Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Mandalay: The Cultural Heart of Myanmar

The name ‘Mandalay' is perhaps the most evocative of any destination in Myanmar, largely due to the famous poem by Rudyard Kipling, who in fact only ever spent two days in the country and never came here. Located north of Yangon on the east bank of the Irrawaddy River, Mandalay is the economic hub of upper Burma and is considered the cultural and religious centre of Buddhism, having many monasteries and over 700 pagodas. The second largest city and last royal capital of Burma, the city gets its name from the nearby Mandalay Hill, which offers beautiful panoramic views of the whole city, the Irrawaddy River and distant hills. Particularly beautiful at sunset with the fading rays glinting off the gold and green of the Sutaungpyei Pagoda at the summit, Mandalay Hill is a holy site, and is said to have been climbed by the Buddha, who prophesied that a great city would be built here, where his teachings would flourish. 

The Maharani Temple is one of Myanmar's most religious sites

One of Myanmar’s most important religious sites, the Mahamuni temple often full of pilgrims, is set in a large religious complex that is most famous for its large seated Buddha, where so much gold leaf has been adorned with so much gold over time that its body has become almost unrecognizable. Only men are permitted to approach the Buddha for this ritual, while women are relegated to watch from the 'sidelines' — an archaic rule that was not overlooked by me! Considered a living presence of the Lord Buddha, its face is washed and has its teeth cleaned by monks in a ceremony every morning at 4am.

The interior of the Maharani Temple with gold leaf walls and cornices

Men burnishing gold leaf onto the Buddha as a devout offering

As with many Buddhist temples, women are not permitted to get near the Buddha

Gold is an integral part of Burmese life. From shrines to the temples, gold is everywhere. Those gold leaves are the result of hours of enormously hard labour, as we discovered on a visit to the King Galon Gold Leaf Workshop where workers swing their 15-pound hammers against a 'cutch' — a packet of about 150 sheets of skin interleaved with small lumps of gold and tied together with parchment — until the gold is microscopically thin. 'Goldbeating', the hard physically demanding process of turning rolled gold into leaf, hasn't really changed in over 5000 years, except for the introduction of a cast iron hammer. Once packaged, the gold leaf squares are sold, so that people might offer them to the Buddha, or eat them, as some Burmese believe small amounts of gold are good for your for health, or gilded onto souvenirs for sale.

Turning gold into leaf takes an enormous amount of heavy rhythmic pounding, 
with workers wielding 15-pound hammers to turn gold leaf into almost translucent sheets

Sweating profusely, workers take a rest as the parchment is adjusted on the gold leaf block

Works adjusting his 'cutch', a packet of about 150 sheets of skin interleaved with small lumps of gold and tied together with parchment 

Pots of bamboo lay soaking as the first stage of a long process to produce bamboo paper,
which is used to bind the sheets of gold leaf used to gild Buddha images throughout Burma

This workers teeth are stained a reddish-black, dyed from years of chewing 'betel quids', potent parcels of areca nuts and tobacco wrapped in a lime-coated betel leaf, which give users a buzz 

Ladies sit on rattan mats as they cut the thinly pounded gold leaf into small squares

Constructed entirely of teak wood in the mid-nineteenth century by King Mindon, Shwenandaw Monastery, also known as the Golden Palace, is one of the few relics which are typical of the wooden architecture of ancient Myanmar. Only a few years before the end of the monarchy in Burma, King Mindon ordered to move it to Mandalay and named as Shwenandaw Kyaung. After King Mindon died in 1878, his son, King Thibaw, decided to dismantle and rebuild it as a monastery in order to honour his father. It's therefore a unique blend between palace and monastery as well as being the remaining most important relic of the overall Royal Palace after a bombing raid by Japan in WWII. It's believed that the soul of King Mindon still haunts this building.

