Amarapura and the Immortal Beauty of Lake Taung-tha-man

I love to visit Amarapura, the “City of Immortals“, whenever I get a chance. I sometimes spend a few days and nights at the Maha Gandha-yon Monastery, one of the best Teaching Monasteries of Myanmar. This monastery is on the banks of Taung-tha-man Inn (lake), a peaceful retreat that became an important Buddhist center under the charge of Shin Zanakabiwuntha, a well-known author of many religious works.

I have been very fortunate in being shown around Amarapura, by another well-known monk author, U Pyinnya, who is a friend to all writers. He has become the historian of the area around Lake Taung-tha-man and his book Places of Historical Interest Around Taung Tha Man Lake in Myanmar, with an English translation by Prof. Dr. Than Tun, won a National Library Award as the best non-fiction work in the arts and humanities for 1996.

The best time to explore Amarapura is early in the morning or in the evening, as it is best done on foot walking around to various places, some being a few miles apart.

You can easily visit Amarapura from Mandalay which is only 7.5 miles to the north. The locals sometimes refer to the modern town of Amarapura as “Taung-myo” or the “Southern City” as it is to the south of Mandalay, now the urban sprawl of Mandalay has merged with this adjoining town to the south with no clear boundaries between them. Amarapura has been referred to as the “Southern City” even before Mandalay was built as it is to the south of “Mandalay Hill”.

Amarapura was the capital city twice during the Konbaung Dynasty. It was founded by King Bodawpaya in 1782 A.D, as the king transferred the capital from Innwa (or Ava). King Bagyidaw, a grandson of Bodawpaya, shifted the capital back to Innwa in 1823, but King Tharrawaddy his successor again took the capital back to Amarapura in 1837 and it remained as the capital until King Mindon built Mandalay in 1857 and shifted the capital there in 1860.

Visitors to Amarapura can still see the tombs of King Bodawpaya who died there in 1819, located to the north of Shwezaga Pagoda, and also of King Bagyidaw, located east of Pyatthat Gyi Village. King Bagyidaw died in Amarapura in 1846 after being de-throned in 1837. These two whitewashed brick mausoleums have inscriptions in English and Myanmar. They are actually small pagodas enshrining the cremated bones of the two kings. There is another smaller pagoda enshrining the bones of King Tharrawaddy who died in Amarapura in 1846. This is located to the north of the Palace Site, tourists can ask the local people to guide them to these mausoleums.

Of the old capital city of Amarapura, only the Treasury building called the Shwe Dike (Exchequer) which later also became a Record Office and the Mmyaw-zin (Tower) popularly known as Nan Myint (High Palace), both masonry constructions, remain. The wooden palace and the many other wooden buildings and monasteries were all dismantled, some being shifted to Mandalay.

Parts of the city walls and the moat can be seen from the road which links this old capital with Mandalay. There are four white pagodas marking the four corners of what was once a lovely city, described by a writer who visited it in its heyday as “a microcosm of Burmese civilization. There were concentrated not only the wealth, fashion and beauty of the country but also learning and scholarship”.

The three-quarters of a mile long U Pein Bridge crossing the Taung-tha-man Inn is one of the main attractions for visitors. It is the longest teak bridge in the world, although a bit rickety in some parts, it has withstood the storms and floods of over two centuries. The bridge is named after its donor-builder U Pein who was a clerk to Bai Sab, the Myo Wun or Mayor of Amarapura when it was the capital city. It was constructed in 1849 from old planks and timber posts of dismantled houses in Sagaing and Innwa. It took nearly two years to finish, but since it was opened in 1851 it has constantly been in use by the people and in recent years by foreign visitors also. There are now 1,086 posts and 482 spans. At nine points, a kind of drawbridges was made to allow the royal barges and war boats to go under the bridge and out to the Ayeyarwady River in the old days.

I have such pleasant memories of crossing U Pein Bridge at dawn with my mentor U Pyinnya telling me historical anecdotes of Amarapura and to see the sun come up over the distant Shan hills to the east. There are five rest houses on the bridge where you can rest for a while and chat or read.

Lake Taung-tha-man used to dry up into a small stream in the summer months when we could cross the lake-bed by car or trek across on foot, stopping at the wayside stalls to buy freshly boiled Indian corn on the cob or to taste the delicious fried shrimp of the lake. In the last couple of years, because of a dam recently completed, the lake is full of water all the whole year round, so U Pein Bridge has to be used, especially if you want to visit the Kyauk Taw Gyi Image and Pagoda on the further, eastern side of the lake.

This Buddhist temple was modeled on the Ananda Temple of Bagan. A Buddha image of Sagyin marble was carefully sculptured in 1830, it is 17 feet 9 inches high and was named Maha Thetkya Yanthi. To house this Buddha image the Taung Tha Man Kyauk Taw Gyi temple was built in 1850. The lovely frescoes near the east and west entrances are well worth studying to get a glimpse of Myanmar architecture, daily life and customs, costumes and hairstyles of the Innwa and Amarapura periods.

After visiting Kyauk Taw Gyi Pagoda you can walk back across U Pein Bridge and once you get back to the western end in Amarapura, you should not miss the fine avenue of huge Maizai trees (Madhuca longifolia), altogether 95 in number. They were planted by U Kyee and Daw O around 1875. There were 103 trees originally, but eight have perished over the 123 years or so that they have been in existence. The oil extracted from the Maizai seeds is used in soap and in leather tanning. The money received from the sale of these seeds is used for the maintenance of U Pein Bridge. Local people and Myanmar visitors love to sit under these trees as there are many open-air cafes and snack bars.

