There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Monday, 19 November 2012

Mandalay and Amarapura: Part 7 of Myanmar, Land of Gold

As we had expected the mosque invited us for prayers at 5.30, but we declined – we never even got out of bed.

At the healthier time of 9.00, and after a leisurely breakfast, we met our local guide in the hotel lobby and set off for the gold pounding district. The gold leaf that adorns stupas and Buddhas across Myanmar is mostly made in the small workshops lining one street in southern Mandalay.

I am not sure what I expected to see, maybe rollers and steam hammers, but what I had not expected was two slight young men with seriously overdeveloped biceps flattening ingots with 15lb hammers. (Despite being independent since 1948, and cutting off all contact with the former colonial power, Myanmar still clings to imperial weights and measures.)

Pounding the gold leaf
King Galon workshop, Mandalay

The gold is rolled to modest thinness elsewhere. Here it is cut into squares, layered, placed in a leather pouch and pounded. After an hour, timed by a how long it takes a cup with a hole to sink in a water trough, the pounder takes a five minute break. The gold, now thinner and wider, is cut, re-layered and returned to the pouch. It takes seven hours of pounding to produce gold leaf 0.000005 inches thick.

The cutting and layering and the packing of the finished product into booklets requires delicacy and deftness and is carried out in the next room in complete silence – although accompanied by the sound of rhythmic thumping. A book of ten one inch squares costs about 2000 Kyat (£1.60), but we had a small patch stamped on the back of our hands, like a transfer, just for turning up to watch.

Separating the gold leaf and packing it into booklets
King Galon workshop, Mandalay

We drove to the southern edge of the city through the stone cutters district, where Buddhas of all sizes and attitudes are carved in the street, to the Mahamuni Paya.

The Mahamuni Buddha is believed by some to be over 2000 years old and to be one of the five images made during the Buddha’s lifetime. He breathed on it and it instantly became a perfect likeness. It arrived in Mandalay in 1784, carted off from Dhanyawadi on the Bay of Bengal as war booty. Others say the original miraculously disappeared as the victorious Burmese army loaded it for transport and this is a fake.Whatever the truth (the 1784 date is reliable, at least) the Mahamuni Buddha is undoubtedly revered.

The Mahamuni Buddha, Mandalay

Those wishing to venerate the statue can enter railed off enclosures, monks at the front, men behind and women, including nuns, at the back.
Venerating the Mahamuni Buddha, Mandalay

If silent adoration is not enough, men may apply gold leaf to the body of the statue, but not the face. Over the years it has grown considerably (there are pictures alongside to prove it) and given the thickness of the gold leaf, this must represent thousands if not millions of applications. The face however, being a perfect likeness, is kept as it was when the Buddha breathed on it, and it is reverently washed at 4.00 every morning. We could have gone to see the early rising Buddhists do that, but the idle Muslims did not wake us until 5.30.

Only men may apply gold leaf. Though not a Buddhist and carrying no gold leaf, I climbed the steps to observe the process and nobody minded because I am a man. The deftness on show did not match the gold pounding workshop and many ended up gilding their fingers more than the statue.

Devotees gild the Mahamuni Buddha and their fingers
The Lonely Planet notes opposition to the ‘men only’ rule, quoting a local grandmother: ‘Lord Buddha never said anything like this, and I’d so much like to put gold leaf on the Buddha image myself!’ To which two cheers at most. It is not up to me to tell Buddhists how to practice Buddhism, but my rudimentary understanding suggests the Lord Buddha would be horrified by anybody, male or female, putting gold leaf on his image.

Continuing south we reached Amarapura, once a separate city but now a suburb of Mandalay. For 70 years from 1784 it was Burma’s royal capital before King Mindon moved his palace up the road to Mandalay.

The Maha Ganayon Kyaung is a renowned centre of monastic study. Founded in 1914 it houses several thousand monks and novices and daily, at 11.30, they silently file into the dining hall for their one meal of the day. For some reason this has become a major tourist attraction.

