Bago and the Road Thither
Bago is 50 miles north-east of Yangon and can be reached either by rail or by road. Going there by road is much more pleasurable than going by rail because one can stop and see things on the way, and there is so much to see.
Bago is one of the places which a devout Myanmar Buddhist would not miss, for it is sanctified by the great Shwemawdaw pagoda, wherein, according to the legend, the two sacred hairs of the Buddha were enshrined. Here again, the names of the two merchant brothers, Taphyssa and Phalika of the story of the Shwedagon, turn up, as they always do, in most of the legends of the pagodas in this area. The merchant brothers brought the sacred hairs from India and enshrined them in the Shwemawdaw pagoda. Like most ancient cities in Myanmar, Bago is yet another Shangri-la, surrounded by legends and mythical characters who are seen in paintings and sculptures on the pagoda precincts and are very much alive and close to the people’s hearts.
On the east of the hill, on which the Shwemawdaw pagoda stands, is a small hillock, with a pagoda on top. There also stands on the hill a statue of two hintha birds, one perched on the other. Hintha is a mythical bird: the name has its roots in Pali language, Hansa, which means a water bird.
Like the crested lion one sees on the steps of pagodas, what might have been a common water bird is rhapsodized into a mythical creature, with ornamental crests and tails, a symbol of beauty and virtue. The hill is called Hinnthagon, and the story runs like this:
Long long ago, the place where Bago stands today was completely submerged in water. One day, at low tide, a small patch of land appeared above the sea. It was but a very tiny islet, so tiny indeed that there was not enough space, for the two hintha birds soaring above to alight.
The male hintha bird landed first and his mate perched on his back. In the course of time, the delta expended and the patch of land became a hillock, a historical landmark.
To this day, people say that any man who marries a Bago girl will be hen-pecked, a tradition established by the female hintha bird who perched on her mate’s back.
The founding of Bago
The terrain around Hinthagon hill gradually developed into a rich fertile land, interspersed with a network of rivers and tidal creeks, conveniently open to sea-faring peoples. The place became a haunt of merchants and explorers whose stirring deeds and battles over the possession of the land became part of the fantastic pattern which is the story of the founding of Bago.
Into this arabesque is woven the episode of a young baby prince left, during the tribal wars, to die in the jungle. He was reared by a buffalo cow. Later, grown into manhood, he was found and recognized by his kinsmen who restored him to his rightful position in the royal court.
As he did not return to his forest home, his mother the buffalo cow began rampaging the countryside, destroying paddy fields and killing people, as she roamed in search of her son. The voice of the people clamoring for protection reached the king, who commanded the young prince to go out and hunt down the buffalo cow.
The young prince, reluctant to admit his association with the buffalo cow, could not but obey. When he arrived at the area where the buffalo cow was in full action, he did what he thought would save his adopted mother; he shouted, warning her to keep away. He would have to shoot, once she came within range of his trusty bow. The buffalo cow chose to have just a glimpse of her beloved son and paid with her life. Only then was the prince overcome with sorrow and ramose. He had been ashamed to admit that he was nurtured with the milk of her breast, now pierced with his lethal arrow. He saw the foolishness of his action.
No longer caring, even if his past relations with the buffalo cow might tarnish his image as a royal prince, he gave the buffalo cow a burial fit for a queen. He held a ritual feast in her honor every year on the anniversary of her tragic death.
People were so moved by the mother’s devotion and the son’s grief, that they all joined in giving an annual feast in her honor, a custom carried on to this day. She became the guardian spirit of the people living around Bago. She is today known in Myanmar as “The Bago Mother Royal”.
As one ascends the steps of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, among many objects displayed in the stalls, there will be statuettes of a lady dressed in black, wearing a headdress of buffalo horns. She graces the homes of the Bago families, a memorial to a mother’s love.
There, patterns of animism are tempered with stories of how the Buddha’s relics were brought from India and enshrined in the great pagoda and the stirring account of the exciting times when the hearts of the people were awakened to the Word of the Buddha and how they expressed their faith by building beautiful pagodas.
