddha. Along with the Schwedagon Pagoda and Golden Rock, the Mahamuni Pagoda which contains an image of the Buddha’s face cast in 554BC is the most venerated site of pilgrimage in Burma. Pictures or small replicas of the Mahamuni Buddha are found hanging in taxi cabs, stores, and restaurants all around Burma.

The Buddha pointing down from atop Mandalay Hill to the land below where he prophesied the founding of Mandalay. Ananda to his left.

The Buddha pointing down from atop Mandalay Hill to the land below where he prophesied the founding of Mandalay. Ananda to the left.

During the last half of the 6th century BC, the Buddha walked throughout India and beyond to spread his teachings. At one point, he went east and crossed what today is Bangladesh and dipped south to the Rakhine State area of modern Burma. There, he reached the city of Dhanyawadi which at that time was the capital of the Kingdom of Arakan. The Arakanese King  had already been exposed to Buddhism through those subjects and members of his court who had converted to the Buddha’s teachings, so he requested that the Buddha come to Dhanyawadi.

View of Sandamuni Paya from Mandalay Hill [each of the white stupas contains a marble slab with a page of the Tripitaka]

View of Sandamuni Paya from Mandalay Hill [each of the white stupas contains a marble slab with a page of the Tripitaka (earliest Buddhist scriptures)]

When the Buddha arrived, the King and the citizenry brought various gold and other precious objects as gifts for the Buddha who of course did not accept them. Instead, these objects were melted down and an image was cast of the Buddha’s  actual face. After the cast was created and the rest of the image’s body was put together, this image served to commemorate the Buddha’s visit to Dhanyawadi and passing generations of people were drawn to it in order to make offerings and stand witness to this likeness of the Buddha. The offerings took the form of diamonds, gold, rubies, emeralds, and sapphires which were affixed to the crown and chest of the Mahamuni Buddha. Then, gold leaf was applied to the Mahamuni Buddha continuously and this has resulted in several inches of thick gold layering on the image.  The image stayed in Dhanyawadi until the Arakan kingdom was sacked by the Mon Burmese who absconded with the Mahamuni Buddha and made it their own. The story goes that the Mahamuni Buddha was so large that it had to be cut into pieces for transport to Amarapura- which was then the capital city of Burma. It was then moved to Mandalay and has resided in its present compound after it was built in the 1780s by King Bodawpaya.

Matwalgyi Paya - Mingun

Mingun Pahtodawgyi – Mingun

King Bodawpaya was incredibly ambitious — not only did he consider himself a reincarnation of the Buddha, he also attempted to construct the largest stupa (and bell) in the world — on the other side of the Irrawaddy river just north of Mandalay. This was to be called the Mingun Pahtodawgyi — the Great Royal Stupa. It was never finished and today lies as huge brick stump that has since been split by an earthquake.

Exterior of Mahamuni Pagoda

Exterior of Mahamuni Pagoda

The Mahamuni Buddha compound is large with 4 points of entry and contains arcades or pavilions with covered walkways. There is a bazaar-like feel in these arcades where there are hundreds of shop stalls selling various religious ornaments, garlands, incense, and other offerings alongside books, home goods, food, and other supplies. On display in one of the temple courtyards is a set of 3 Khmer copper statues that were originally looted from the Khmer capital of Angkor in Cambodia by the Siamese kings of Ayutthaya in Thailand.  Ayutthaya was then sacked in the 16th century by the Mon king of the time, who took these pieces back to Burma. These statues today are rubbed by pilgrims as each contains some special merit.  If one follows any of these arcades they ultimately spill into the central area of the temple which then cascades in a series of archways into a small chamber. Inside this chamber is the Mahamuni Buddha which although in a seated position — appears at first glance to be standing over the continuous streams of monks, pilgrims, and people who are sitting below it. But, the Mahamuni is in fact seated in the mudra position where his right hand is pointed down — invoking the earth’s attestation to his attainment of Enlightenment and the vanquishing of Mara the tempter.

Cascading archways leading to the Mahamuni Buddha

Cascading archways leading to the Mahamuni Buddha

I approached the Mahamuni head-on and passed through a narrow arched corridor.  Each arch was divided into a base of red brick that gave way to a golden paint which rose to the ceiling. As I walked closer to the gleaming Mahamuni, the last 7 or so archways became more and more ornate with glyphic designs, flowers, and other intricate gilded patterns. There were people sitting on a carpeted area looking towards the light of the Mahamuni. Women were seated in the back of the carpeted area and men were seated closer to the Mahamuni. The area nearest to the Mahamuni was cordoned off and reserved only for monks. I slowed my gait as the great image began to reveal itself to me.

