From the Mya Tha Lyuang Buddha we made our way back to the main road which heads straight for the Mahazedi Paya. The roots of the word – maha for great and zedi for stupa or relic mound – give a hint of what is coming up. It was originally built in 1560 during the rule of Bayinnaung, the creator of a short-lived Taungoo Empire with Bago (or Pegu as it was then known) as its capital. Like other monuments in the city, time and invaders were not kind to the Mahazedi. It was destroyed when Pegu was sacked in 1757 and later earthquakes, especially the one in 1930, finished the job.
The current structure was opened in 1982 on completion of the rebuilding. It looks like white and gold-coloured coats of paint were applied fairly recently. When I visited there was no one else there – the fact that it was a hot and humid early afternoon that only a tourist would be out in may be the explanation! To quote Noel Coward: Only “Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun”
The two signs on the left of the staircase both remind females not to go up the steps. One reads – “Ladies are not allowed climbing upperside.” Up the one hundred and twenty steps or so I went to check out the views from the top platform.
“He (Bayinnaung) maintained close diplomatic relations with the Buddhist kingdom of Sri Lanka and offered munificent gifts to its palladium, the TOOTH RELIC at Kandy. In 1560, when the Portuguese captured the relic, Bayinnaung sought to ransom it for 300,000 ducats, only to have his emissaries witness its destruction in a public ceremony ordered by the archbishop of Goa. Legend says that the tooth miraculously escaped and divided itself into two, one of which was returned to Kandy, while the other was gifted to Bayinnaung, who enshrined it in the Mahazedi pagoda at his capital Pegu.”
Lopez, Donald S., Jr., Buswell, Robert E., Jr. The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism.
The above is the an explanation of why the Mahazedi was built. For a while the fake tooth was kept in the stupa but in 1599 it was moved to Taungoo, the original capital of a now-reduced kingdom. Apparently the tooth was moved again – this time to the Kaunghmudaw Paya in Sagaing where it has remained to this day. Stories like the one above are certainly a testament to the power of faith in dealing with reality.
Getting back to the vehicle, I revelled in the cool as the air-conditioning kicked in. It was hot out there and I was flagging. Still a few more sites to go, however, so off we went. Our next stop was the Shwegugale Paya, a zedi with a interior chamber circling the structure. Looking at my pix when I got home, I was surprised not to find a single shot of the exterior! I think I headed right for the cool of the walk around the interior, taking a look at the 64 seated Buddhas who line the wall in the usual “Touching The Earth” pose. The statues looked like they had been recently painted. The pic below shows one entranceway to the ring of statues.
No one will be praising these Buddha figures for their profound artistic merit – they are cartoonish at best. I reminded myself that I was not visiting a museum but rather a living place of worship. Artistic merit may be very nice and even something that a tourist may worry about. However, the karmic merit gained by contributing money or labour to the maintenance of the shrines is much more significant.
Who can say if the original Buddha figures here and elsewhere in Myanmar were any more skilfully done? Time has destroyed most of them and some pieces have moved on into private collections or to museums in Yangon or in other countries. Myanmar for the past forty years has been one of Asia’s poorest countries; under the circumstances it has done the best it can with its religious monuments, sometimes to the dismay and disapproval of the world archaeological community.
After I returned home I came upon a copy of Buddhist Art of Myanmar (Asia Society, 2015). It was meant as a companion piece for a major exhibit of Myanmar art put on by the Asia Society in New York City. Curated by Sylvia Fraser-Lu and Donald M. Stadtner, it contains ten brief but insightful essays on various aspects of Myanmar culture and a substantial collection of great examples of Myanmar art found mostly in various Myanmar museums but also in foreign collections. (Click here for more info on the book.)
The Buddha figures above and below were remarkable for the simple fact that they had the Buddha in a pose other than the Touching the Earth mudra so characteristic of Myanmar Buddhas.
I have no idea of the stories behind the above and below pic. Given the presence of what I take to be a guinea pig, I thought it may be one of the eight planetary posts connected to the days of the week (with Wednesday allocated two posts). Myanmar Buddhists perform devotions at the post corresponding to the day of the week they were born. What is missing is a Buddha figure and the water used to bathe the figure – so …who knows! The two cartoonish chubby guys below – a set of western eyes would label them “soft” – may in fact be fearsome wrestlers or protectors when looked at through Burmese eyes. More research may turn up a story about their connection to the bell.
Back to the car and then off to the next site – I can’t say enough about the excellent value of hiring a car and driver for the day in order to do a day tour of Bago from Yangon. While Yan did not leave the car with me and take me through the various sites, his service was worth it. I actually prefer to visit these places on my own with a guide-book and, in any case, Yan’s English was pretty weak.
As mentioned in a previous post, the charge was $70. and with a tip came out to $85. I also purchased a ticket which allowed me access to all the sites – it may have been $10. Had I shared the taxi costs with another person or two it would have been even more of a bargain.
I stepped out of the car in front of the Kayak Pun Pagoda, a square pillar with a thirty-meter seated Buddha figure on each side, with each set of eyes looking towards one of the four cardinal points. It dates back to 1476 (that is, before the time when invaders took control of the city and area from the Mon people) when it was erected on the orders of the King Dhammazedi.
Leaving the Kayak Pun Buddhas, we headed for the Yangon-Bago Road and the ride back to the hotel in downtown Yangon. One more stop at a site I cannot identify resulted in the photos below.
A visit to Myanmar is unimaginable without some time spent contemplating Buddha figures and the expressions of devotion by the locals at the payas – the zedis (stupas) and pahtos (temples) – which are also often the prime attractions in the towns that make up the country’s tourist circuit. At the end of this six-hour marathon it will not surprise you to hear that I was pretty much stupa-fied and buddha-ed out for the day!
The next day in Yangon I would pay a third and last visit to Myanmar’s single greatest site – the Shwedagon – and I would do it in the cool of the late afternoon and dusk.