Burma's Buddhist Monuments
By Steve Tauschke
A land of ancient kingdoms, jewelled temples and devout monks, Burma is captivated by Buddhism.
Now known as Myanmar, Burma boasts Asia’s most astute Buddhist devotees, with almost ninety percent of the country’s 45 million inhabitants observing the philosophy.
Tangible expressions of Burmese piety and generosity can be seen in the innumerable religious monuments that dot the landscape. And, as the country slowly opens up to the world after decades of self-imposed isolation, these sacred time-worn treasures can now be experienced by foreigners. Shwedagon Holiest of Burma’s Buddhist sites and a must-see for travellers is the stunning Shwedagon Pagoda, situated atop Singutarra Hill overlooking the capital Rangoon.
Reputedly built around 500 BC as a protective repository for eight locks of Buddha’s hair, Shwedagon stands as a beacon of Burmese faith. Towering 100 metres into the city’s warm, tropical sky, its blazing bell-shaped stupa is plated with sixty tons of gold leaf and topped by a shimmering orb encrusted with over 4000 diamonds. Gazing up at the monument, I can clearly see why the famous writer and Burma enthusiast Rudyard Kipling once dubbed Shwedagon ‘the winking wonder’.
Pilgrims are expected to pay homage here at least once in their lifetime and with 400,000 monks and 75,000 nuns in Burma, Shwedagon can get very crowded. Strolling the wide, marble terrace that rings the pagoda is akin to entering a religious fairytale. Among the clusters of smaller temples, statues and pavilions, the spiritual energy is almost palpable. Everywhere, heads are bowed, incense is lit, holy bells tinkle in the warm breeze. I watch with interest as a group of maroon-robed monks gather at prayer stations to pay their respects. Following age-old rhythms, they rub meditation beads and chant Buddhism’s noble truths: anicca (impermanence), dukkha (suffering) and anatta (no self, no soul, no ego).
Leaving such a place of such significance and surpassing beauty would prove difficult but with so much more of Burma to see, it was time to move on. Mingun Six hundred kilometres further north along the fabled road to Mandalay is Burma’s second city and its main monastic centre, home to some 20,000 monks who come to study Tripitaka (Three Baskets), the canon of Buddhist literature. Surrounding the city lay the remains of Sagaing, Amarapura and Mingun; also former royal capitals and now religious centres. I had read about the ruins of the Mingun Paya, about an hour by slow boat up the mighty Ayeyarwady River, and so decided to pay a visit.
In 1790, King Bodawpaya arrived here with 20,000 slaves and set about constructing the world’s largest Buddhist temple. But after 25 years, he ran out of money and upon his death a short time later, construction was halted and the site abandoned. Only the 50-metre stone foundation – about one third of the project’s intended height - was completed. Today, the locals fittingly refer to the monument as Patodawgyi (unfinished) pagoda. It is now a playground for bats and children. Barefoot, I climb the ruin’s ragged steps, now occupied by benign, pink-robed nuns who sit beneath sun-shielding parasols while puffing on cheroots, Burmese cigars. Donations of kyat (pronounced ‘chat’) to their alm bowls are met with toothy smiles.
Atop the paya, the bricks are hot and buckled, not the place to be without your sandals. Still, up here is to experience Burma at its most picturesque; the palm-cuffed Ayeyarwady, the thatched huts and bullock carts of the Mingun village and the gold-tipped spires on small peaks as far as the eye can see. Within easy reach is a purpose-built tazaung (small pavilion), resting place for the 90-tonne Mingun Bell, the largest ringing bell in existence and intended as the paya’s crowning glory. With gonging log in hand, I scamper underneath for a unique surround-sound experience.
Half a day’s ferry ride south along the Ayeyarwady is city-state of Bagan, a 40-square-km archaeological zone thickly studded with 4000 Buddhist shrines, temples and zedis. One of Asia’s holiest cities along with Varanasi and Jerusalem, Bagan was built by the 11th century king Anawrahta, whose Buddhist fervour sparked a spate of pagoda-building that would continue for two and a half centuries, cementing the city as the nerve centre of ancient Burmese culture.
Bagan was eventually sacked in 1287 by marauding Mongol armies under Kublai Khan, who destroyed all but a few thousand sandstone monuments, many of which have now been beautifully restored. I found the humble bicycle a convenient and accessible way to explore these however hired horse buggies are also an option, as is hot air ballooning for those seeking an aerial perspective. For me though, to soak up Bagan’s humid charm was to simply drift lazily among its monuments, marvelling at the myriad gothic, Buddhist and pyramidiac-style iconography on display, no two of which are alike.
On my final afternoon, I decide to climb one of the larger temples in time for a stunning vermilion sunset while leading, Pied Pier-like, an entourage of chirping Burmese children. As the sun slides below the horizon, we share an unforgettable panorama of pagoda silhouettes. The Golden Rock Leaving Bagan’s treasures behind, I detour south by local bus towards the fabled Golden Rock, located in Mon State, about 100-km east of Rangoon.
One of the country’s most revered religious monuments, this remarkable balancing boulder-shrine rests precariously on a cliff-top, crowned by a small gilded stupa. Locals know it as Kyaiktiyo - the literal sanskrit meaning ‘pagoda shouldered on the head of a hermit’ – believing that a carefully strung lock of Buddha’s hair, stored in the stupa, balances the four-tonne rock in place, preventing it from toppling into the valley below. Until recently, Kyaiktiyo was off-limits to foreigners however the government’s new push for tourism since the release from house arrest of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has changed all that.
Diesel-engine tray trucks now ferry Burma’s growing number of visitors up the mountain, a rough steep journey from Kinpun base camp 9km below. Wanting to stretch my legs, I opt instead for the ‘pilgrim’s path’, a scenic, three-hour mountain trek that ascends through jungle villages lined with vendors hawking everything from animal bones to herbal elixirs to toy machine guns fashioned from bamboo. The climb is an arduous one so en route, I catch my breath at the various zayats (small resthouses) given such appropriate names as Shweyin (Suffocated in the Chest) and Po-Pyan Tuang (Grandpa’s Retreat).
On the summit, what was left of my breath was taken away by the sight of Kyaiktiyo. Bathed in the sun’s rays, it beckons like a giant granitoid jewel. Locals have been known to gently rock the monument back and forth, confident that it would never fall. Today, however, such activities are forbidden. As I make my approach, monks with freshly shaved heads gather at its base to recite mantras and affix gold leaf to its surface in order to attain kusala (spiritual merit).
It is thought that by pressing such leaves onto the rock, prayers will stick. During the Tabaung pilgrimage season from November to March, worshippers flock to Kyaiktiyo to light thousands of candles in preparation for all-night prayer vigils. On the surrounding terrace, I join a group of women who burn sweet-smelling incense and offer fruit to Buddha. It is here, at the end of my journey when I begin to wonder if it were possible to remain in Burma much longer without becoming a devotee myself. I suspect not!
Steve Taushk writes from Australia.