Mahamuni Buddha

Mahamuni Buddha

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Siddhartha Gautama?

It was set off in the darkened corridor by electric lights that framed the final archway that led to its chamber. This was truly an inner sanctum. The golden image was enhanced by lights from the ceiling of the chamber that bounced off it. A round face with closed oval eyes, broad flat nose, and pursed lips. This was the face — the face of Siddhartha Gautama before me. I sat down. He is 13ft high, but looks bigger. Something about the layering of old, medallions, necklaces, and other gems on his torso and crown make it look massive.  I studied the image. It smacked of humanness. I clearly saw features of a face that once did belong to someone. I had no doubt. This was not an idealized Buddha face as was omnipresent throughout Burma and elsewhere in the Buddhist world. Nor was this some kind of inanimate face like those found in other ancient statues of the Buddha. This image had a very different quality — a soul.  No wonder that at dawn of each day the face and teeth of the Mahamuni Buddha are cleaned in a carefully choreographed ritual by a senior monk.  As I sat cross-legged in the carpeted area reserved for men, I looked around at the people around me. Some had their eyes closed in silent prayer, yet others had their gazes fixed on the Mahamuni Buddha as if in a trance.

DSCN2836On the surface it could have appeared that we were worshipping a golden deity, but Buddhism is not about worship. It is about inward contemplation about the causes of suffering and discontent, understanding how such causes shackle us, and then breaking free from these shackles through an active pursuit towards ethical conduct, intention, speech, effort, and mindfulness. The image of the Buddha may be used as a point of focus for quieting one’s monkey mind, but he is not himself the focus. The Buddha never spoke to his disciples that he was to be worshipped. Nor did he teach about the need for worshipping any creator of the world. The focus of his teachings was on how to navigate a middle path toward the attainment of Enlightenment and after one had achieved that, then one would pass into a state of spiritual and physical bliss – freed of suffering – which could be realized in life or upon death.DSCN2838 As I sat before the Mahamuni, I thought about what the other people around me were concentrating on. Were they here asking for a blessing, searching for answers, or merely basking in the radiance of the illuminated being before them?

Monk at Sandamuni Paya

Monk at Sandamuni Paya

I think back to that moment now and re-imagine the smells, sights, and sounds swirling around that chamber.  The fragrant incense permeating through the archways and the mix of garlands and exotic spices. The sight of golden rays shooting out from the Mahamuni. The quiet murmur of the monks’ chanting and the laity shuffling on the carpet.  A trinity of senses. In his poem, Kipling also invoked a trinity as he cited to the garlic, sunlight, and tinkling bells. From his grey London quarters, he thought about that — about romance, about the East. Today, from within the cramped office of Western modernity, I understand Kipling’s nostalgic sentiment. I understand that longing.

Mystery and Man at Bagan

22 Oct
Bagan, Burma (2011)

Bagan, Burma (2011)

Bagan, Bagan, Bagan.

Dhammaget Temple (left)

Dhammayangyi Temple (left) – Built in 12th Century

DSCN2366Like a mantra those words cycled in my brain during my 2-hour flight on Air Bagan from Yangon.  When the small plane took off and went above the monsoon blanket above the city and into crystal blue sky, excitement slapped me in the face. Despite the awesomeness of the Schwedagon Pagoda and the Golden Rock, Bagan was going to be the highlight of my trip to Burma. There are places you remember — so massive in impact and experience — that they elude the grasp of words. I spent 3 days pedaling around on a bicycle and basically had the whole archaeological park to myself. That’s not an exaggeration. At the risk of minimizing this spellbinding and enchanting place, let me first provide a few facts about the old Kingdom of Bagan (formerly, Pagan). It was the first true “capital” city of Burma and is located smack in the center of the country. Its central geography and layout alongside the Irrawaddy River allowed for easy access and trade within the country as well as with foreign peoples. From the Gulf of Mottama in the south, Sinhalese sailors were able to steer their boats up the Irrawaddy to Bagan where they stopped  for trade, supplies, and rest. They also brought with them their Theravada faith which spread like wildfire amongst Bagan’s Mon inhabitants. From the west and north, Indian and Chinese merchants came to Bagan and brought with them the Mahayana and Tantric Buddhist schools along with Hindu and Vedic traditions.

