My Trip to Burma: The talented Craftsmen of Mandalay; A visit to Mandalay Hill; Surveying the World’s Largest Book; and the moody Shwenandaw Kyaung monastery.

Our first day in Mandalay (yesterday) was spent in the ancient cities of Inwa, Sagaing, and Amarapura located not far from Mandalay.  Today, we’re spending time in Mandalay itself.

Most people have at least heard of the city of Mandalay.  If they know anything at all about Mandalay, it is usually that it is Burma’s second largest city after Rangoon.  Mandalay is an important trade center, connecting Burma with China, with consumer goods flowing in and natural resources flowing out.  A few may even remember the name from there cultural icons, such as the 43-story Mandalay Bay hotel on Las Vegas’s strip, or a string of World War II-themed Hollywood movies. These perspectives, however, fail to do the city justice, and a visit is essential to understand Mandalay’s importance and the history behind the name.

Our hotel, the Bagan King, was pretty nice.  Spacious rooms, nice and quiet, and very courteous staff.  Not much of a view from the window, but the restaurant, on the roof, gave a nice 270 degree overview of the city.  Well, our part of the city, anyway.  The streets around our hotel were pretty dusty and grimy.

Mandalay, in central Burma, is rated number 8 on the list of world’s friendliest city.  Filled with many ancient monuments and several famous Buddhist monasteries, the former city of the kings is a major tourist destination.  It is the capital city in central Burma and the hub of transportation, as many motorways, railways, and waterways from various parts of the country are linked.

Mandalay was founded by King Mindon in 1859, and unlike many other hustle-and-bustle cities which start as a little village and spread wider,  Mandalay’s location was careful chosen by King Mindon at his will.  As a result, the city’s plan was pretty systematic, forming a grid pattern at its four cardinal points, where a wall encircled the city.

The last two Myanmar kings made the city their home, granting audiences to European officials and Chinese merchants and subject chieftains from the Shan highlands to the east. The British also maintained a near 60-year presence in the city, cementing its place as the population and trade center of upper Myanmar.

Part of the lure of Mandalay is its location, sitting far upriver from the coast.  While Yangon(Rangoon), the largest city in Burma today, is easily reached by ships plying the Andaman sea, Mandalay is situated some 440 miles from the ocean. Still, the city maintains a strong nautical tradition because it straddles the Ayeyarwaddy River which has supplied the Burmese people with water for their crops and a highway for transport, for thousands of years.

The area around Mandalay has been a population center for at least 1000 years, however, the city of Mandalay itself doesn’t date back nearly as far.  Initially, the most important urban settlement in the area was Inwa, which we visited yesterday.  The capital was then moved to Amarapura, which we also visited yesterday.  Both cities were capitals of Burma, but not for long.  With much of southern Burma, including Yangon, controlled by the British following two earlier wars, the newly crowned King Mindon looked for a place to start again. The site he chose was only 21 kilometers to the north, and a few kilometers further inland from the Ayeyarwaddy River, under a shadow of a prominent hill.  The city was Mandalay, and the hill is Mandalay Hill, which we’ll be visiting later today.

Enough history.  Let’s check out the city. We started our day checking out the talented craftsmen (and craftswomen) in this city.  First stop: the gold leaf workshop.

In earlier blog posts, I showed visitors applying gold leaf to venerated statues.  For example, at the Phaung Daw Oo temple in Inle Lake, people have applied so much gold leaf to the five Buddha statues that the statues no longer resemble the human form of the Buddha.  They’re just five gold blobs!

So where does all that gold leaf come from?  Well, young men pound pieces of gold over and over again, flattening it out into thin sheets.  They pound away all day.

After 30 minutes, the piece of gold gets think and flat    

They then take those pieces, cut them into quarters, put them between pieces of wax paper, and then pound away for another half hour.  This process continues over and over until the desired thinness is reached.    Those pieces are then cut into delicate squares and placed on their final pieces of paper, which are then sold in little packets, for people to apply them to statues.  The people cutting the final pieces dip their hands in some kind of corn starch type powder to keep their fingers dry, so the gold leaf doesn’t stick to their hands. Pretty interesting.

Our next place was a woodworking and embroidery factory.  There’s the entrance.

A fine example of some of their handiwork was sitting right outside:  an intricately carved bed frame. 

Toward the back of the shop was the work area, where the carvers sat, diligently whittling away at large pieces of wood, making the most amazing carvings.      

It starts, usually, with an intricate drawing of the scene they want to produce.  That’s laid on top of the wood, which is then expertly sculpted to make the panels.  Many of these panels are found in hotels, restaurants, and pagodas.  Here’s the blueprint for a very detailed panel that was commissioned.  

Inside the store were hundreds of them, leaning against the walls, all for sale to the public.  There were lots of tourists inside.  Obviously, you can’t take these huge panels back with you on the airplane, but the company does ship overseas.  Most people were buying smaller items.    

There was a huge inventory, as you can see.

