If King Bodawphaya of the last Konbaung dynasty had not harbored such grand ambitions, Mingun would have remained an obscure hamlet nestling quietly on the west bank of river Ayeyarwady, a few miles north of Sagaing. Moreover, with the solemn efforts of the Venerable Mingun Sayadaw Ashin Vicitta, the pre-eminent Guardian of Tipitaka (the three baskets of Buddhist Scriptures), Mingun’s reputation has all the more become indelible.
To speak of Mingun is to speak of King Bodawphaya, and to speak of King Bodawphaya is to speak of his imperial superlatives: the longest-reigning monarch (1782-1819) ruling the broadest frontiers of the last Konbaung Kingdom, the builder, and donor of both the largest pagoda and the biggest bell at Mingun. So the grandiose dreams of the King had put the small village onto the historical and cultural map of our nation.
In terms of history, Mingun’s rise to fame is quite recent when compared to its well-known environs, Sagaing and Innwa. And the contributions of the Mingun Sayadaw, who had successfully recited 7,983 pages of the Three Pitakas and received the most prestigious title of “the Guardian of Dhammas”, has made the little place a glorious milestone in the chronicles of Theravada Buddhism.
The Rural Setting
When you reach the Ma-Yan-Chan jetty at the western end of 26th street in Mandalay, you feel somewhat a throwback to the past. Standing on the earth embankment and before going down the little-steep dusty incline to the water’s edge, you will suddenly find yourself facing a rural landscape with all the raw trappings and ravages of nature. Angry and unruly during the rainy season, the broad old Ayeyarwady has eroded its either banks and flooded all the low lying adjacent area which become “kaing” cultivation land (land formed through a process of silting) for seasonal crops when floodwaters recede. Even the large islands, on which are small villages with houses on stilts, are submerged and pose problems for the riverine traffic.
Across the river in the distance are the brown, bramble-clothed hillocks of Minwun range dozing off like huge serpents under the setting sun. Apart from rainy months, the river is quite tame for most of the year, and the riot of colors in the evening twilight reflects on the cool, clear waters of the Ayeyarwady. And various are the river traffic which plies along the navigable narrow water lane: few double-decked steamers with twin back-paddles, low-canopied motorboats with old outboard engines, small sampans with sails, and timber and bamboo rafts on which are merchandize of glazed and earthen pots. Traveling upriver a few miles north, the sun-baked, red-brick solid square structure looms forlornly and majestically against the brown hills on which stands a solitary pagoda, the Shwe Myin Tin Pagoda.
Unlike Sagaing, the hills of Mingun are not close to the river, and between the bank and the backdrop of hills, there is much space – a stretch of dusty, sandy and rising mound leading to the hills. Bullock carts are still used to go along the sandy tracks, and Chaungs (forest monasteries and nunneries) are hewn out from the lower ledges of the hills and are sparse in number. In the dry season when the water level is lowest, it is difficult for the vessels to dock close to the bank, for there are sand bars under the shallow water, but there is a motor road through Sagaing which runs to Mingun on the west side of the Sagaing Hills. And once you step on the banks of Mingun you are part of the idyllic life – the quiet and easy pace of life amid the rustle of the shady foliage under the decaying grandeur of the huge Pa-Htoe-Taw-Gyi (the Great Royal Pagoda).
The Unfinished Dream
If King Bodawphaya’s dream materialized, the Great Mingun Pagoda would have had a height of about 530 feet surpassing in size, height, and thickness of the temples of Bagan. But at present, the Pagoda is 162 feet high up to the upper terrace, and the solid square base is 450 square feet. And from above this faded-red Pagoda base you could command in every direction the panoramic landscape of “Anyar” (Upper region): the placid river with its sandy islands and further across in the eastern horizon the blue rolling mountains of Shan Highlands, in the west the arid plains of Anyar with few patches of toddy palm groves scattered here and there.
In late 1790, King Bodawphaya left his capital Amarapura, which he founded, and took up his temporary royal residence on the Nan Taw Kyun island in the river-facing Min village. When he laid the foundation to construct the huge pagoda, he also changed the name of the village to Mingun. The King personally supervised the building of the Pagoda for over a decade and a half, but he left it unfinished. For there appeared a Tabaung (a sort of prophecy interpreted form the random utterances of children, actors, and madmen) that predicted the fall of the kingdom on completion of the Great Pagoda. And probably that might have rudely awakened the King from his imperial dreams.
When you reach the upper terrace of the Pagoda you will see huge yawning cracks cutting deep into the solid base, and it was the damage done by the severe earthquake of 1838, which also partly destroyed the two big Chinthes (figures of mythical lions) guarding the Pagoda. The two Chinthes were built in 1793 with a height of 95 feet and the eyes were 9 feet in width. When Hiram Cox, the British Envoy, visited Migun on 12 February 1797, the eyeballs of these two big mythical lions were not as yet set in place. Now, only the haunches of these two Chinthes are to be seen, but the huge remnants of the pagoda and the mythical lions still testify to the architectural skills of the Amarapura period.