Bagan Skyline

Bagan rooftops

Between the 9th and 13th centuries,  Bagan ultimately became the center of Buddhism in the world. Its plains swelled to over 10000 temples and pagodas at its zenith. There were over 3000 monasteries and all Buddhist traditions were represented and studied there alongside traditional Mon religious and folk teachings. No question though that Theravada Buddhism left the most enduring legacy here. Each King who came to rule Bagan during its 500 year reign sponsored the construction of his own set of temples and pagodas.  These temples all rose into the sky with pinprick accuracy in dimension and purpose and featured elaborately designed corridors, stairways, altars, and chambers.  During my drive from the airport, I was whisked through “new” Bagan which was a blur of grey cement buildings and dusty roads where Burmese citizens today live. I then passed through a tree-lined road that led to “old” Bagan — the archaeological park. I was lucky enough to be staying in a bungalow in old Bagan so I would have access to the park as soon as I left the hotel compound. It was 3 days of exploration absorbed through flared nostrils, chapped lips, and bleary eyes. It felt like a safari.  I would get up early, do a bike ride to a different area of the park, walk and climb into and atop temple after temple, and then head back to my hotel at sundown. There were large black scorpions squashed on pathways and huge colonies of bats in some temples. Some gates to temples were locked and others had dark tunnels and passageways that could only be passed through with a flashlight. But, these gave way to secretive frescoes, mosaics, and the most amazing statues of the Buddha “in situ”. That was the best part.

DSCN2241 DSCN2393Within most of the temples in Bagan are multiple statues of the Buddha — each unique in their image and effect and some powerfully set off with electric lights within the dark chambers where they stand or sit. Each face conveys a specific feeling. Somehow these statues had not been stolen away by imperialist or marauding powers and ended up in a faraway museum. They were still here — sitting or standing in the exact spots where they had first been placed. Some may have been falling apart — alabaster coverings gone, paint chipped away, pieces lopped off by earthquake or pillage — but most were largely intact.

Standing Buddha inside Ananda Temple

Standing Buddha inside Ananda Temple

Elephant fresco - Sulamani Temple

Elephant fresco – Sulamani Temple (12th century)

Fresco of nat (Burmese deity) inside Sulamani Temple

Fresco of nat (Burmese deity) inside Sulamani Temple

Only an incredibly devout people could have so carefully chiseled, molded, and gilded these Buddha statues through each passing century of Bagan’s heyday. But, then in the late 13th century, the Mongols swept down into Burma from China and the inhabitants of Bagan had to desert the city and no further temples or pagodas were built there afterwards. Over 2000 temples and pagodas have survived to the present day.

thatbinku

The Golden Sikhara of Ananda Temple in background

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Bupaya (originally built in 9th century) on the banks of the Irrawaddy River

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Shwezigon Pagoda (11th century)

The lust to see every major temple and pagoda in the park drove me to push myself beyond exhaustion and common sense. I ran out of water at one point and was way out in the north-west reaches of the park where there was absolutely nothing but parched brush-land and remnants of brick structures.  There was no shade in order to ward off the pounding of the sun. There was no trail or path for my bike to take and I had no choice but to walk and carry my bike on my shoulders in some places.  To make matters worse, my bike’s rear tire was flat.  In the distance I saw what appeared to be a modern building — like some kind of watchtower. I thought it was a mirage because there was nothing else around it and it seemed ridiculously out-of-place. As I walked up to it, I looked up in bewilderment. It was indeed a watchtower — complete with an elevator that took you to the top in order to survey the plains of Bagan stretching out below.  I went inside and found a restaurant on the first floor, but there was not a soul there. I paced back and forth and made some noise until one person finally came out to greet me. I bought 3 bottles of water and hydrated myself. This person did not speak English, but I could tell he was amused by the sight of me chugging down the water in breathless gulps. I made it back to my hotel that night with my legs and back annihilated. Yet, I got up the next day and repeated the experience — this time to the far southern area of the park.  I dug deep into every corner of Bagan that I possibly could — spelunking through temple caves, inhaling the musty odors of untouched corridors, and sitting in chamber rooms in quiet contemplation. But, it was not enough.  You cannot condense a 500 year epoch into 3 days on a bike.