There was also an area of the shop where rugs, pillows, and tapestries were being painstakingly embroidered with colored thread and beads.  It was amazing.    

We then drove to the nearby Mahamuni Temple, which is open 24 hours.  This is the most important Buddhist sight in the city and the second most revered shrine after the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon.   You pass through a mall-like area where they sell all kinds of religious artifacts.    

At the heart of the pagoda is a Buddha figure almost 4 meters tall, taken from Mrauk U in 1784 by the army of King Bodawpaya. This bronze Buddha is said to be one of only five likenesses of the historical Buddha cast in his lifetime, although it was probably made 500 years later.    The tale of the taking of the Buddha statue is portrayed in a series of paintings lining a gallery-like wing to the northeast of the main hall.  

There were a lot of worshippers, including a lot of monks.  Definitely a strong feeling of reverence in this place.  

Men who visit apply goal leaf to the figure; women aren’t allowed.  They hand their gold leaf to a male assistant and he puts it on.  The figure weighs six tons. The gold leaf covering it adds another two tons.  That’s a lot of bling.     

Check out the dude’s calves! Every day at 4:00 a.m., the Buddha’s face (the only part not covered in gold leaf) is gently washed.        

We were also introduced to one of the monks who resided at the temple.        

To the northwest, in a cream-colored concrete hall off the main temple are six fine Hindu-Buddhist figures originally plundered from Angkor Wat, but subsequently looted from Arakan by King Bodawpaya’s army.  Worshippers traditionally rub various body parts in the hope of curing medical afflictions.

  You can see how much these figures have been rubbed by visitors.

I kinda got in on the act myself.  

We strolled around on a terrace off the main hall. Passed by this woman carrying her wares on her head.  

In a little hall off the terrace was a massive circular gong.  

There was also a huge triangular gong.  I kinda liked the triangular gongs.  In fact, I bought a small one while in Inwa.    

Our next visit was to a bronze factory.  At the entrance of the workshop was a huge statue of the nationally admired General Aung San, the father of Burmese independence (and the real father of Aung San Suu Kyi)     There were huge statues in various states of production all over the place.  

This statue was very functional, as a cell phone holder.

We watched some of the workmen remove the arm of this huge statue.

Below, a young worker is welding another statue.   After the bronze workshop, we headed to Mandalay Hill.  On the way, our guide told us we’d be passing through the area of town where all the marble factories were, but that there wouldn’t be time to stop and visit.  I was able to get a few photos on the street, though.        

We arrived at Mandalay Hill after a short drive. For many folks, the 45-minute walk up the hill to catch the sunset is a major highlight of a visit to Mandalay.  The starting point is the staircase flanked by two huge chinthes, the grinning, luck-bringing leogryphs.  There’s another entrance a little further east. I was expecting to walk to the top, but our guide suggested we drive to the top and then leisurely walk our way down.  Sounded fine with me!

This is the entrance at the top of the hill.  You go inside and take an escalator to the very top.  There are no shoes allowed on the hill, of course.  This is the first time I had to ride on an escalator barefoot.  I was afraid I was gonna lose some toes.  But I was fine.  

Of course, there’s that pesky camera fee again.  Grrrr.   Amounts to about 80 cents, but still.  Irritating.

At the summit of Mandalay Hill is the Sutaungpyi Paya (“Wish Granting Temple”), offering stupendous views over Mandalay City. The pyramidal pagoda is covered in gold, surrounded by a forest of gilded spires, all amid colorful flame trees and magnolia bushes.  It is from here that most tourists and other visitors watch the beautiful sunset.  We’re going to witness sunset elsewhere today, however.  

Nice view from the summit

That’s the medical school.

 It may be peaceful now, but these slopes once witnessed ferocious hand-to-hand fighting during WWII, when Japanese forces dug into machine-gun posts and mounted a desperate defense against battalions of Gurka and British troops.

Back on the terrace, one of the things I noticed, and enjoyed about Mandalay Hill, is the number of cats on the hill.  There were a lot.  This girl was at the summit, stroking one cat while another slept nearby.  Look how content the cat that’s being stroked looks.

There were some lovely Buddha images on the summit, and on multiple terraces all the way down the  hill.

We decided to descend the hill, stopping at many sights along the way.

There were so many little shrines and temples that I really couldn’t keep track of the significance of them all.

  This one, however, has an interesting story.  This is the statue of San Da Mukhi.  She is an ogress to whom the Buddha is said to have made the famous prophecy.  When she first met the great teacher, she entered a devotional frenzy of such intensity that she purportedly cut off her breasts and placed them at his feet as an offering.  He was so impressed that he said she would be reincarnated 2400 years after his death as the king of the great city whose foundation he had foreseen, i.e. King Mindon of Mandalay.

Yes, that’s her severed breast that she’s holding in her hands.     

As you descend, you hit different levels and terraces. At each one, you can find places to eat and lots of souvenirs.   As we descended, I spotted this little puppy emerging from the shadows  

Is that the cutest pup ever?

We continued our descent. Nice wide steps going down, with lots of places to sit and rest if needed.