Foreigners arrive by the bus-load, but there is something weird about several hundred people watching a thousand others eat their lunch. Feeding time at the zoo is one thing, but these are human beings and we found the experience distinctly uncomfortable. The Lonely Planet describes the spectacle as ‘worth avoiding’. I agree.
Lunch at Maha Ganayon, Amarapura
Traditionally monks beg for their food, going from stall to stall in the market and placing their booty – a spoonful of rice here, a piece of fruit there – in a plain lacquerware bowl. Although they all carried their bowls, today’s meal - a hearty stew of meat and vegetables – had been provided by a donor. The younger ones also had a can of drink and a bag of crisps or nuts which they took away from the table. Monks are not supposed to eat after midday, but I recently saw the Dalai Lama admit to occasionally having a biscuit with his afternoon tea. If he gives in to temptation we should not judge the youngsters too harshly.
Carrying the traditional lacquer bowls, Maha Ganayon, Amarapura
Every male child is a ‘son of Buddha’ and as such must serve some time in a monastery. They usually do it in the school holidays as a sort of summer camp. Some come just once, others return year after year. At eighteen those who wish to may commit themselves to the monastic life.

We wandered off to see the food being prepared for the next day. Fish were being gutted and split and chicken dismembered for another sponsored meal. The workers are all volunteers, we were told, and they are allowed to take home the leftovers to feed their families. The people we saw looked well dressed and well fed, volunteering to gain merit, we thought, not scraps of food.
Preparing the next day's food, Maha Ganayon, Amarapura

Heading back north we paused to see some silk weaving – a sight we have been shown so often in so many places that we feign polite interest and move on as quickly as possible.

Weaving silk, Amarapura

Bagaya Kyaung is a monastery built of teak in the early 19th century. It soon burned down, was rebuilt and then extensively repaired in 1910.

Bagaya Kaung, Amarapura

While waiting for the guide to buy tickets we became aware of two small boys, maybe 5 or 6 years old, watching us from some bushes. They picked a bright red flower from the bush and after much giggling and daring walked boldly up to us, presented it to Lynne and ran off. At a safe distance they turned to observe our reaction. We waved and they seemed very pleased with their bravery.

Lynne at Bagaya Kaung, Amarapura
The monastery itself was not that interesting and the 1910 repairs are clumsy, but there was some good carving. A huge building constructed entirely of teak was a novelty, though this was to be the first of many. There is, apparently, little to see in the main hall, but it was closed as the building had been badly rattled by an earthquake a couple of days earlier – we had read about it in the daily New Light of Myanmar on the flight up to Bagan.

Carvings, Bagaya Kaung, Amarapura

We left Amarapura without seeing its best sight, U Bein’sBridge, but we would return tomorrow on our way to Saigang.

We stopped to visit some woodcarvers and spent a while looking round their shop and made a few purchases.
Woodcarvers, Mandalay

Shwe In Bin Kyaung is another teak monastery.

Shwe In Bin Kyaung, Mandalay

Built in 1895 for a pair of wealthy Chinese Jade merchants it is considered finer that Baga Kyaung, but apart from it being fully open, they tend to run together in the memory.

Inside Shwe In Bin Kyaung
It was now approaching lunchtime and our guide fished out her phone to book a table. We asked about the restaurant - we had no input into choosing it – and were told it was very good, all the tour groups go there. That sounded exactly the place we wanted to avoid, so we suggested visiting a restaurant where local people eat. She seemed unimpressed with this idea, but we persisted and ended up in a Chinese/Thai restaurant in Central Mandalay.

It was pleasant enough and the staff were eager to please, but the rice and chicken were ordinary, and the bananas and sticky rice confection hardly more memorable. Whether or not it was a place where ‘local people eat’ is a moot point, the only other customers were another couple of foreigners.

We were returned to our hotel. We had been running out of cash and had twice asked our guide about somewhere to change money. She ignored us, but after the third request pointed out a bank a hundred metres from our hotel. We walked down there to discover the ‘bank’ was merely an advertisement over an entrance to the covered market.
Zegyo Market, Mandalay

We had a good look round Zegyo market the morning we left Mandalay but it seems appropriate to insert it into the narrative here.

Zegyo Market, Mandalay
The market sprawls over a couple of blocks. There are all the usual stalls and, in the morning a succession of monks and nuns begging for their daily sustenance.

