Mandalay, the ‘Golden City’, capital of the last Burmese kingdom, was founded in 1857 by the deeply religious King Mindon in fulfilment of Gautama Buddha’s prophesy. As legend has it, Gautama Buddha prophesied that on the 2.400th anniversary of his Enlightenment a great city and centre of Buddhist Teaching would be founded at the foot of the hill when he visited the sacred ‘Mandalay Hill’. However, King Mindon’s motives for the founding and building of the new ‘Royal City’ were not purely unselfish religious ones; he also wanted to atone for the injustices done during his reign from 1853 when he succeeded his brother King Pagan to 1878 when he died and his son Thibaw took the throne. This, by the way, ushered in the end of the Burmese kingdom.
King Mindon of the last Burmese dynasty – the Konbaung dynasty – thought that to set straight the injustices done during his time of ruling it was necessary to build ‘temple grounds of great magnificence’ for which reason he founded Mandalay the ‘Golden City’ in 1857. He completed it formally in 1859 and shifted his government and ‘Imperial Court’ that was still referred to as the ‘Court of Ava’ from Amarapura (the 12 kilometres/7 miles from Mandalay located royal city built by King Bodawpaya) into the new capital in 1861.
His moving from Amarapura to Mandalay was accompanied by the dismantling of the previous palace and the relocation of some 150.000 people to the new capital also known as ‘Ratanabon-Naypyidaw’, the ‘Gem City’. This must not be confused with ‘Rathapura’, ‘The City of Gems’ (what refers to the ancient capital of ‘Ava’ ) and, of course, not with Burma’s present capital Naypyidaw.
Mandalay, being contrary to the impression of an ancient city that its name creates a much, much younger city than, for example, Pagan and Yangon or the former ancient capitals Ava and Amarapura is nevertheless considered by the Burmese the real centre of Burmese culture and Buddhist teaching and the only city truly representative of Burma’s past. However, the dream of Mandalay as royal city was with a total of 28 years a very short-lived one.
The obviously completely inapt King Thibaw was as merciless as one of King Mindon’s chief queens and Thibaw’s step-mother, Hsin Byu Ma Shin. She had elevated the very minor prince Thibaw (who was very much in love with one of her daughters and would under normal circumstances never have gotten anywhere near the throne) to the throne. To make sure that her power remained strong she had many of the older princes with definite rights to the throne killed. At the end of his ruthless and for Burma disastrous reign of only 7 years (1878 to 1885) King Thibaw acknowledged his sound defeat by the British Army in the third Anglo-Burmese war by capitulating to the British General Prendergast on 29 November 1885. After that Mandalay and its palace – now renamed ‘Fort Dufferin’ and later ‘Fort Mandalay’ – became just another outpost of British-India.
King Thibaw and his wife, queen Supayalat, were exiled to India, more precisely phrased to Ratnagiri, what marked the end of the Konbaung dynasty. Burma not only ceased to exist as independent kingdom on the 1st of January 1886 and became province of British-India but did also never again become a kingdom. What is more, Burma – nowadays called Myanmar a name that is not undisputed – lost the chance to develop properly into a successful nation; worse even, Burma dropped governed by in terms of proper statesmanship inapt and corrupt military leaders down into the group of the very poorest countries on earth were it remains for all the ‘changes’ that took place in recent years to this day.
The ‘Mandalay Palace’ built by King Mindon as the ‘Centre of the World’ based on the model of ‘Brahmin-Buddhist cosmology’ to represent the fabled ‘Mount Meru’ formed a perfect square. Its outer walls, facing the four cardinal points, had three gates each, which were marked with the 12 ‘Signs of the Zodiac’. The ‘Throne Room’, also called the ‘Lion’s Room’, was located in the exact centre of the palace, surrounded and covered by a 256 ft/78 metre high tower or ‘Pyatthat’. The pyatthat was seven storeys high and gold-plated. It was – believe it or not – believed that through it the wisdom of the universe was funnelled directly on the ‘King’s Throne’ in order to assist him in his making decisions of great consequence. This may have worked as long as Mindon Min was king but it definitely didn’t work at all after his minor son Thibaw had ascended to the throne.
The ‘Lion’s Room’ was surrounded by the king’s chambers, a watchtower and a number of main and secondary buildings. The layout of the palace and its building ensembles can be seen from a ‘large-scale model’ of the original ‘Mandalay Palace’ inside of the palace.
Nowadays, very little is left of the glory of the old palace (or what was left of it). Well into the 1990s the former palace compound served as the headquarters of the Burmese Army. Apart from a) the 8 metres/26 ft high and at the bottom 3 metres/9.8 ft thick palace’s brick walls (each of its four sites is 2 kilometres/1.3 miles long) with its ‘Pyatthats'(pavilions) over the gates, b) the 70 metres/225 feet wide and over 3 metres/10 ft deep moat that remained intact can be seen only c) the King Mindon mausoleum, d) the a.m. ‘palace model’, e) an empty raised platform – the remains of the King’s quarters – up to which lead stairs with cannons (that have never fired a single shot) at their foot and f) a few in low quality and with forced labour reconstructed palace structures inside the old palace walls.