There are many interesting sights on the way to Bago. As one is well past Mingaladon Airport, Kyaikkaloh pagoda comes into view. It stands on a hill, a few yards off the highway, a picturesque spot embosomed in a grove of leafy trees and mirrored in a small lake. The legend claims that the pagoda was built in 426 B.C. when eight missionary Buddhist monks came from India carrying the Buddha’s relics.
The then reigning king and his ministers were the first converts. The king, overwhelmed with adoration, wished to share the sweetness of the Word of the Buddha with his people. He wanted his people to have the fruits of the Buddha’s teaching, so he distributed the Buddha’s relics among them, from the high officials of the court to the commoners.
The king built pagodas and enshrined the relics, and the ministers and commoners followed his examples, expressing their devotion to the Buddhist faith by building pagodas and enshrining relics in them.
In this way, pagodas multiplied to grace the landscape of the kingdom, whether in a royal city, a humble village, or a lonely hilltop in the deep jungle. People regardless of their status could have access to the shrines, which became centers of the spiritual as well as social activities. This tradition is still in practice to this day.
Even before the pagoda was built, the hill was already a sanctified spot: The popular legend of the hill was associated with an episode that happened during the Buddha’s lifetime. The building sites of ancient pagodas and cities are invariably linked with events that are believed to have happened to the Buddha while he was on a trip to those places. Because the Buddha had actually set his feet on these places, they became “the glorious spots on earth”. Kyaikkaloh hill was one of them.
Kyaikkaloh hill was the abode of a powerful and ferocious ogre who was later tamed by the Buddha. The ogre was very proud of his supernormal powers and he challenged the Buddha to find a hiding place where he could not be found. The Buddha accepted the challenge and slipped into the ogre’s hair.
The ogre looked for the Buddha everywhere, but he could not find him. Worn out with fruitless searching, the ogre, at last, had to say the password ‘I offer thee flower‘, admitting he had lost the game.
The ogre became a devout disciple and he named the hill, “Kyaikkaloh“, which means, “Where the Buddha was lost to view“. Later the pagoda was built on the hill which was a memorial to the hide-and-seek game the ogre played with the Buddha. The pagoda was named after the hill.
THE GOLDEN BANYAN TREE: the Guardians of the Highway
The next stopover on the road to Bago is called “Shwenyaungpin”, the “Golden Banyan Tree”. It is an ancient banyan tree by the roadside and it is believed to be the abode of powerful nats, who are the guardian spirits of the highway. All buses and cars stop here to pay respects to the nats.
There is a brick shrine with images of nats by the wayside. Around is a small market where vendors sell flowers, candles, and incense sticks to be offered to the nats.
When a new car is bought, it is brought here to be blessed. With the car’s front towards the shrine, the owner drives it back and forth three times. The mediums spray the scent on the car bonnet, reciting incantations. The mediums get a large fee from the car owner who receives a spray of ribbons to tie to the rear view mirror, as a protective charm against accidents.
On the last leg of the journey is Payathonzu village, so named after the three pagodas of uniform size and shape, which can be seen on the right side of the road when coming from Yangon. This area is scattered with ruined ancient monuments built by King Dhammaceti in the 15th century. The name of the king is associated with many of the pagodas and buildings in this area.
Next is Kyaikpun pagoda, which is in the form of four gigantic Buddha images all in the sitting posture. They are placed back to back against a massive brick pillar. This unusual and impressive pagoda is only a few hundred feet off the Yangon-Bago road.
It was built by King Dhammaceti in 1476 A.D. The pagoda is unique because the images suffer no man-made object between them and the vaulted sky. There they repose in magnificent grandeur, in all weather, fair and foul. They are kept in a fair state of preservation. Kyaikpun pagoda is situated amidst the lush rugged countryside strewn with a large number of ancient ruins, many of them under repair. Whatever history says, legend tells a different story – and a more interesting one.
Once upon a time, there were four beautiful virgins, richly endowed with wealth. Naturally, they beleaguered by ardent suitors, who were becoming more and more of a nuisance, as the sisters were not inclined to worldly life and pleasures. They were more bent on religious life.
So the four sisters agreed to take a vow of life-long celibacy and commemorate the event by building four sitting Buddha images; on each image would be the name of the sister and her irrefutable vow ending with the words: “If ever I break this vow may this image crumble down to earth, a symbol of shame and disgrace on me”.
