Monday, December 21, 2015

Amarapura, Sagaing, Inwa: Silk, Monks & Monasteries

For many visitors, the historic sites around Mandalay trump anything in the city itself, with iconic attractions such as the U-Bein Bridge in Amarapura, Sagaing’s temple-studded hills and Buddhist monasteries, and horse-cart trekking around the rural ruins of Inwa. Lying on the left bank of the Irrawaddy, Amarapura has long been known for its silk weaving, a cottage industry that's still one of the main professions of the local Amarapura people. Hundreds of looms click-clack all day throughout the town, and produce the beautiful silk used to make colourful silk scarves and longhis, the sarong-style wraps worn by both men and women in Myanmar. We visited the Thein Nyo silk weaving shop in Amarapura for a first hand glimpse of Burmese silk being crafted by hand. 

We then travelled to Mahagandayon, the famous Buddhist monastery in Sagaing, where more than a thousand monks live and study. Founded around 1914, it's one of the largest teaching monasteries in Myanmar, and home to up to 2000 monks at any given time. Temples and monasteries are an integral part of life in Myanmar and accommodate about half a million males, who are either vocational monks or young novices, and around 50,000 nuns, all of whom are completely dependent on faithful parishioners for providing their material needs. Theravada Buddhist monastic life has a strict daily routine revolving around prayers and religious study, but it's the silent alms-rounds which we experienced in Luang Prabang, and the silent line-up for lunch that we witnessed at Mahagandayon, that provide a fascinating glimpse into their day-to-day life. We arrived mid morning, just in time to watch the resident monks and young novices line up silently and systematically for lunch – their last meal of the day.

Thein Nyo Silk Weaving shop in Amarapura, the centre for Burmese silk

The weavers are all women, who work with astounding speed threading the skeins of silk on the looms to make scarves, sarongs, longhis and more

The raw silk is boiled in a vat, then dyed every colour of the rainbow

The finished rolls of brightly coloured silk thread, ready for weaving on the looms

A monk preparing an enormous pot of rice for lunch at the famous Buddhist monastery of Mahagandayon, where more than a thousand monks live and study

Devout Buddhists, many Burmese families sponsor and serve the noon meal for a monastery by supplying curries or other dishes to augment the rice monks are given each meal time — by doing so, families make 'merit', a concept in Buddhism/Hinduism which accumulates as a result of good deeds, acts, or thoughts and which carries over throughout the life or the subsequent incarnations

We arrived in time to watch the monks line up for lunch in a orderly row with heads bowed and rice bowls and cups in hand

The elder Monks eat first, followed by young novices, the youngest of whom is eight years old

With shaved heads and downcast eyes, the little boys seem older than their years

Before entering the dining hall, the monks must remove their sandals and leave them at the foot of the stairs

As more Monks arrive, the sandals multiply but are lined up in an orderly fashion

I wondered how the monks kept track of their sandals until I noticed discrete notations on most of the pairs of shoes

Sitting cross-legged on carpets before low tables, the monks eat their lunch in total quiet

Buddhist monks eat only two meals a day: one at day break and the last at 12 noon

After visiting the Mahagandayon Monastery, we travelled to The Umin Thounzeh Temple in the Sagaing Hills, which houses 45 Buddha images in a grand semicircular shrine. Umin Thounzeh literally means '30 caves', however the archways along the hillside do appear cave-like, where each of the 45 Buddhas sit cross-legged behind the multi-coloured archways, then we continued to Soon U Ponya Shin, one of the oldest temples on Sagaing Hill built in the early 1300s. Leaving Sagaing by the Myitnge ferry, we travelled by boat over the Irrawaddy to Inwa, which served as the capital of Burma for over 600 years, and stopped for lunch at a curious restaurant called 'Ave Maria' on the banks of the Irrawaddy.

After visiting the Mahagandayon Monastery, we travelled to The Umin Thounzeh Temple in the Sagaing Hills, which  houses 45 Buddha images in a grand semicircular shrine

The semicircular shrine with 45 archways that lead to each of the 45 Buddhas

Only some archways allow entry to the shrine — thank goodness for helpful signage

The richly gilded Buddha statues are decorated with a background of sparkling glasswork

Close up of one of the Buddhas

 Technology is everywhere — even street merchants have cellphones!