But the original palace structures that were built almost entirely of teak were not (as some people still tirelessly try to make believe) purposefully destroyed by the British Army and the American air force as an act of aggression against Burma. They became to a relatively small measure victim of the shelling of the palace and the Mandalay hill both of which had been turned into strongholds and were fiercely defended by Japanese troops in 1944/45.
However, the main damage was done by the Japanese who, when the show was over for them, burned most of the wooden buildings down to destroy the stores they had in them and to leave nothing that could be of any use to their enemy.
In March 1945 the British forces had under the command of Field Marshal William J. Slim (supported by Chinese troops and the United States Army) succeeded in liberating Burma from the terror of the Japanese invaders. By the by, contrary to some local fairytales that say otherwise with very little or virtually no help from any Burmese forces. For more details read W.J. Slim’s accounts on the Burma War, ‘Defeat into victory’.
Mandalay has much of interest to offer to visitors. Apart from the ‘Royal Palace’ are among Mandalay’s points of interest the: A) Kuthodaw Pagoda, B) Maha Lawka Marazein Pagoda, C) ‘World’s Largest Book’, D) Kyauktawgyi Pagoda, E) Shwenandaw Kyaung, F) Atumashi Kyaung, G) Sutaungpya Pagoda H) Shweyattaw Buddha Statue, I) Maha Muni Pagoda and the J) Shwe Kyi Myint Pagoda.
A) Kuthodaw Pagoda
At the foot of the Mandalay hill that rises 774 feet/236 metres above Mandalay and its surrounding countryside stands the ‘Ma Ha Lo Ka Ka Ra Jin Pagoda’, popularly called ‘Kuthodaw Pagoda’. The pagoda was built by King Mindon in 1857. Situated at the centre of the Kuthodaw Pagoda is the Maha Lawka Marazein Pagoda.
B) Maha Lawka Marazein Pagoda
The ‘Maha Lawka Marazein Pagoda’ is a 98 foot/30 metres high pagoda that is modelled after Pagan’s/Nyaung Oo’s Shwezigon Pagoda.
C) World Largest Book
Inside the Kuthodaw Pagoda complex – surrounded by four walls – is not only the Maha Lawka Marazein Pagoda. There are also 729 ‘Pitaka Pagodas’ by which the Maha Lawka Marazein is surrounded. These were erected on the occasion of the Fifth Buddhist Synod in 1872 to individually house the 729 marble slaps, the ‘leaves’ or 1.398 pages of what is called and known as ‘The World’s Largest Book’ or ‘The World’s Biggest Book’ what at the same time is also the world’s heaviest book.
The entire ‘Tripitaka’, ‘The Three Baskets of the Buddhist Pali Canon’ is engraved on these marble slaps/tablets that were broken in a quarry at Sagain Hill, 20 miles/32 kilometres southwest of Mandalay. The ‘book’ has been open to the public ever since it was completed on 4 May 1868, eight years after King Mindon started on 4 October 1860 to have the book built, because he wanted to accomplish ‘a meritorious deed which had never been done before by any king’. The originally with gold leaves veneered letters were finally retraced wit blue colour. In order to get an idea of the enormous volume of the book – a record of a whole period of ‘Sasana’ or five thousand years beginning with the time of Gautama Buddha’s Enlightenment – it helps to know that it took 2.400 ponyis (monks) almost six months to recite incessantly in relays its text.
The first paper version of the ‘Tripitaka’ was made by Mr. Phillip H. Ripley and printed in 1900. One volume of the ‘Paper Pitaka’ (Royal Octavo Size) has 400 pages and the entire work is made up of 38 volumes.
D) Kyauktawgyi Pagoda
Another pagoda situated at the Mandalay hill’s base not far from the Kuthodaw Pagoda is the ‘Kyauktawgyi Pagoda’ or ‘Pagoda of the Great Marble Buddha Image’. The large Buddha image is sculptured from a single large block of Sagyin marble and accompanied by 40 figures (20 on each side) to represent Buddha’s eighty disciples. King Mindon began to build the Kyauktawgyi Pagoda in 1853 and it was completed in 1878, the year of king Mindon’s death.
E) Shwenandaw Kyaung
Located south of the Kuthodaw pagoda – east of the palace moat – is the ‘Shwenandaw Kyaung’ a monastery originally built by King Mindon as part of the ‘Golden City’, thus it was originally located inside the royal palace walls. Because King Thibaw had after the death of his father, King Mindon, the monastery dismantled and reassembled at its present site, the Shwenandaw Monastery is the only building of the majestic palace city that has survived the misadventures the other teak buildings have fallen victim to. With this king Thibaw has, although unintentionally, done something good.
The Shwenandaw – the building in which King Mindon actually died – once adorned with glass mosaics and plated with gold is nowadays most particularly famous for its highly intricate woodcarvings. Ornamental flowers and mystical figures cover every bit of available space. The monastery that is housing a replica of the royal throne and king Thibaw’s couch is since 1879 a monastery given to monks after first King Mindon and later King Thibaw had used it as place for private meditation.
