The last royal capital 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.
With British rule, Mandalay’s streets were laid out on a grid system with the large, square palace compound of the former King Thibaw as its epicenter and surrounded by high, red walls and a moat. The effect is unlike any other city in Southeast Asia.
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.
Among the most venerable pagodas 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.
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.
Mandalay Royal arts and crafts
Many small scale workshops at Mandalay specialize in crafts such as woodcarving, stone and marble carving, bronze figure casting, gold leaf making, jewelry, silk weaving, Kalaga tapestry and puppet making, etc., all clustered in certain quarters of the city, where objects of high craftsmanship can be purchased at bargain prices. In the past, these workshops would supply the royal palace.
Traditional culture shows in Mandalay
On the entertainment front, marionette shows in the company of live traditional Myanmar music and singing are a great pleasure to watch. Delightful not only to Myanmar audiences, traditional a-nyeint pwe variety shows, which include improvised slapstick comedy, singing and dancing can be enjoyed also by non-Myanmar speaking visitors on an evening’s outing.
Destinations in Mandalay
The reigns of the Shan Kingdoms and subsequent Burmese Kingdom was held in Inwa (Ava) for over 400 years, desirable for the protection afforded by the Myint Nge and Irrawaddy Rivers. In essence, the palace area and heart of the Inwa Kingdom was an island easy for rulers to control and secure.
Situated just across the Ayeyarwaddy (Irrawaddy) River from Mandalay, Sagaing boasts of over 500 pagodas scattered throughout the forested hills of the riverside. The hamlet continues to be one of Myanmar's most important religious centres, as demonstrated by over 6,000 monks and nuns who dwell in the hundreds of monasteries hidden among the wooded hills.
The well over hundred years old Bagaya Monastery is an exquisite example of traditional architecture, with soaring tiered roofs and heavy teak doors carved in high relief of celestial figures bearing lotus buds. The building is set on a high platform and supported with whole teak logs, and has brick stairs leading to an open air pavilion where the older monks walk in meditation.
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.
The ancient city of Mingun is famous for having the world's largest uncracked bronze bell and a colossal unfinished pagoda (Mingun Paya) that was dramatically cracked in an earthquake in the 1800s. Despite its unfinished state, the pagoda draws many visitors fascinated by its looming shape and size.
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.