Soon U Ponya Shin is the most prominent temple in the Sagaing Hills

The huge golden robed Buddha of Soon U Ponya Shin Temple smiles down beneficently

An engraved sign instructs how to achieve Nirvana

A local painter outside the temple creating pen and ink landscapes

View over the Irrawaddy River and one of the many temples that overlook it from the Sagaing Hills

Leaving Sagaing by the Myitnge ferry, we travelled by boat over the Irrawaddy to Inwa, which served as the capital of Burma for over 600 years

Local fishing on the Irrawaddy

Woman washing clothes on the banks of the river

An unexpected but welcome sight — a young man in traditional longhi awaits our arrival on the riverside pier of the restaurant where we are to have lunch 

Ave Maria — a curious name for the Burmese restaurant 

Our riverside table overlooking the Irrawaddy 

The chalkboard menu with the days specials

First things first — a cold Myanmar beer

We needed the beer after surviving the wobbly pier

A large house boat passes languidly along the river

A small local long tail boat put-puts by

Spring rolls with minced fish inside...we think...

Green chili and garlic sauce for the spring rolls

A bowl of hot vegetable soup

Chilled smoked eggplant salad with chopped scallions which was very good

Steamed Chicken with Pineapple

Stir Fried Mixed Vegetables

Sweet and Sour Fried Pork

Our server arrives with a bowl of hot steamed jasmine rice

For dessert, an attractive selection of local fruit: papaya, pineapple, banana and mandarin oranges

Since 1364, Inwa has taken four turns as royal capital, indeed upper Burma was often referred to as the ‘Kingdom of Ava’, even well after the royal court finally abandoned Inwa for Amarapura in 1841. Despite its rich history, the site today is a remarkably rural backwater sparsely dotted with ruins, monastic buildings and stupas, a world away from the city bustle of Mandalay. The best way to explore the area is by horse and cart, which appears charming but is actually brutally uncomfortable as most of the paths are quite rocky and uneven. Wedged into the back of the buggy, we held on for dear life and bounced our way through Inwa's outback to our first stop, Bagaya Kyaung, a striking 1834 teak monastery which was originally the royal apartment in which King Mindon died when it was located within the Mandalay Palace walls. It was moved to its current location by Mindon’s son, Thibaw – the last king of Burma – and converted into a monastery. Made entirely out of teak, stained timbers are inscribed with repeating peacock and lotus-flower motifs, and despite the constant flow of visitors, Bagaya Kyaung remains a living monastery with a small school for novices’ lessons.

Our transportation for the afternoon

The original fortified city gates of Inwa

An engraved stone plinth describes the history of Inwa, which was the royal capital of the Myanmar Kingdom for over 600 years

Sitting in the back of the horse and cart, we observed local life along the dusty roads of Inwa

Looking from the back of the buggy as we trundled along the dirt roads

Built in 1834 during the reign of King Bagidaw, Bagaya Monastery is constructed entirely of teak wood underpinned with 267 enormous teak posts

The biggest post measures a staggering 60 feet high and 9 feet in circumference

Beautifully carved teak archway

Ornate carved teak pillars line the terrace around the building

An old stone archway in the garden behind the Monastery

Arriving back at the ferry embarkation point, we took the launch back to the mainland to explore the Maha Aungmye Bonzan Monastery

Arriving back at the ferry embarkation point, we bid adieu to our horse and buggy and took the launch back to the mainland to explore the Maha Aungmye Bonzan Monastery. Constructed of brick and stucco, the monastery is one of the finest examples of Myanmar architecture from the 19th-century Konbaung period, and was built by the chief Queen of King Bagydaw for the royal abbot at the time.

The Maha Aungmye Bonzan Monastery built in 1822 and constructed of brick and stucco, 
is one of the finest examples of Myanmar architecture during the 19th-century Konbaung period

A Burmese gentleman in a traditional longhi caught gazing outward from the upper terrace

The monastery was built by the chief Queen of King Bagydaw for the royal abbot

Although made of brick and stucco, the structure was designed to simulate a wooden monastery with multiple roofs and seven tiered peak

A highlight of the former royal city of Amarapura is the famous U-Bein Bridge, the world’s longest teak footbridge, which gently curves across Taungthaman Lake. In the dry season the bridge feels surreally high, but after the summer rains the whole area becomes a big lake and water laps just below the floor planks. Constructed from the teak reclaimed from the original palace in Inwa when the capital of Ava Kingdom moved to Amarapura, the bridge is named after the mayor who had it built and is one of the most photographed sights in all of Myanmar.

The famous U-Bein Teak Foot Bridge spans the Taungthaman Lake near Amarapura, 
and was constructed from the teak reclaimed from the original palace in Inwa

A couple walking along the 3/4-mile bridge

A steady stream of people cross the bridge year round, 
and is believed to be the longest teak bridge in the world

A farmer plows his field with oxen on farmland just beside the U-Bein bridge

Thousands of ducks inhabit the shore below the bridge...

...and take to the water at feeding time