Monday, February 10, 2014

The Marvels of Mandalay

Greetings All,
After completing our trek we flew from Putao to the fabled city of Mandalay.  We said goodbye to Fred, our 3rd trekker, and continued touring with a local guide.  Our first stop was a visit to Mahamuni Pagoda which enshrines one of only 5 likenesses of the Buddha.  According to legend, Buddha visited the city of Arakan in 554 BC and the King requested that an image be cast of him.  Buddha breathed on the great image 7 times and it became the exact likeness of him.  The Mahamuni Buddha is seated on a throne  in an inner chamber where only men were allowed to enter.  I was disappointed to say the least.  Marc got to climb the stairs to the image and touch him.

Mahamuni Buddha Image

Over the years countless pilgrims have applied gold leaf to the image.  There is now a gold leaf coating 15 cm thick and weighing 3 tons on the Buddha. Only his face remains free of gold and every morning at 4:00 a face washing ceremony is performed.
So, where does all this gold leaf come from and how is gold leaf made?  We visited a gold workshop to find out.  A one oz buillon of 24k gold is softened by heat, pressed, and cut into small pieces.  The gold is placed between sheets of bamboo paper and pounded with a 7 lb hammer for a total of 6 hours!
Pounding Gold to Make Gold Leaf
The next stop on our tour was a visit to the Mahagandayon Monastery where every morning hundreds of monks line up to receive donated food for lunch.
Lining up for lunch at Mahagandayon Monastery
Our guide explained that there are 4 kinds of monks.  The first are virgin or novice monks aged 8-13 years.  The older novice monks teach the younger ones.  They can spend their whole life as a monk.  "Like a Virgin" monks are aged 18-20 years and study for a degree.  Next are the "Got Married" monks.  They were married once and now around 50 years old become monks to get a better spiritual life.  Finally there are "Temporary" monks that become monks at any age for any given amount of time.   
We were fortunate to come across a novice monk initiation ceremony.  The young "Novice-To-Be" is dressed like a prince since Buddha started out as a prince and is seated on a horse at the beginning of a long procession.
"Novice-To-Be" During an Initiation Ceremony 
The "Novices-To-Be" were followed by elaborately dressed family members riding in ornately decorated bullock carts.
Initiation Ceremony Procession
We continued on to Sagaing Hill where 45 Buddha images were carved into the hillside at U Min Thonze Paya.
Some of the 45 Buddha Images at U Min Thonze Paya
The number 45 is significant in that Buddha lived 45 years after enlightenment and spent that time teaching others what he had learned.  We finished the day by watching the sun set over the U Bein Bridge.
U Bein Teak Bridge at Sunset
The 1.2 km bridge spans the Taugthamen Lake and is believed to be the oldest (1850) and longest teakwood bridge in the World.  It is constructed with 1086 pillars and has become a popular place to watch the sun set for both tourists and locals. 
The next day we took a boat across the Irrawaddy River to the city of Mingun.  The Irrawaddy River is the longest in Myanmar.  It flows 1350 miles across the country from the mountains in the north to the Andaman Sea in the south.  Kipling referred to it as "The Road to Mandalay" in his famous poem.
On the other side of the river we visited the Mingun Pathodawgyi Pagoda. 
Mingun Pathodawgyi Pagoda
The ruins are the remains of a massive construction project started in 1790 by  King Boddapaya.   After thousands of slaves tolled on the project for 29 years the King decided to halt it.  He believed that if the pagoda was completed it would bring an end to the country.  It is said to enshrine 35,000 images including 1500 gold Buddha's, 1300 silver Buddha's and more than 30,000 images of the King's ancestors.  Giant cracks from the 1975 earthquake are seen throughout the structure.  If anything it is now the World's largest pile of bricks.
Our next stop was to visit the Mingun Bell.  It is the World's largest functioning bell.  It weighs a colossal 90 tons!  You can actually crawl inside it and the ring isn't deafening as I expected.
Us in Front of the Mingun Bell
One of the last places we visited in Mandalay was the Shwe Nandaw Kyaung.  This Monastery was built in 1860 by King Thibaw Min  as an apartment for his father in the Royal Palace.  It was later dismantled and moved to another location as the King believed it was haunted by his father's spirit.  It's a good thing as the Royal Palace was bombed by the British in WW II to drive out the Japanese that had made it a military base.  The Shwe Nandaw Kyaung is the only remaining building of the original Royal Palace.  The exterior is adorned with teak carvings of Buddhist myths.
Wood Carvings on Shwe Nandaw Kyaung
The interior contains gilded teakwood pillars and an inner shrine with a Buddha image.  Once again I was prohibited from entering.  I told our guide that I'm no lady but he refused to buy it.
Marc Photographing a Buddha Image
The last stop on our tour was a visit to Mandalay Hill to watch the sun set.  On the top of the hill is the Kyauktawgyi Pagoda which enshrines a statue of Buddha made from a single block of marble.  The marble block from the mines of nearby Sagyin hill was so colossal that is required 10,000 men labouring for 13 days to transport it from a canal to the current site.
Marble Buddha in Kyauktawgyi Pagoda
We would like to thank our guides Shweyi Htun Lin and Myo Win Tun for showing us the marvels of Mandalay and for teaching us about this city's storied history. 
We hope all is well back home,
Peggy and Marc            

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