Dhammayangyi Temple

Dhammayangyi Temple

The Buddha and the Maitreya inside Dhammayangyi

The Buddha and the Maitreya inside Dhammayangyi

The highlights of my wanderings through the temples and pagodas of Bagan were: Bupaya (the oldest /and smallest pagoda first built in the 9th century – it sits right above the Irrawaddy River and was likely the first consecrated Buddhist site in Bagan);  the Shwezigon Pagoda (which is thought to have served as the template for the design of most other pagodas in Burma);  Dhammayangyi Temple (the largest temple in Bagan — almost Mayan in design and aura); Dhammayazika Pagoda (a compact, faded golden pagoda); Ananda Temple (likely the most glorious temple in Bagan with 4 incredible standing Buddhas inside 4 separate chamber rooms); Thatbyinnyu Temple (tallest structure in Bagan); Sulamani Temple (magical frescoes); and Shwesandaw Pagoda (thought to contain a hair relic of the Buddha).

Ananda Temple

Ananda Temple (12th century)

On the afternoon of the second day, as I was pedaling around and a bit lost, I saw a familiar pyramid-like spire in the distance. When I arrived at the structure, I was surprised to see a very accurate replica of the Mahabodhi Temple found in Bodh Gaya, India. The Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya was built in the 5th or 6th centuries and was constructed at the site of the Bodhi Tree where the Buddha had attained Enlightenment. It is perhaps the most important temple in Buddhism. (See “Pilgrimage – Part I” http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-4f). King Htilominlo of Bagan had commissioned the construction of a temple based on the designs and specifications of the Mahabodhi Temple. It was finished in 1218 AD. It was a revelation for me to see that here in Bagan which is many thousands of miles away from Bodh Gaya, the King and his people were able to construct such an accurate replica of the Mahabodhi Temple — about 700 years after the Mahabodhi Temple itself had been built! They did not have the benefit of photographs or the ability to share information and images like we do today with such ease. The King had to have received handwritten sketches and designs of the Mahabodhi Temple which were most likely carried overland from India to Bagan. And then — one hard to actually build the temple based on those sketches and designs.

Mahabodhi Temple (13th century)

Mahabodhi Temple (13th century)

Although the Mahabodhi Temple of Bagan is smaller in size and doesn’t dominate the skyline like the original Mahabodhi, it contains the same intricate square patterns of Buddha engravings that run up the length of each side of the main temple structure in the same way as in the Mahabodhi. I was blown away by the way these people had exchanged ideas in such a progressive manner.

Thatbinnyu Temple

Thatbyinnyu Temple (12th century)

On my last day, I climbed to the top rung of the Shwesandaw Pagoda with wobbly legs, found a flat stone, and sat down waiting for the sunset.  A light wind whistled through the plains and swirled around the pagoda. I looked out toward the north of Bagan and tried to envision how each of the temples that dotted the landscape before me had been built. For 500 years, this place had been the center of the center — a bustling crossroads between India and the Far East. Teeming with monks, buzzing with scholarly debate, and filled with streams of students from all the great Buddhist traditions of the time. Ruled over by Kings and served by a unified populace who must have reached deep with themselves and found the belief that caused them to literally move mountains in order to create temple after temple on these plains.

Shwesandaw Pagoda

Shwesandaw Pagoda (11th century)

Then, it all stopped. The monks and people vanished. The Kings moved south to rule. All that was left were the temples. I slowly scanned the scene before me starting from my far left and moving to my right. I noticed an almost supernatural symmetry in how the temples and pagodas before me were spaced between one another and within the framework of the mountains that bordered these plains.  We often look back at our ancestors of long ago with wonder — but it is sometimes the wonder of disbelief tinged with the presumption of our own superiority.  When we dismiss the accomplishments of our ancestors with questions or statements of “how could they do that” with their “primitive tools” and “lack of technical knowledge or science”, we ultimately shortchange ourselves.  Mankind has always wanted to fundamentally understand the following: Why Are We Here?  What Came Before? and What Comes After?  The quest for answers to these 3 questions has driven us to continue to strive further into the physical and metaphysical — into ourselves, the environment, and space. Yet, despite the modern age and its global connectivity which allows for the passing of knowledge across thousands of miles with a double-click, we are perhaps ultimately no closer today to answering these 3 questions than those Buddhists who had meditated on them through 5 centuries at Bagan. These were centuries similar to mankind’s more recent achievements in the industrial age, and likewise, witnessed the incredible exchange of ideas and concepts between different cultures and culminated in the construction of skyscraping monuments. I gripped the stone beneath me hard.  I wanted the mineral deposits from the stones seeped into my skin and underneath my fingernails. Human hands had built this place. Hands that belonged to a powerful and determined people — moved by something profound.  I wanted to be moved by that as well.