Monks begging, Zegyo Market, Mandalay
The city centre and the edge of the market is marked by a clock tower built in 1909 to celebrate, somewhat belatedly, Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. It looked very British while we were there; back home, the photograph makes it appear very eastern. The area saw heavy fighting when the British retook Mandalay from the Japanese in 1945. The clock tower was used as an observation post by the Royal Berkshire Regiment and was lucky to survive.
The Clock Tower, Mandalay

The guide returned in mid-afternoon and we set off round the royal palace. The wall and moat are impressive, but there is little of interest inside. Unlike the clock tower, the teak palaces burned down in 1945. One has been recently rebuilt and is perhaps a less fanciful reconstruction than the palace in Old Bagan, but it is still only a copy. Most of the interior is a Myanmar army base where foreigner’s eyes are unwelcome.

Nearby is the Shwenandaw Kyaung. Originally part of the royal apartments inside the wall, it was dismantled, moved and re-erected outside in 1878 by King Thibaw, the last King of Burma. His predecessor, King Mindon, had died in the building and his ghost was creating problems. It became a monastery in 1880.

Shwenandaw Kyaung, Mandalay
It is a beautiful teak building raised on stilts, but rather beset by crowds of tourists. Every tour comes here in late afternoon before progressing to Kuthodaw Paya and then up Mandalay Hill to watch the sunset.

Lynne & David at Shwenandaw Kyaung, Mandalay
Kuthodaw Paya consists of a gilded stupa.....

Gilded Stupa, Kuthodaw Paya, Mandalay

.....surrounded by 729 ‘stone-inscription caves’.

The stone 'inscription caves'.
Kuthodaw Paya, Mandalay

Each contains a marble slab inscribed on each side with a page of the Pali Canon, the holy writings of Therevada Buddhism.  Built on the orders of King Mindon, the canon was completed in 1868 and claims, with some justice, to be the world’s largest book.

Inscribed stone, Kuthodaw Paya, Mandalay
Around the stupa the ‘inscription caves’ are well tended, while those further away and less visited have a neglected air. The world’s biggest book is an interesting idea, but nobody could read it in this format – it is easier on a kindle.

The less read 'pages'
Kuthodaw Paya, Mandalay

Mandalay Hill, a 240 metre protuberance to the north of the city, has been a site of pilgrimage for two centuries. A covered walkway climbs past various shrines, but we drove up the narrow road which winds its way round the hill. It ends just below the summit and escalators take you the rest of the way. On the road we passed several local joggers grinding their way up or lengthening their stride on the way down.

There is a temple at the top with the inevitable gilded stupa......

Temple on Mandalay Hill
and a 'Wish-Fulfilling' Buddha, a concept I suspect the Buddha himself would have found somewhat alien.
'Wish-Fulfilling Buddha, Mandalay Hill

A small plaque commemorates the Ghurkas who fought their way up the hill in two days of hand-to-hand fighting in March 1945. It made the thought of merely jogging up the hill considerably less daunting.

Ghurka memorial, Mandalay Hill

We were part of a mass of foreigners thronging the summit, all there to see the view and watch the sunset. We walked round the temple taking in the views of the distant hills before bagging one of the last remaining positions beside the rail. We could see across the city to the Irrawaddy, but the gathering clouds ensured that, yet again, no one was going to see the sunset.

Looking across Mandalay to the Irrawaddy River
Mandalay Hill

The escalator is one-way, but we descended in the goods’ lift, a privilege extended to those whose guide knows the right people.

The lift operator was keen to tell us about President Obama’s visit, which had caused great excitement, though he only flew in, shook some hands, gave a 45 minute speech and flew out again. Giving support to Myanmar’s tentative moves towards democracy, he met the president and, of course, Ang San Suu Kyi. We later learned his speech was shown live on television, but without subtitles or simultaneous translation so the people saw him standing beside their president and speaking but could only find out what he said from the carefully controlled media. We also discovered that to accommodate his arrival and departure all flights into and out of Yangon  had been rescheduled or cancelled – which effectively scuppered all internal flights. We were fortunate it was not a day we were on the move.

That evening we walked up to the Shan area of town where we found a ‘beer station’, an establishment selling draught beer relatively cheaply. Although the room was open to the outside it was hot and sweaty, but we enjoyed the pork and noodles and a couple of cold, wet beers.

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