Came upon this weird concrete terrace.  Nearby was a series of statues that depict an incidence in the life of the Buddha.  It was interesting, but the steel cage was ugly and it prevented you from really seeing the statues.

  Our descent got a little steeper    

We encountered a crazy cat man, I guess you could say.  He was out there feeding a bunch of them.  Nice to see.    

Nearby was a souvenir stand.  I was amazed to see a New York t-shirt on sale.  And not just any t-shirt, but one that mentions the Lower East Side!

  We finally came upon the Byar Deik Paya.  In this spot, where the main stairway and the stairway a little east to the main one both meet, you’ll see a large standing Buddha points back the way you came. His unusual pose is said to have prophesized that a city would spring up at the foot of the hill 2400 years after his death, hence the outstretched arm and finger which point directly to the palace where King Mindon fulfilled this prediction in 1857. He’s not telling you to go back down.  He’s pointing to Mandalay. This Buddha is also called the Shweyattaw Buddha and is the only pointing Buddha statue in all of Burma.  This was majorly awesome.  

  We continued on down, passing tourists and monklets who were on their way up.     Saw many cool dogs, cats, and people on the way down.  Check out the cool pics.   

  This dog was eyeing me suspiciously as she woke up while I was photographing her. Her friend, nearby, didn’t care about being photographed at all.   

Here’s a cute picture:  a kitten trying to get this woman’s attention.  I wish it wasn’t blurry.  Sigh.  My bad.    

The one here, though, is in focus.  A little dark, though.  Can’t win here.  Sigh.       

This cute little girl was on playing on the steps.  Nice dress!        

I saw this kitty, who looked pretty hungry.  I had some dry food in my bag, so I gave her some.

Saw this little kitten, looking kinda rough.  This always upsets me.  A little face cleaning, and some antibiotics and eye ointment and this kitten would be good as new.  Frustrating.

Yummy food on skewers      

This guy was selling little ice-cream cones.   The girl below was selling betel leaves.    

Our guide, Marn, humored me while I fished in my bag for more cat food for the strays.    

You gotta love the look on this dog’s face.   More kitties below.  This cat opened his eyes while I was taking his pic.  Those were the only muscles he bothered to move.  He went right back to sleep.  

I love this picture.  This cat on the bench, leaning out over the descending stairway.        

And this is one of my best photos.  This pretty calico rests on a ledge, while a big heart that says “love” is  seen in the distance behind her.    

We finished our descent.  Lots of souvenirs near the bottom.     At the bottom were the two giant chinthes that mark the ascent up the hill.     

  Next destination:  Kuthodaw, home of the “world’s biggest book”.

King Mindon commissioned the construction of this complex in 1857, and it took more than a decade to complete. Huddled in two groups northeast of the palace moat is a series of engraved marble slabs which are often referred to, collectively, as “the world’s biggest book”.  There are 729 alabaster marble slabs, each housed in its own small pagoda and relaying the entire fifteen books of the sacred Tripitaka scripture, each pagoda containing one page.  Each of these little white structures contain one page.

This is what the page looks like.  Tiny little hand-written engravings of the Tripitaka, written in the ancient language of Pali.                    

When it was completed, it took 2400 monks six months to recite it.   The creation of the complex is described on yet another slab, bringing the total here to 730.   

This place was heavily damaged during British rule, with bricks from the stupas used for military roads, although the place was quickly rebuilt. According to Marn, there are 11 monks in Burma who can recite the entire Tripitaka by memory.   He said that this was the definitive version.  If you’re making any kind of printed form of the Tripitaka and there’s any question about whether you’re correct, you come here to resolve any ambiguity.       

In addition to the little pagodas that contain the pages of the Triptaka, there is also a small pavilion.  In the pavilion is a full scale model of the entire Kuthodaw Pagoda.

Interestingly, at the time we were visiting, there was a wedding going on, and photos were being taken of the wedding using a drone for the photography.  Apparently this is forbidden, according to this sign. In some ways, Burma seems so primitive and old-school, and yet, they also have signs warning about drone photography. 

Nearby, an interesting looking kid was outside the pagoda, with a basket of birds on his head.  I’m not sure if he was selling these birds as pets, or if he was selling the chance for you to release these birds into the wild, which is an act of kindness that earns Buddhists “merit”.  Either way, he was pretty cool. 

From here, we visited the Shwenandaw Kyaung. This monastery was originally built within the palace walls as a residence for King Mindon.  It was converted to a monastery and moved to its current site east of the palace after Mindon died in it, as it was considered bad luck by his son. This saved it from burning along with the palaces other buildings.  Nowadays, it’s most notable for the elegantly carved Jataka stories in its raised main hall, the gilded pillars and ceilings, and the glowing, atmospheric interior. 

 The exterior wood carving is spectacular.

Here’s the moody, atmospheric interior.  Very peaceful.

A few more closeups of the intricate woodwork.

                       All this sightseeing…. and we haven’t even had lunch!  That’s next.             

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