Shwenandaw Monastery, also known as the Golden Palace, is one of the few remaining relics which are typical of the wooden architecture of ancient Myanmar

Constructed entirely of teakwood, the Monastery was dismantled and brought to the outskirts of Mandalay, saving it from being bombed in WWII

Detail of teakwood carving from the exterior of the building

Considering the age of the palace, the teakwood is in exceedingly good condition

Detail of Garuda, a large bird-like creature, or humanoid bird, 
that appears in both Hinduism and Buddhism

Burmese lady in a traditional longhi sitting on the steps 

Vaulted gilded gold teak interior of King Mindon's 'Golden Palace'

Ornately carved gild gold door frame in King Mindon's bed chamber, 
where he died and is thought to haunt the premises

One of the most holy and revered locations in Mandalay, the Kuthodaw Paya is home to the “the world’s largest book”, named after the 729 shrines each containing a single marble slab inscribed in both sides in Burmese script. Together, the 729 slabs are called “the world’s largest book”, each stone slab representing one of its pages. The slabs are inscribed with texts of the Sutta Pitaka, the Vinaya Pitaka and Abhidhamma Pitaka, the three parts that make up the Tripitaka, the teachings of the Buddha written in ancient Pali language. The texts were copied from ancient manuscripts written on dried palm leaf, the letters chiselled out of the stone and inlaid with gold leaf, and housed in white 'Dhamma Ceti' which are lined in rows around the complex, with corridors in between wide enough to walk through. The shrines have an entrance on all four sides with elaborately decorated arches over them and are topped with a hti, an ornamental spire. Constructed shortly after the founding on Mandalay in 1857, King Mindon built the Kuthodaw to leave a great work of merit for future generations. 

The Kuthodaw Inscription Shrines — the 'World's Largest Book' — is recognized as a UNESCO 'Memory of the World' protected site

The Kuthodaw gilded pagoda is home to “the world’s largest book”, 
named after the 729 marble slabs inscribed with Buddhist teachings

The Kuthodaw Buddha with floral offerings

Gilded parasols top each of the shrines

One of the most holy and revered locations in Mandalay, Buddhists often buy fresh lotus or fragrant jasmine to lay at the foot the Buddha

It's impossible to resist these lovely little girls selling flowers

Lotus in full bloom

One of the 729 white shrines with marble slabs comprising 'the world's largest book', 
 inscribed with Buddhist teachings — the entire Pali Buddhist Canon

Surrounding the pagoda are 729 shrines each containing a single marble slab inscribed on both sides in Burmese script

 Together, the 729 slabs are called “the world’s largest book”, 
each stone slab representing one of its pages

Walking among the shrines is a peaceful respite from the hurly burly of life for many Burmese

One of the very young girls selling jasmine outside the pagoda

Sadly, young girls are often put to work by families who need money, 
as there are currently no rules for mandatory education of minors

Too young to be working for a living and not to be in school...hopefully this will change with the recent election of  Aung San Suu Kyi

Mandalay Hill is known for its abundance of pagodas and monasteries, and has been a major pilgrimage site for Burmese Buddhists for nearly two centuries. At the top of the hill is the Su Taung Pyi or 'Wish-Granting' Pagoda, built by King Anawratha in 1052. Once on the terrace, a panoramic view of Mandalay from the top of Mandalay Hill alone makes it worthwhile to attempt a climb up its stairways, however there is also an escalator and lift to the pagoda at its summit. 

Two gigantic chinches — stylised lion figures — stand guard at the southern and main approach 
at the foot of Mandalay Hill

The terrace of the Sutaungpyei Pagoda with assorted pots for donations which then grant wishes

The mirrored Su Taung Pyi pagoda sparkles in the sunlight from every wall and column,
with Buddhist inscriptions on the walls and archways

Detail of mirror and glass columns at Mandalay Hill

View from Mandalay Hill of the University in the foreground and the Mandalay prison behind it 
— a contrast of opposites

Sunset over the Irrawaddy and distant Shan hills from the summit of Mandalay Hill

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