Rangoon Night

12 Mar

City centre neighborhood – Yangon, Myanmar (2011)

I arrived in Yangon (Rangoon), Myanmar (Burma) on a thick and misty summer night in June 2011. Aung San Suu Kyi was still under house arrest and the military junta had not yet begun to relax its grip. On the day before my arrival, a plane carrying the actress, Michelle Yeoh, who was filming a movie (“The Lady”) in which she was starring as Suu Kyi had landed in Yangon. But, Yeoh was not allowed to enter the country and was forced to fly back to Bangkok. Yeoh had wanted to discuss the role and film with Suu Kyi, but the government decided to nix the visit.  It was extremely difficult for any foreign dignitaries or visitors to see Suu Kyi at her house which sat on Inya Lake.  In 2009, a wacked out American who had created makeshift paperboard fins swum the length of that lake to “rescue” Suu Kyi.  His “heroics” instead only succeeded in having Suu Kyi’s house arrest extended by the government. Before coming to Burma, I had screened a documentary called “Burma VJ” about the September 2007 uprisings led by the Buddhist monks and others which had been crushed by the government.  Most of these monks had either been arrested, beaten, and sent to Insein Prison where they were never seen again. Others managed to flee the country to Thailand and elsewhere.  I had heard that solo travelers who came to Burma could expect to get followed by government agents. Even more troubling was that due to all the economic sanctions on the country, one had to travel only with cash — pristine, unmarked U.S. bills to be exact. There was no way to wire money into the country or to use credit cards.  There were two currency exchange conversion rates — one was set by the Myanmar government and arbitrarily computed — and the other was set by the black market — which could only be found in the back alleys of street markets, or in the back rooms of hotels where foreigners stayed.  I read a few horror stories about travelers who came to Burma with U.S. bills which were not accepted because of small creases or the absence of a preferred circulation letter or number. These travelers ended up having their trips cut short since they could not fund things.  I had gone to my bank a week before I set off for Burma and asked for the newest printed U.S. bills they had and was able to receive newish bills in different denominations.  I then took extreme care to protect and keep these bills in the flattest state possible until I got to Burma. I knew that when I found a place in Yangon where I could change the U.S. bills into the local Kyat currency, I could expect to receive so many Kyat that they piled up like a literal brick.  So, I had visions of walking around with this brick of money in my backpack as I did my circuit through the country. In 2011, there were also rumors swirling that the military junta was planning to raze much of Yangon — including the magnificent Schwedagon Pagoda. The government had already moved the capital from Yangon to an obscure outpost in the middle of the country called Nay Pyi Daw and they were building duplicates of Burma’s iconic sights there.  Suffice it to say that this was a trip that would require strong presence of mind, thoughtful planning, and a little luck…

Monks in the rain - Yangon

Monks in the rain – Yangon

It was trade which had brought Theravada Buddhism to Burma over a millennia ago. When Sinhalese merchant sailors had left Sri Lanka and crossed the Bay of Bengal, they hit land in the mouth of the Irrawaddy River basin. This great river shoots up and curves through the heart of Burma — and that’s how the Dharma first spread. Within a few centuries, the teachings of Buddha had spread from Burma through all of Southeast Asia.  I had mapped out an intense itinerary through the core Buddhist sights of Burma and this meant that I would have to fly to some of the places on Burmese airlines — some of which had dubious safety records. I was to meet a travel agent in Yangon on my second day in order to pay for my plane tickets in cash since there was no other way to purchase tickets in advance. So, I was a bit anxious about getting this taken care of in addition to remaining within my tight daily budget. On that night of my arrival in Rangoon, I hopped into the first cab I found outside the airport. As we drove to my hotel, I saw and smelled the dilapidated state of everything around me — the unpaved roads, lack of street lights, muddy markets spilling out their wares in the street, and crumbling storefronts. The cab I was in had no windshield wipers. My driver had to stick his right hand out of his window and use a closed umbrella to wipe away the rain as he drove with his left hand! I was sitting in the back seat and the open window had me sucking in rain drop after rain drop. I could only laugh nervously to myself — and for a flash — I wondered if this trip would end up as a disaster.

Schwedagon Pagoda - perched above Yangon

Schwedagon Pagoda – perched above Yangon

This was a pariah nation and if things went bad for me, I would have little recourse and limited money to buy my way out. But, these doubts quickly vanished when something astonishing came into focus on the hill to my left. It was almost extraterrestrial in design and luminescence. I knew then that I was in for the epic. It burst.

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