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Posts Tagged ‘Pagodas

Around Inle Lake in 18 days

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Leg-rowers rule Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival

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Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, located on the western end of Myanmar’s Inle Lake, is considered the holiest Buddhist site in southern Shan State. The ornate, two-story structure sits on the water like a sacred island, and each day, a steady stream of boats loaded with pilgrims arrives and departs from the dock near the stairs that lead up to the inner sanctum.

The focus of devotion at the pagoda is a group of five oddly shaped relics displayed on a pedestal in the middle of the main room. Upon close inspection, the objects look like roughly textured lumps of gold, one of them vaguely spherical, three of them taking the form of a pair of misshapen eggs – one sitting on top of the other – and the fifth like two stacked eggs with a small spire protruding from the top.

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Studying these objects, few who did not know the story behind them would guess that they were originally statues with human form, but that have lost their shapes as the result of many, many years of gold leaf application.

While the statues are, as a group, often referred to as Buddha images, some say that only three represent the Buddha while the other two are arahats, or disciples of the Buddha who have reached the highest level of spiritual achievement before entering nibbana. The statues are commonly believed to have been cast during the reign of Bagan King Alaungsithu (1112-1167 CE), and one can easily imagine that in another 900 years of gold leaf application, they will take on the appearance of perfectly spherical, golden bowling balls.

The pilgrims who flock to the pagoda often rub strips of red cloth against the figures. These bits of cloth are then tied to cars, trucks or motorcycles in the belief that the drivers and passengers will be protected from accidents and other forms of bad luck.

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The golden statues are also the focal point of the annual Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival, which occurs from the first waxing day to the third waning day of the lunar month of Thadingyut – this year from September 21 to October 8.

The festival is the biggest event of the year at Inle Lake, a shallow body of water located at an altitude of 880 meters (2900 feet) above sea level and surrounded by low mountains. Home to numerous ethnic Intha and Shan villages – some of which lie along the shore, while others rise out of the water on wooden stilts – the lake is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Myanmar.

During the festival, four of the five statues are placed on a decorative barge shaped like a karaweik (mythical bird) and taken on an 18-day tour around the lake, stopping at each village for a night or longer so residents can pay homage.

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According to legend, the tour originally included all five statues, but one year a storm capsized the barge, dumping the relics into the lake. Divers recovered four of them but were unable to locate the fifth. Upon returning to the pagoda, however, pilgrims found the last statue mysteriously restored to its proper place on the pedestal, dripping wet and covered with algae from the lake. That image has remained there ever since, standing guard over the pagoda while the other four statues embark on the annual festival tour.

The slow-moving procession around the lake is one of the more spectacular annual rites in Myanmar. The karaweik barge is propelled from village to village by Inle Lake’s famous leg rowers, who stand on one leg while using the other to push their oar through the water. Dressed in traditional costumes, they row in unison to the beat of a huge drum.

The barge is escorted by dozens of boats, which are also steered by costumed leg rowers. Some ceremonial boats also carry dancers and martial artists who showcase their skills to the thousands of people who gather by the lakeshore to celebrate the event.

The scene at each village is a combination of devotion and carnival-like revelry, and visiting Inle Lake during the festival provides a great opportunity to see gatherings of different ethnic groups, including Shan, Intha, Danu, Palaung, Pa-O and Taung-Yo.

Devout Buddhists eagerly await the arrival of the procession in their villages, offering food and fresh flowers when it appears. Meanwhile, the villages take on the atmosphere of a country fair, with vendors selling food, drinks, toys, clothing and other consumer goods, and entertainers offering magic shows, marionette performances and dance dramas.

Among the highlights of the festival are the boat races, in which teams of leg rowers wearing traditional costumes compete against groups representing villages around the lake. The races normally occur on two specific dates during the festival period – this year on September 27 at Nyaung Shwe, and on October 8 at Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda – and these are the best times for visitors to take part in the celebration in all its dynamic and colorful grandeur.

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Arlein Nga Sint: The dream pagoda

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As a Buddhist monk living in the Ayeyarwady delta in the mid-20th century, U Thuri Ya had a dream – three dreams, in fact, of a strangely fanciful pagoda rising out of the jungle in Yangon’s northern outskirts.