For some time there was peace; that was until the youngest sister broke the vow and the image bearing her name crumbled to the ground. She died unable to face shame and disgrace. The crumbled image, people say, has been left like that to this day.
It is a good idea to drop in at a few ancient pagodas off the highway, before entering Bago proper. Another pagoda is “Shwe-gu-gyi”, the “Great Golden Cave”, the largest and the most important pagoda in the Payathonzu area. It is located beyond Kyaikpun pagoda on a village track.
The pagoda was built after the model of Bodhagaya temple in India. Nearby are many ruined sculptures and inscribed stones which are the remains of monuments built in honor of the Buddha’s first seven weeks after his Enlightenment. The Buddha spent each week at a different place, which was marked by an auspicious event, like, for instance, the Buddha’s victory over the forces of the evil-Mara. The remains of the monuments representing the events are now preserved in the Archaeological Department.
Sculptures and murals representing either the episodes of the Buddha’s life (the Nativity, the Renunciation of his family and kingly glories and other stories) or the stories of the Buddha’s former births have been there since early times.
Such artifacts are not merely decorative, they are the media of religious instruction for all levels of society.
THE GREAT STUPA
A monument to a king’s spiritual power
The Mahazedi pagoda was completed in 1560 A.D. by King Bayinnaung, under whose statesmanship and military prowess a united kingdom emerged from the chaos of civil strife and foreign aggression. He was powerful and wise, an enlightened despot.
It was during his reign that religious and social reforms were achieved. One important feature in his reforms was the ban on live human and animal sacrifices at the ritual feasts of animistic peoples.
He introduced Buddhist practices among the animists. He did so with tolerance, allowing them to retain the practices that did not clash with the Buddha’s teachings.
The story of the building of the great pagoda is in itself a saga of the king’s spiritual power which is more enduring than his territorial conquests. There was a long succession of crowded days, as people of all ranks, commoners and courtiers alike, gathered in one great force, guided by a tremendous enthusiasm for the Buddha’s teaching. They all gave themselves unstintingly to the great undertaking.
A vast area of rain forest was cleared and prepared for the foundation of the pagoda. The bustling days culminated in the triumphant climax, namely, the enshrining of the relics in the chamber, together with a cache of jewels.
The great pagoda has a romantic sequel. A daughter was born to the king on the day of the enshrining of the relics. She was named Raja-dhatu-kalaya. She grew up to be an accomplished beauty. Her lyrics written in response to the love poems of the ardent Prince Natshinnaung are, to this day, the delight of scholars and romantics alike.
The words, phrases, and tunes of the poems written by the famous pair now live in modern pop songs as well as in classical revivals. The beauty of the princess was celebrated in her lover’s poems and the romance is heightened by the fact that the prince was several years her junior. He first saw her when he was fifteen and on escort duty to the princess on her sad pilgrimage to the battlefield on the Thai border, where her husband, the crown prince, was killed in combat on elephant back. It took Prince Natshinnaung several years and reams of palm leaves on which he scribed his impassioned verses, to win the princess’s hand in marriage.
Their love story was tragic. They had but a brief spell of happiness, which ended with the princess’s death. Natshinnaung survived her but a few years. By a cruel twist of fate, the prince, a gallant lover, exquisite poet, distinguished soldier, and noble sportsman, met his death on the impaling rod as a traitor. ‘A noble mind overthrown.’
Mahazedi rises again
Mahazedi pagoda, with its glorious past and romantic associations, has risen again, thanks to the donations of devotees, after lying in a ruinous heap for several decades, as earthquakes and vandalism took their toll.
The restoration work has come a long way. The structure has risen up high enough to have the hti iron framework crest on top. A triumphant moment it was, celebrated in 1982 with festivals of music and dances.
THE SHWETHALYAUNG IMAGE
Driving farther east along the country road will bring the visitor to the famous Reclining Buddha. It is a masterpiece of perfection in symmetry, wonderfully executed to match the image of overwhelming proportions. It is said to be the largest Reclining Buddha image in the world, measuring 180 feet in length and 52 1/2 feet in height.
