Late for Nowhere

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Posts Tagged ‘Hsinbyume Pagoda

Big temples, huge bells and massive memories in Mingun

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Such is the size of Mingun Paya that it could be seen from the very start of the 7-mile (11km) boat journey from Mandalay up the Ayeyarwady River to the temple site. The huge brick structure seemed so close, it was hard to believe that the 9am boat trip would last the entire hour we had been told it would take to get there.

In the end it actually took a bit longer than an hour – about 15 minutes longer – but I didn’t mind the extra time on the wide, muddy river. There was plenty to occupy my interest out there, from the birds swooping from the sky to pick breakfast out of the reeds along the riverbank, to the local boats with homemade sails driving against the current at incredible speeds with the help of strong winds.


At the prow of our own boat, one of the female crewmembers took on the task of using a long bamboo pole to push away foating vegetation that had been washed down from upcountry by monsoon rains, to prevent it from getting clogged in the boat’s propeller.

There was no sign of precipitation anywhere near Mingun though, allowing me to sit on the uncovered upper deck and keep a sharp eye out for elusive Ayeyarwady dolphins. These rare mammals are one of only five species of freshwater dolphins in the world, and their endangered status prompted the government to establish a 45-mile 72km protected zone extending north from Mandalay in December 2005. This stretch of river is also one of only two places in world (the other is in Brazil) where local fishermen have a cooperative relationship with freshwater dolphins: The fishermen set their nets in the water and then send out a signal by knocking on their boats or slapping a paddle on the water. The dolphins, who are given personal names by locals along the river, respond by herding fish into the nets. In return, the fishermen give the dolphins part of their catch.

Sadly, my vigilance bore no fruit and the dolphins remained hidden from sight. But my search was soon overshadowed by our approach to our destination. As the boat veered across the strong current towards the west bank of the river, the unfinished Mingun Paya seemed to loom ever-higher above the trees along the shoreline. Just to the south and right up against the river – and therefore plainly visible from the boat – was a white temple with a gold spire ontop. It was surrounded by a white wall, and steps lined with Buddha images descended all the way to the river’s edge. This was Pondaw Paya, a miniature version of what Mingun Paya would have looked like had it been completed.


Mingun Paya.

We continued upriver for a few minutes longer, past the two huge, crumbling chinthe (half-lion, half-dragon) statues, meant to guard the walkway to Mingun Paya but now, in their ruined state, barely recognisable from the river as little more than big piles of bricks. Our boat found a place to pull close to the riverbank, and the passengers disembarked on a precariously narrow plank of wood running from the deck to dry land.


We had docked in front of the Mingun Home for the Aged, which, when founded in 1915 by Daw Oo Zun, was the first facility in the country dedicated to the care and comfort of the elderly. Still going strong nearly a century later, its tranquil grounds are worth a visit, even more so if you wish to make a donation toward clothing, food, electricity and other necessities for the comfort of the residents.

After exiting the Home for the Aged, I decided to make straight for Mingun Paya itself. Construction of Mingun Paya (also called Mingun Pahtodawgyi) was started by King Bodawpaya in 1790 with a workforce that numbered in the thousands, but he stopped the project in 1819 based on advice from astrologers who said completion of the temple would result in the king’s death and the dissolution of his kingdom. Had it been finished it would have been 495 feet (150 meters) high, making it the biggest temple in the world. According to legend, Bodawpaya had wanted the structure to be visible from Shwebo about 60 miles (100km) to the north, where he had ascended to the throne.


The temple’s present size of 165 feet (50m) high by 238 feet (72m) wide is still quite impressive. In fact, to stand directly in front of Mingun Paya is to suffer from a minor crisis of perception. My mind was simply unable to comprehend the sheer magnitude of what I was seeing. I watched a group of Buddhist pilgrims entering the doorway to the east-facing shrine and even though they were only 100 feet (30 meters) away from me they looked like mere ants against the backdrop of the monolithic structure. Cracks on the face of the building that were caused by an 1838 earthquake seemed harmlessly small, but when I looked at my photographs later I realised that had they been crevasses on a glacier, they could have easily swallowed an entire team of mountain climbers without a trace.


Water spouts around the base of Mingun Paya.

From the main paya I headed for another of Mingun’s oversized attractions, the bronze bell that King Bodawpaya had cast in 1808 to hang at the temple. Weighing 90 tonnes and measuring four metres high by more than five metres across at the lip, it is said to be the biggest ringing bell in the world. At the suggestion of a young boy at the shrine where the bell is now hung, I ducked down and stepped inside the bronze behemoth, after which the boy proceeded to whack away on the outer surface with a thick wooden stick. I had feared an earsplitting metallic clang but instead heard a low, sonorous hum like the vibrating wings of a thousand hovering bees.


Mingun Bell.

Not far north of the bell, the shining white Hsinbyume Pagoda (also called Myatheindan Pagoda) rises like a mystical mountain from green countryside. In fact, the pagoda was built in 1816 by Bodawpaya’s grandson and successor as king, Bagyidaw, to represent Sulamani Pagoda, the legendary pilgrimage site that stands atop Mount Meru at the center of the Buddhist cosmos.

Hsinbyume Pagoda was also dedicated to the memory of Bagyidaw’s first wife, Princess Hsinbyume (the Lady of the White Elephant), who had died in childbirth in 1812 at the age of 23. The whitewashed pagoda’s distinct design features a central spire (stupa) surrounded by seven terraces with wavy balustrades representing the seven mountain ranges around Mount Meru. Four stairways lead up through these terraces to the pagoda platform, from which more stairs ascend past niches with small Buddha images to a shrine and circular passageway in the interior of the central spire.


Hsinbyume Pagoda.

I arrived at Hsinbyume just as a large tour group was leaving and to my surprise found myself completely alone on the pagoda grounds. This moment of tranquility gave me the opportunity to stand on the platform, listening to the small bells on the stupa ring in the wind and contemplating Mingun Paya from afar. From where I was standing, at the symbolic center of the Buddhist universe, I could see that the huge temple I had been trying to envision as a finished work was actually more genuine in its current form, as a monument to the impermanence of power and the futility of striving towards material fulfillment.


As I made my way back toward the boat to make the 1pm departure, I had just enough time for a quick stop at Dhammanada Monastery, whose second abbot, the late Venerable Vicittasara, is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “man with the best memory”. This distinction was based on his memorization and recital of 20 books (8,027 pages) of the Tipitaka (Buddhist canon) plus 24 books (9,934 pages) of the commentaries and sub-commentaries during Tipitaka exams held from 1950 to 1953 in Yangon. The feat marked the revival of a tradition of memorizing the Tipitaka that had been lost for more than 2,000 years after the Buddha’s death. The monastery now houses a statue of the Venerable Vicittasara as well as a plaque commemorating his inclusion in the Guinness Book of World Records.


Statue of the Venerable Vicittasara.

The late abbot’s achievement seemed even more impressive given the fact that I could barely remember where the boat that had brought me to Mingun was docked. After 15 minutes of searching I finally found it just where I had left it less than three hours before – anchored on the west bank of the Ayeyarwady River right in front of the Home for the Aged. I dashed up the narrow plank, the last one aboard, and settled in for another chance to spot an elusive Ayeyarwady dolphin as we made our way downriver to Mandalay.


Unfortunate graffiti around the back of Mingun Paya.