F) Atumashi Kyaung
The ‘Atumashi Kyaung’ or ‘The Incomparable Monastery’ located beside the Shwenandaw Kyaung and not far from the Kuthodaw was rebuilt in 1996. The original Atumashi monastery that was described as one of the most beautiful structures in all of Mandalay was built by King Mindon in 1877/78 and burned down in 1890.
G) Sutaungpya Pagoda and H) Shweyattaw Buddha
1.729 (!) steps lead up to the top of the Mandalay hill. The roof of the ‘Thaung Dans’ or roofed stairways keeps the stone steps cool and protects visitors climbing them on their way up to the top from the burning sun. About two-third up the hill stands the gold-plated statue of the Shweyattaw Buddha.
What makes the ‘Shweyattaw Buddha Image’ unique is that it is world-wide the only image of Gautama Buddha with an outstretched arm, hand and finger. All other Buddha Images known are in known ‘mudra’ positions. The outstretched arm and index finger of the Shweyattaw Buddha image, indicating the site where King Mindon wanted to build the palace city, truly is something outstanding. The statue was erected by King Mindon before he laid the corner stone for his ‘Golden City’ and symbolises Gautama Buddha’s prophesy that he, King Mindon, was going to fulfil.
The Sutaungpya pagoda on top of the Mandalay hill offers a fantastic roundabout view over Mandalay and its surroundings, with the Shan Plateau in the east, the ‘Imperial Palace City’ and Mandalay in the south, the Sagaing and Mingun Hill with the Ayeyawaddy River flowing in front of them in the north, the vast area of paddy fields in the west and almost everywhere your eyes may choose to rest, pagodas and temples. The most revered pagoda in Mandalay is the Maha Muni Pagoda.
I) Maha Muni Pagoda
The ‘Maha Muni Pagoda’ was built in 1784 by King Bodawpaya. This pagoda is also called ‘Payagyi Pagoda’ or ‘Arakan Pagoda’. It houses the 13 feet/4 metres high ‘Maha Muni Buddha Image’. This has due to its by now some 3 inches thick layer of thin gold leaves over and over pasted on it by faithful devotees has taken on an irregular outline.
The Maha Muni Buddha Statue was part of the booty carried away from Arakan by King Bodawpaya’s forces when they raided Arakan (Rakhine State) in 1784. The present day Maha Muni Pagoda is a copy of the original pagoda, which burned down in 1884. The pagoda is located between 81st and 82nd street in south Mandalay in direction to Amarapura, Ava and Sagaing.
J) Shwe Kyi Myint Pagoda
Mandalay’s oldest pagoda, located at 24th Road, between 82nd and 83rd Street, is the in 1167 by Pagan’s King Alaungsithu’s son, Prince Minshinsaw, built ‘Shwe Kyi Myint Pagoda’.
The pagoda contains a collection of Buddha Images adorned with precious stones and made of gold and silver as well as a Buddha statue consecrated by prince Minshinsaw himself.
Other points of interest are Mandalay’s most important market, the ‘Zegyo Zay’, the ‘Diamond Jubilee Clock’, created in honour of Queen Victoria’s 60-year reign, and the ‘National Museum and Library’. Mandalay is also famous for one of Burma’s/Myanmar’s most recognisable handicrafts, the very distinctive ‘Kalaka’ tapestries. The tapestries origins date back to the 17th century and reached the zenith of their beauty during King Mindon’s reign of Mandalay. Kalakas are very artful embroideries of many different sizes. They can cover a small cushion or an entire wall. Stitched on a strong backing cloth – traditionally velvet – these colourful embroideries comprise of silver and gold sequins, glass pearls, glass mirrors, beats, coloured cloth and sometimes gems, depicting elephants, mythical figures, and ‘Jatakas’ telling stories of Gautama Buddha’s life as well as historical events, festivals, and so forth.
Another very distinctive art Mandalay is renowned for is the ‘Art of Puppetry’. Burmese marionettes made their first appearance in the 15th century and the golden age of the Burmese ‘Yoke-Thay Pwe’ (marionette theatre) was the time of King Mindon’s reign. Puppet theatre was awarded a higher status than that of live theatre.
One of the very few still active traditional marionette groups and theatres in Burma who promote and perform the art of puppetry masterly is the ‘Mandalay Puppet Theatre’ from Ma Ma Naing, who is a puppeteer herself. Attached to the theatre is also a workshop in which all kinds of traditional Burmese marionettes are skilfully and according to old traditions produced. For more details on Yoke-Thay Pwe see my Ezine article ‘ Yoke–Thay Pwe Burmese Marionette Theatre ‘.
Apart from Mandalay’s being second largest city of Burma and its religious and cultural centre, Mandalay is also Upper Burma’s economic centre. Connected with all parts of the country by road, waterways, air and rail and being main link to and between China and India Mandalay will gain increasingly commercial importance in the coming years.
But it is not only Mandalay City that offers much of interest to the visitor. It is also Greater Mandalay what includes e.g. Amarapura as both ancient capital and centre of the art of silk weaving, In-wa (Awa) and Sagaing as ancient capitals and Ywathaung village as centre of silversmiths. About these I will soon tell you more. Look out for my next articles.