Legend of the Reclining Buddha
Tradition says that the Reclining Buddha was built in 994 A.D. by King Mingadhipa, to commemorate his conversion to the Buddhist faith after years of worshipping spirits and making sacrificial offerings of live animals.
Previously, it was the custom in the kingdom to celebrate annual feasts in honor of the spirits. Before the advent of the feast, a countrywide hunt was arranged: princes and commoners took part in the blood sport of capturing ‘bring them back alive’ prizes for sacrificial offerings.
The king’s son and heir, famous for his prowess as a huntsman, led the chase. As he and his followers rampaged the countryside, the quiet woodlands rang with the lusty cries of the hunters, followed by the whistling of arrow shafts and the clanging of swords and spears. Late in the afternoon, they decided to call it a day. It was too late to go back to the city, so they looked for a place to camp for the night. They came to a clearing, fringed with flowering shrubs. There, they saw a young maid gathering flowers.
It was frightening for the maid to be suddenly confronted by a group of savage men, some carrying weapons still dripping with blood, and others bearing carcasses of recently killed animals, all bloody and with their insides all awry. This terrifying appearance was still aggravated by the piercing cries of live animals in nets and cages – all meant to be killed at the ritual feast.
The maid stood rooted to the spot, too frightened to move. Flowers fell from her hands. The prince was struck by her tranquil beauty, so serene she looked among the flowering bushes. He was filled with an unwanted feeling of uneasiness as if he and his followers were violating some sacred ground.
Then followed a stormy wooing and it was not until the prince promised to allow Dalla, for this was the girl’s name, to remain a Buddhist and worship her own way, if privately, that the prince was taken to her father, a simple peasant. There he made a formal request for Dalla’s hand in marriage.
Dalla became the chief consort of the crown prince, very much honored and cherished. This naturally caused jealousy among the other wives, who looked for a way to bring about her downfall. It did not take them long to discover that she was a Buddhist and that she was performing her devotions in secret.
That Dalla, the crown prince’s chief consort did not follow the custom of worshipping the spirit images nor take part in the rituals, was reported to the king. He was greatly offended. He had Dalla brought before him and in the presence of his courtiers, he commanded her to bow down to the images of the spirits. So, Dalla knelt, the pantheon of spirit images facing her and the king ordering her to bow down to them. Black-robed executioners armed with swords stood around her ready to do their duty.
Dalla clasped her hands and with her mind firmly concentrated on the attributes of the Buddha and his teachings, she bowed down to the spirit images. The next moment, the whole assembly of grotesque images, as if unable to stand the pure thoughts permeating Dalla’s mind, fell down pell-mell from their altars and broke into pieces.
The king, seeing the miracle, was filled with fear and remorse for having wronged a worshipper of the Buddha. He declared himself a Buddhist on the spot and proclaimed that all sacrificial rituals must be stopped. Dalla was showered with honors. Later, the king, to commemorate his conversion, built the reclining Buddha image, not only of prodigious dimensions but also of sublime beauty, on the very spot where the spirit images fell down.
Discovery after years of oblivion
The great image lay for many centuries in ruins until King Dhammaceti renovated it in the 15th century. Later King Bayinnaung, the builder of Mahazedi Pagoda, carried on with the maintenance work. It fell into neglect again and lay completely in ruins buried underneath the jungle growth.
It was only in the last years of the 19th century that it was discovered by accident. The recently established British government planned to extend the railroad to Bago. The contractor responsible for the supplies for the works found an immense mound of bricks in the woodlands. The contractor decided to avail himself of the opportunity.
With the gradual clearing of the jungle shrubs, the original form of the image was revealed, to the great excitement of the Buddhist community. Filled with wonder and religious fervor, they at once took steps to stop the sacrilege. The next thing was to restore the great image to its former grandeur and glory.
A discovery of an ancient Buddhist monument always has a tremendous effect on the devotees. It is neither interest in antiquity nor intellectual motivation that moves people to gather around the scene in large numbers. It is sheer exultation over a miracle one is privileged to see. The discovery of the reclining Buddha image was, to the Buddhist, a grand opportunity to give their unstinted service for its repair and renovation. Donations poured in generously. Many gave voluntary labor to do the jobs of clearing the jungle and carrying bricks and materials to the work site.