You should visit in the southern part of Amarapura, the Pahtodawgyi Pagoda modeled on the Mahacedi of Sri Lanka. The foundation of this pagoda was laid by King Bagyidaw and his Chief Queen in 1820. The pagoda was completed in 1824. The base measures 180 feet in circumference and the height also measures 180 feet. The official title of the pagoda is Maha Vijayaramsi. Do not miss seeing the 550 (or rather 547) Jataka stories depicted on glazed plaques around the plinth of this pagoda.

Amarapura has also a number of interesting places that are not connected with Buddhism. There is an old Chinese Joss House, a shrine of an Islamic saint, a Brahmanic statue of Hindu hermit, tomb of a Thai king and an ancient prehistoric Late Neolithic site.

The old Chinese Joss House is located in the Shwe Gwoon Doke quarter, not far from the Lake Taung-tha-man. It is actually a Temple of Kwangyin Si, and its origins go back to the Chinese community of Innwa who first built it there in 1774. It was moved to Amarapura in 1783 when the capital was shifted. The temple was destroyed in the big fires which ravaged Amarapura in 1811, 1830 and 1838, and rebuilt each time. The present temple was finished in 1847, so it is now over 160 years old. There are beautiful old wood carvings in both Chinese and Myanmar styles, and as hybrids, a bridge between the two cultures. The Yunnanese Chinese community of Amarapura and Mandalay maintain this old Chinese temple built during the Myanmar king’s time. You will usually see inside this Goddess of Mercy temple elderly Chinese sipping tea and you can have your fortune told.

The Shrine to the Islamic Saint Arbhisha Hussaini is a tomb which is commonly called Daraga Daw. It is to the north of the avenue of the Maizai trees, west of the Red Pagoda (Phaya Ni or Shwe Muttaw) and east of the wards called O-daw and Hmite Su. This Islamic Saint was born in 1776 and came to Amarapura in 1795 at the age of 19. He served the Myanmar king as the leader of the Islamic people but died at the age of only 39 in 1815. He wrote 30 works on Islam. The Durgah was built at this place as he had expressed a wish to be buried in this place of peaceful repose.

The Statue of Kappila, the Hindu hermit, was brought back from Banaras in Central India by a mission sent by the Myanmar king in 1810. The mission returned in 1812 with the statue. It is now kept in the Kyaw Aung San Hta monastery.

In the last few years, Thai visitors have come to see a tomb, an unmarked pillar made of bricks in Lin Zin Gon cemetery. The local people for generations have said that this is the tomb of an ex-king of Yodaya or Ayuthia. According to an illustrated parabaik in the British Library, this ex-Thai King was wrongly identified as King Ekat’at. But actually, this Thai king in King Uthumphon who abdicated and became a Buddhist monk. His elder brother then became King Borommaracha or King Suriyamarin, the last king of Ayuthia. The second last king, King Uthumphon, is known as “Chaofa Dawk Madua” (King of the Fig Flower). The Myanmar chronicles refer to him “Sawbwa (Chaofa) Dawk To”. When Ayuthia was sacked on 7 April 1767, the last king died, but the second last king who had become a Buddhist monk was brought back to Myanmar and he lived as a monk for nearly 30 years among the Thais at Ywa-htaung on the outskirts of Sagaing. He related his sad experiences and they were all recorded in Myanmar. When ex-King Uthumphon died in 1796, he was cremated in Lin Zin Gon cemetery in a befitting manner. His bones and ashes are supposed to be enshrined in this tomb-pillar. You can see it today, near the western end of U Pein Bridge.

Lake Taung-tha-man is indeed a very ancient site of human habitation in Myanmar, this was revealed when an old Neolithic site was found in on its banks around 1970 by the monk scholar U Pyinnya. The archaeology Department excavated the site twice in 1971 and 1972, unearthing human skeletons buried together with decorated pots, usually placed between or around the legs. This site is located on the banks of the lake between the Maha Gandha-yon and the Aung-gyin Shitper monasteries.

The name Taung Tha Man is taken from one of the four ogres who lived in this area near the east bank of the Ayeyarwady River. According to the legend, the Buddha visited the Sagaing Hills to prophesy that Buddhism will flourish in this region. At the request of 99 ogres living in the Sagaing Hills, the Buddha also visited the four ogres, Nga Taung Tha Man, Nga Taung Myint, Nga Taung Kyinn and Nga Taung Pyone who lived on the eastern side of the Ayeyarwady River. The Buddha received their homage and food offerings and made a prophecy that they would eventually be reborn in this area as kings and build cities named after them. Amarapura which is a Pali title meaning “Immortal” was the new city title for Taung Tha Man and its environs when it became the capital.

There are many other interesting and historical places in Amarapura. It is now a satellite town on the outskirts of Mandalay easily reached on the road from Mandalay to Sagaing, across the Innwa Bridge. There is a thriving weaving industry specializing in colorful cotton and silks. You can visit the Saunders Weaving Institute founded in 1914. Silk textiles are on sale in some of the weaving centers at very reasonable prices.

Visitors should not miss the newly built Bagaya Monastery on the left side of the main road as you enter Amarapura. This is now a grand museum, rebuilt in its original style, housing hundreds of Buddha images and other antiquities. The lower floor is a Pitaka taik or Library for old palm-leaf and paper parabaik manuscripts.

I enjoy walking around to view the immortal beauty of Lake Taung-tha-man, with pagodas and monasteries and other places of interest on its banks. The Myanmar people of Amarapura welcome visitors from far and near. Come for a visit soon.


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