With Myanmar’s highest concentration of monks, hundreds of monasteries, and legions of craftsmen, Mandalay is widely regarded as the religious and cultural heart of Myanmar.
Mention of the word “Mandalay” conjures up sentiments of romance and tragedy, as immortalized in the literary gifts of George Orwell, Rudyard Kipling and Somerset Maugham. The true saga of the last reigning monarch King Thibaw, however, is imbued with romance and tragedy as much as any literary account.
Through a combination of deceit, manipulation and false hopes stirred by court advisers and his wife, the fitful reign of King Thibaw ended when the British took Upper Burma in 1885. His family was exiled to India, where they lived in near poverty for the remainder of their lives.
Before him, the struggles of the many ancient kings to gain control of the region were as complex and fantastical as a fairy tale.
According to legend, on a visit to Myanmar accompanied by his disciple Ananda, the Buddha climbed the 236 meter high Mandalay Hill overlooking the surrounding plains. Standing at the summit, he pointed with arm outstretched to where the Mandalay Palace stands today, and declared that a great city would be founded there after 2,400 years.
That year corresponds to 1857 AD, when King Mindon ordered the move of the royal capital from Amarapura to a new city constructed at the foot of Mandalay Hill and bearing its name. Near the top of the hill, a standing Buddha image represents the prophecy.
Among the most venerable pagodas in Mandalay are the Mahamuni Paya, now home to an ancient Buddha image from Rakhine State in western Myanmar, covered in gold leaf by devout Buddhists over many years; and Kuthodaw Paya, with 729 marble slabs bearing inscriptions of the entire Buddhist Tripitaka canon placed around the central stupa.
The Mahamuni (“Great Sage”) Buddha is the most revered Buddha image in Myanmar. Religious mythology recalls that the image was one of only five made during the Buddha’s lifetime and captures his exact likeness. Throughout the rise and fall of ancient kingdoms, the Mahamuni Buddha was a symbol of victory and fiercely sought after by competing kings.
It was carefully escorted to Mandalay in the 18th century by over 20,000 war slaves following the defeat of the Dhanyawaddy King by the Mandalay King. The bronze image itself is decorated in ornate gold details and layered with pure gold leaf by devotees who believe that touching the image cures all ailments.
Likewise, the pagoda is covered with over 1 ton of gold leaf and sees over 4 million local and international pilgrims annually.
The best views in the cultural capital of Myanmar can be found on Mandalay Hill, which towers on northern edge of the city. A winding road leads to the top, traveled by shared pickup trucks in a few minutes or a leisurely hike in 30 minutes.
At the crown of the hill is a pagoda, reachable by stairs that stretch another 2 km upwards. Besides offering a bird’s eye view of the city, the pagoda is popular for wish granting Buddha statues.
Somewhat congruous, fortune tellers line the pagoda complex just below the uppermost platform, ready to complement visitors’ wishes with more concrete consultations of their futures.
The main market in the heart of Mandalay, Zegyo market teems with life, sights, smells and sounds. One can find all manner of exotic fruits, vegetables, fish, meats, thanaka (similar to sandalwood but uniquely Burmese), tea leaf salad ingredients, pulses and lentils traded by street vendors and small shop keepers.
A testament to the respect afforded to Buddhism, an entire street is dedicated to monk robes and accessories.Inside the shopping halls is situated a wholesale market, where many Chinese and Thai goods are sold in large quantities.
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