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With these nocturnal visions, U Thuri Ya was carrying on a family tradition of sorts: When his mother had been pregnant with him, she had dreamed that she was bearing a white elephant in her womb, a harbinger of her son’s dedication and contribution to Buddhism.

U Thuri Ya, an ethnic Karen, happily complied with this omen. At the age of six he began his monastic education, at 12 he became a novice and at 19 he entered the Sangha as a monk. After dreaming his own pagoda dreams, he moved to Yangon to make his visions reality.

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Later becoming known as Maha Saywingaba Sayadaw, he found land in Insein township, about 10 miles (16 kilometres) north of downtown’s Sule Pagoda. Now dominated by the busy confluence of Pyay, Lanthit and Insein Butaryon roads, 70 years ago the area was heavily forested and home to leopards and other wildlife. He paid K25,000 for a 5-acre compound and got to work raising funds by accepting donations from well-wishers throughout the country.

Construction on the Arlein Nga Sint Pagoda compound began in 1954, with the first bricks laid by Prime Minister U Nu and Mahn Win Maung, an ethnic Karen politician who served in various ministerial positions during the decade leading up to his appointment as president of Burma in 1957.

Among the structures that were completed during U Thuri Ya’s lifetime was Aung Dhamma Yone Monastery, as well as the central Arlein Nga Sint Pagoda, a uniquely baroque seven-tiered structure symbolizing the seven levels of paradise and coated with 100 viss (360 pounds or 160 kilograms) of gold. The pagoda is surrounded by a low-walled labyrinth; an onion-domed tower with a staircase winds around the outside, completed the phantasmagorical picture. It remains one of the more unusual pagodas in Myanmar.

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U Thuri Ya was aided in his project by a monk named U Agga Dhamma, who traveled to Lalti Monastery in Monywa township, where he had stayed before moving to Yangon, to hire a well-known carpenter from the region to build the pagoda.

After U Thuri Ya’s passing, U Agga Dhamma carried on with the work, and another round of visions provided further guidance: On three consecutive days, he dreamed during afternoon naps of a man dressed in white advising him to place a large green-colored Buddha inside the pagoda. The apparition helpfully added that the monk could find a small statue nearby, which he was to use as the model for the bigger image.

U Agga Dhamma was unsure whether to believe the dream, but in Myanmar Buddhism white-clad men are assumed to be good spirits, so he started searching for the model image. To his surprise he found a small green Buddha in a cupboard in the monastery. Even more astonishingly, when he returned to Monywa to consult about building the larger statue, the artisan he had hired was holding an identical small green Buddha in his possession.

The resulting 5-metre-tall (16.5-foot) green Buddha statue – with a Bamar-style body and Thai-style head – was placed in the pagoda around 1970, along with 1 viss of gold and a collection of Buddhist scriptures. The compound as a whole is now home to 108 Buddha statues, 108 shrines and a pond whose water is believed to possess healing powers.

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Since its founding, Arlein Nga Sint Pagoda has played an important role in the Karen community, and continues to do so by hosting Yangon’s biggest Karen New Year festival every December and January. Construction of a new three-storey monastery, Bo Daw San Kyaung, is also under way in the compound, which will be designed to accommodate monks aged 75 years and older.

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In one quiet corner of the compound is a room where U Thuri Ya’s gold-covered body is on display in a glass coffin. U Agga Dhamma, now 81 years old and still presiding over the pagoda, is quick to debunk myths about any supernatural qualities attributed to the corpse.

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“Please don’t believe rumors that the hair and fingernails on the body have kept growing long after [U Thuri Ya’s] death. How can a dead body still be alive?” U Agga Dhamma told The Myanmar Times. “People respected him so much that they believe he is great and different from others, so they have invented these stories.”

U Agga Dhamma also said that Arlein Nga Sint, despite its unique appearance, does not really stand out among other pagodas.

“There’s no significant difference between one pagoda and another, just as there is no difference between a Buddha statue in your house and one at Shwedagon or any other pagoda. They all have the same power because there is only one Buddha in the world,” he said.

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