Some 11 kilometers (seven miles) south of Mandalay is the town of Amarapura, the “City of Immortals”. In its heyday a city of some 200,000 inhabitants, it now has a population of a mere 10,000. The leisurely “Clack-Clack” from the looms of the cotton and silk weavers has replaced the noisy bustle of this former capital. The town stands on slightly elevated ground which in the flood season forms a long peninsula.
U Bein Bridge
At the southern end of the town, in a grove of majestic trees, forgotten pagodas crumble. Two large monasteries remain, as does the massive Taungmingyi Buddha Image erected in around 1846 by Pagan Min (King Mindon’s deposed brother). This image was originally exposed to the elements, but in 1949 it was roofed in. In 1847 King Pagan Min allocated funds for the building of a bridge across Taung Thaman Lake. The mayor, one U Bein, obviously had an eye for a quick penny: he appears to have pocketed the money and re-used timbers from the abandoned Ava Palace. The king saw through the ruse, however, and the mayor was charged with fraud.
The long bridge passes over fertile rice fields. It used to be that during the winter months the lake bed stayed dry long enough for two harvests. Then, in the rainy season, from the Pahtodawgyi Pagoda in the north to the Ava stream south of Amarapura, the land floods to form the Taung Thaman Lake, and the farmers would become fishermen. However, due to the recent construction of a dam, the farmers have been forced to become full-time fisherman, the lake is now a constant. Take a stroll over this lovely old bridge and arrive at the small sleepy village of Taung Thaman.
One of the most prestigious monasteries in the Mandalay area is Mahagandayone, the home of some 1300 orthodox monks and novices. The monks run a primary school as well as a meditation center. Due to the renowned status of this monastery an individual or group of donors often provides their daily meal. This means the monks do not have to go out every morning to gather alms. The food is cooked in the monastery’s clean but basic ‘cook house’. Four huge steamers cook the rice, whilst vast blackened woks hold the bubbling curries. One of the cooks stirs the curry with a long pole; another makes sure there is enough wood under the wok. When the food is ready the gong, a hanging piece of old rail, is hit to summon the monks to the courtyard. The donors and their family stand beside the great vats of steaming rice, the monks file past in silence, taking the lid off their lacquer bowl to receive a large dollop of rice. A monk stands by to brush up any rice that has dropped onto the brick floor of the courtyard. With the lid back on the bowl a piece of pink sponge cake is popped onto the top. The monks file into the dining hall where they sit cross- legged, the curries, vegetables and some lapet having been place on the table. The abbot and senior monks sit at one end with the novices at the far end. When the meal is finished each monk leaves the table taking his bowl with him; anything that remains will be his breakfast the following morning. Nothing goes to waste in the monastery, as surplus food is in turn passed on to any locals in need, or re-heated for the next day’s meal.
South of Amarapura is Inwa, the once mighty capital called Ava, but now just a sleepy village whose inhabitants specialize in making lacquerware offerings bowls for monks. In 1855 Sir Henry Yule found the remains of Inwa much as they are today: ‘The ramparts still stand though in decay, the greater part of the interior area is a mere mass of tangled gardens and jungle’.
The journey to Inwa is a pleasure in itself. Just before reaching the Inwa Bridge, which crosses the Ayeyarwaddy, one leaves the main road and lurches along a small road, until the Myitnge River. Here one boards a flat-bottomed ferry, most probably sharing it with an ox-cart or two, bicyclists, chickens-in fact a veritable mini-Noah’s Ark. On the far side of the river one continues by pony trap, the only four-wheeled vehicle in Inwa being a very elderly fire engine.
King Bagyidaw’s watchtower still stands, slightly tilted, ‘as the earthquake left it, greatly out of the perpendicular and with the massive verandah and pillars round its base staggering hither and thither’.
Bagaya Monastery (Bagaya Kyaung) is perhaps the most beautiful of the monasteries in the area. Famous for its 267 teak pillars, it is set in the middle of Le Daw Gyee, the great royal rice fields. The nicest way to approach this exquisite little wooden monastery is to walk along a narrow path across the paddy- although there is now a small, as the Burmese say, ‘all-weather paved road’ to the building. The carving on the doors and walls is well preserved. The main hall stands on a platform apart from the monks’ quarters and the other buildings. It is constructed so that there is a space between the walls and roof, which keeps the hall light and cool throughout.
For many years the Inwa Bridge was the only bridge to span the Ayeyarwady throughout its entire length. When present construction up and down the river is completed there will be five bridges. This iron rail and road bridge was built by the British in the 1930s. In 1942 part of the bridge was blown up by the British as they retreated from the advancing Japanese. It was not repaired until-1954. Now the old iron bridge is un-used as a new one was opened in 2008.
In the 1930s, the writer Maurice Collis stood on the eastern bank of the Ayeyarwady and gazed across are Sagaing prior to taking up his post as its Deputy Commissioner. ‘Behind the town with its mat and wooden housed was a cluster of yellow hills,’ he wrote, ‘on top of each a golden pagoda with monasteries in profusion. There bathed in sunshine, secret and still, was Buddhist Burma.’ Today there are said to be no fewer than 554 monasteries, home to some 6,000 monks and nuns.
Soon U Ponya Shin Pagado
The Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda also enjoys a splendidly elevated position, the difference being that there is a road up to it, so for those less inclined to exertion this is the place to enjoy the panorama. It stands slightly apart, however, and you will miss the pleasure of the village scene.
U Min Thon-se (Thirty Caves Pagoda)
Another interesting pagoda to visit on the Sagaing hill is U Min Thonse a semicircular colonnade housing 43 seated Buddha images, their hands in the ‘ calling earth witness’ mudra. Thought to have been built during the 11th century there are 30 openings along the colonnade, so as you enter the space light floods in from the left and illuminates the 43 seated images on the right. Either end of the colonnade stands a large Buddha image as if on guard, the significance of 43 images alludes to the 43 years that Buddha spent giving sermons. The pagoda has recently been renovated; shiny mosaic tiles cover the walls with small plaques acknowledging those who have made donations- many from abroad.
Kaung Hmudaw Pagoda
Ten kilometres (six miles) west from the Inwa Bridge is the Kaung Hmudaw Pagoda. Its shape is unusual for a Burmese pagoda in that it is an enormous dome, about 275 metres (900 feet) in circumference and 45 metres (150 feet) high, and topped by a small hti, It was built in 1636 by King Thalon to celebrate the founding of Ava as the kingdom’s capital. Local folklore suggests that the shape represents a certain queen’s perfect breast. The pagoda is also a copy of the Mahaceti Pagoda in Sri Lanka, and is alleged to contain a tooth of the Buddha brought from Kandy. The base of the pagoda has small nat-filled niches, as well as some 800 pillars, each 1.5 metres (five feet) high with a niche for an oil lamp. The annual Kaung Hmudaw Pagoda festival is held at the November full moon. As always at festival time, a market springs up around the pagoda; this one is renowned for pottery.
On the return journey from the Kaung Hmudaw Pagoda to the Inwa Bridge one passes through Ywahtaung village, the home of the silversmiths’ guild. These silversmiths produce extremely fine work, using the ornate patterns of traditional designs. The silver betel boxes and bowls in the shape of monks’ offerings bowls, which are to be found in most Burmese homes, are likely to have come from Ywahtaung.