Mandalay: It Keeps Calling Me Back
Mandalay: It Keeps Calling Me Back
Confounded by Mandalay’s labyrinthian streets, annoyed by too many bicycles, exhausted from the heat and choking on dust, I vow repeatedly never to return. And yet here I am again, not only because it’s my job as a tour director, but because, if I’m honest, I just can’t stay away.
Founded in 1857 by King Mindon, the penultimate and one of the most revered and beloved monarchs of Burma, Mandalay lost its glory and prestige to British colonial rule in 1885. Nonetheless, it remains the pride and cultural centre of the country.
At the heart of the city center, the 150 year old palace wall and mote still stand as reminders of its golden days. The palace complex consisted of numerous wooden buildings, many elaborately carved and gilded. All but one of these architectural masterpieces were tragically destroyed by fire during a WWII bombing raid.
The only building to be spared the destruction was the apartment that King Mindon had occupied. In 1880 King Thipaw, the last King of Myanmar, had it dismantled and relocated outside the palace grounds, to be used as a monastery. In its original form the entire teak building was exquisitely carved, heavily gilt and adorned with intricate glass mosaics. It is only thanks to this single remaining original structure that we know how the royal palace would have looked. Today it is called “Golden Palace Monastery” or “Shwe Kyaung,” and it remains the most significant of Mandalay’s historic buildings. Each time I visit I never fail to feel gratitude that this magnificent monument still stands as a firsthand reminder of a bygone golden era.
Another of Mandalay’s most unique and important sites is Kuthodaw, or Maha Lawkamarazein Pagoda, known as the world’s largest book. Rows upon rows of white masonry shrines contain 729 marble slabs, which are inscribed in the Pali language with the Tripitaka, or Buddhist scriptures. A visit there is a must.
Early risers will best appreciate Mahamuni Pagoda, which enshrines Myanmar’s most sacred Buddha statue. According to legend, the twelve foot bronze statue was cast in the 5th century CB after Lord Buddha consented to a replica of his “Living Self.” Followers fervently believe that it harbors some of his soul. It was conveyed to Myanmar in 1784 as a spoil of war from Arakan. It is a mystery how such a large icon was transported over the steep, pathless mountainside, so many attribute the feat to its supernatural powers. The statue is greatly distorted from an estimated twelve tons of gold leaf offerings that worshippers have burnished onto the body. Devotees begin to arrive at 4:00 a.m. to perform the meritorious deeds of washing the face, gilding the revered icon, or simply meditating. They do not pray, per se, but rather refresh their memories of Buddhist principles by repeating the scriptures. However, their recitation seems to me indistinguishable from prayer, and their expressions are those of hopes fulfilled and serenity attained.
Within the Pagoda precinct are also six bronze statues: two men, three lions and a three-headed elephant (Erawun), from the Khmer style of art. Devotees believe that the statues possess healing powers, so they rub the statue as a petition for a cure against various ailments and diseases. Generations of constant rubbing has given the statues a highly polished sheen. I must confess that I too used to petition the statues, until I realized the corrosive effect on these priceless treasures.
If you’re wondering where all the gold leaf comes from, you needn’t go far. Near the pagoda you can visit a workshop that engages in the highly skilled craft of gold-leaf making, a cottage industry that dates back centuries. Just follow the sound of the craftsmen tirelessly beating out and stretching the gold into foil pieces one ten-thousandth of a millimeter thick. You will readily see why it is celebrated the world over for its beauty and delicacy.
The cultural richness of Mandalay is manifest in several artistic traditions, including puppetry. Marionette performances date back centuries, to the royal courts. The elaborately carved wooden puppets, between two and three feet in height, are painted, then lavishly dressed in embroidered silk, velvet, sequins and gems. You can even commission matching outfits for you and your puppet! Puppet characters range from serpents to garudas and jesters to kings; horses galloping against a backdrop of forest; monkeys swinging through the jungle grasping for bananas; menacing ogres somersaulting through a display of power and strength. The mischievous wizard transforms himself, revives the dead and turns stone into gold. Royalty are the heroes of the story, performing sentimental love duets and artistic dances, and at some point in every play, the prince and princess are sure to kiss.
Mandalay’s central location provides convenient access to the old cities of Amarapura, Ava, Mingun and Jeyapura Sagaing. All are within an hour of Mandalay, and easily reached by car or boat. The hill station Pyin Oo Lwin (previously called May Myo) is a two hour drive.
Mandalay also serves as the primary trading center of Myanmar, because it is located right in the middle of the country and it can be reached by land, water and air from all directions. At Zecho Market, the city’s main trading center, one finds everything from homemade sweet cakes to imported wares, from indigenous medicine to gemstones. A trip to Mandalay is never complete until I visit Zecho Market to stock up on homemade sweet cakes and tealeaf salad. The friendly shopkeepers are quick to offer you a taste of their delicacies with hot green tea, but they never push you to buy. Even after enjoying their hospitality and samples, they don’t mind in the least if you leave without buying anything. Isn’t it lovely?
The Ayeyarwaddy riverbank is my favourite promenade in Mandalay. Please indulge me in a nostalgic recollection. It was April, just before the water festival, which is our New Year festival. The surface of the Ayeyarwaddy glistened under the harsh mid-afternoon sun, and the air was dry. The tinkling bells of the mobile sugar cane juice shop were a welcome invitation to take refuge from the heat. I sat on a stool under the shade of the neem tree, sipping the refreshing sugar cane juice, watching the fishing boats in the distance. Children giggled and played without a care in the world, as their fathers swarmed up and down the riverbank, from steamers to trucks, hauling excessively heavy loads of commodities. In spite of the dry air, they were drenched from exertion.
I walked a little further, stopping to take in every detail. Youngsters romped in the sand, flew kites and engaged in a game of ball-tossing, all the while laughing gleefully. Women prepared the evening meal outside their rustic huts. Some bathed in the river whilst others sat on bamboo rafts anchored to the riverboat to wash clothes. Still others wove bamboo mats. Water buffalos toiled, hauling logs from the muddy shore and loading them onto a truck, like nature’s forklift. By now the sun was starting to set, and I was overcome by a sense of tranquility. I never tire of this scene, and the simple but idyllic way of life.
In spite of my repeated vow never to return to Mandalay, so it is that it captures my heart, keeps me in its grip, and after all these years, keeps calling me back.
When you visit, please respect this advice. Much of the world has been taught by well-intentioned tourists to beg for money, candy, pens, toys, lipstick and trinkets. These handouts belittle the people, erode the culture, perpetuate a negative stereotype of patronizing foreigners, and create reliance on begging. They also encourage parents to exploit children by sending them to beg from tourists instead of to school. In order to preserve the Burmese culture and dignity of the people, please refrain from this type of giving. Instead, focus on cultural interactions by smiling, making friends, and learning a few basic phrases in the Burmese language. You are also encouraged to support the economy by purchasing locally made handicrafts. By following these suggestions, your presence in this wonderful place will not endanger the culture and traditions.