The overwhelming faith and enthusiasm of the people very soon turned the mound of ruined bricks into a thing of awe-inspiring beauty, the reclining Buddha image of today.
A huge steel pavilion (tazaung), built in 1906, now protects the great image. Around the spacious precincts are rest houses and other facilities. There are also restaurants and snack shops in the vicinity.
Leaving the suburban area where the reclining image is, the car turns east to Bago town proper. On the way close by is the Kalyani Thein (Sima, or ordination hall), first consecrated and built by King Dhammaceti in 1456 A.D. The original Sima was a prototype of the famous Kalyana Sima of Ceylon. Fired with zeal to have Theravada Buddhism firmly installed in his kingdom, King Dhammaceti despatched a full chapter of Buddhist monks to Ceylon, where they were once again initiated into the order in Kalyani Sima according to the Theravada rites. On their return to Hanthawaddy, the said monks brought the sand of the Kalyani river of Ceylon, and after spreading it on the present site, had the ground duly consecrated, followed by the erection of the first Sima of the kind in this land of pagodas. Dhammaceti followed it up with the construction of 396 other Simas in his kingdom. The original structure is no more. A new Sima built in 1902 stands on the ground marked by white marble pillars, symbols of a consecrated ground.
The place is of great historical importance. The inscription, inscribed in Pali and in Mon, is a record of Dhammaceti’s work in the service of the Buddha’s teaching. He also did a great deal for the purification of the Buddha’s Order of the Sangha.
Entering Bago Town, the car crosses over the iron bridge spanning the tidal creek, one of the means of communication with neighboring villages, a rich hinterland. Timber logs, bamboo rafts, and huge barges laden with earthen pots, glazed wares, palm leaf roofing, fruits, vegetables, and other products are seen moored to the bank.
Taking the road straight east brings the visitors to the foot of the hill where the Shwemawdaw Pagoda stands. The original construction is ascribed to the merchant brothers who brought the hair relics from India during the Buddha’s lifetime, which is 25 centuries ago.
In 840, Kings Thamala and Wimala, founders of the Bago kingdom, raised the height of the original stupa to 88 feet. Successive kings carried on with the work of repairing, renovating and enlarging the pagoda. In 1796, King Bodawpaya raised it to a height of 297 feet.
The pagoda was shattered by three major earthquakes in 1912, 1917 and 1930. A great part of the bell-shaped dome and its superstructure tumbled down, and the terraces were damaged in the last tremor.
The great pagoda lay in ruins until after the Second World War. The State and the public then made earnest efforts to restore the pagoda. It was completed in 1954. The model is slightly different from the past: the height today is 375 feet, taller than Shwedagon in Yangon.
Several ancient Buddha images of stone and bronze were discovered from the ruined sectors of the pagoda and they are now exhibited in the museum on the pagoda platform.
The Shwemawdaw festival is held annually in April of each year.
Remains of the old city
Going down the stairs on the eastern side of the great pagoda, the visitor can see the remains of the old moat that once encircled the city, now a narrow canal covered with water hyacinth. The iron bridge over the old moat is the beginning of a pleasant path that leads to the foot of Hinthagone hill, where the history of Bago began with the two hintha birds landing on the small patch of land amidst the sea that patch of land, now a hill.
On top of the hill is a pagoda and the story of Bago is told in the sculptured figures of the two hintha birds, one perched on the other’s back. This legend of the founding of Bago is told at the beginning of this chapter. There are also some paintings done quite recently to represent the early history of Bago, the landing of the two hintha birds, the coming of the seafarers and their fights over the possession of the land.
With the gradual expansion of the Ayarwaddy-Sittong deltaic area, the little spot assumed the form of a hillock and came to acquire some historical as well as religious importance. It was on this hillock that the Reverend U Khanti, the hermit-architect of Mandalay Hill and Shwesettaw pagodas, built the present pagoda with contributions from the general public. The hillock has come to be known as Hinthagone, the roosting place of the two mythical birds, and forms an important historical landmark. It commands a panoramic view of the surrounding areas.