The Big Bell
The role of the bell in the religious life of Myanmars is as old as the history of the ancient kingdoms. The little bells, gold, and silver, were hung at the Htis (spires) of the pagodas, but the King dreamt of a bigger one. The Mingun Bell was cast in 1808, eighteen years after starting the construction of the Great Pagoda. It was cast on the Nan Taw Kyun island and was transported to the present place near the pagoda, and it was believed to be the biggest in the Orient at that time. It had a height of 12 feet, and the diameter of the mouth was 16 feet weighing about 90.5 tons. First, it was suspended on a teak beam supported by brick pillars, and it also fell off in the earthquake of 1838. And now it is hung on an iron beam.
Refuge for the Second Childhood
When you go up the bank from the Mingun jetty, you will find yourself in a neat compound with dormitory-like buildings, the Mingun Buddhist Home for the Elderly. Inside, there are elderly men and women, their leathery faces deeply lined and wrinkled, spending out peacefully their twilight years, the brief span of years that one writer calls “the second childhood”. The institution was founded late 1914, and it was the pioneering effort of Daw Oo Zun who devoted her whole life to this noble task till her death in 1944.
Born in 1868, when King Mindon was on the throne, Daw Oo Zun was the only child of silk merchant parents in the capital, Ratanabon Mandalay. When she reached adolescent, her parents left her cozy little world, but not without means. And that anguish of separation made her feel a deep sense of compassion for the lonely elders who were without means and were as fragile as cobwebs, and who were like children to be cared for and protected.
Once on a visit to Yangon, she had a chance to observe the Bigandet Aged Home for the Poor on Stockade Street (now Theinbyu Street) run by French Catholic Nuns. Inspired by her four visits to the Aged Home for the Poor, the daughter of Lord Buddha shared the compassion of the daughters of the Church in setting up a home, the first at Mingun for the underprivileged elders.
A Touch of Idyll
Sagaing and Mingun share the southern and northern parts of the same range of hills, but for some reasons, Mingun retains the idyllic touch of rural life. The villagers still lead their easy pace of life under the shadows of the Mingun range, on whose highest peak of 1,373 feet stands the lone Shwe Myin Tin ancient pagoda. In winter mornings the Pagoda is mostly shrouded under the heavy mists, and it casts an irresistible lure to scale its steep cliffs. Seen from the river, Mingun is a classic pastoral portrait of Anyar rural scene, a foothill village dotted with white and gold pagodas and framed by the broad river and the hills. About two miles along the bank in the south there is the Momeik Pagoda, a donation of Prince Momeik, one of the sons of King Bodawphaya who accompanied the King during the building of the Great Pagoda. And nearly half-way to Momeik Pagoda is the Nat Shrine of Kyun Pin Maung Hna Ma (Brother and Sister Spirits of the Teak Tree) who fell victim to the falling huge teak tree, and whose Nat Festival is held yearly in the preceding week of the famous Taungpyone Nat Festival.
In the north of the Great Pagoda is the Mya Thein Tan Pagoda built by King Bagyidaw, the grandson of King Bodawphaya. This Pagoda is unique in its circular structure form, the Pagoda itself, with its round outer wall, has seven circular tiers tapering towards the sky. The whole structure represents Mount Meru and the Universe and symbolizes the concept of Myanmar cosmology as written in religious literature.
During the reign of King Mindon, Colonel Sladen, the political officer who took part in the dethronement of King Thibaw, visited and wrote about the Pagoda in the Journal of Great Asia Society. The Mya Thein Tan Pagoda is a pleasant place for the pilgrims and visitors to cool their sweat and that is why the Venerable Mingun Sayadaw had said, “The Great Mingun Pagoda lures the travelers, and Mya Thein Tan Pagoda cordially welcomes them”.
The Hermitage Exemplar
Forest monasteries and nunneries or Chaungs are one of the unique features of Minwun range, and Mingun has just over a hundred Chaungs, roughly a fourth of the number at Sagaing Hills. The Taung Paw Gyi Chaung or U Pu Gyi Taw Ya (forest Monastery on the hill or U Pu Gyi Hermitage), donated by a wealthy resident of Innwa called U Pu Gyi during the Amarapura period, was built on top of a shady hillock with long brick-stairways and a thick brick-handrail to help the pilgrims climb on to the monastery. There is also in it the Dhamma Ceti Pitaka Taik, the most ancient library in Mingun housing at one time a collection of 1,263 Parabeiks or palm leaf manuscripts, a beautiful bell of nearly two centuries old and a pond in the ravine south of the hillock dug up by the royals lend grace to the solemnity of the place. And from that top of the hillock, you could wend your way up along the forest trail through the brambles to the peak where the Shwe Myin Tin Pagoda had once offered quiet refuge to ‘the famous recluse sayadaws’. Like moonlit nights on Sagaing Hills, the moonbeams cast the whole silvery panorama in sharper focus: the tops of the hillocks, its ravines, and gullies, the river with its sandy islands, the flat plains of Mandalay receding into the distant Shan Highlands. And the total silence, fragrant with wildflowers, touches you deeply as you could feel and hear every faint rustle of the swaying bushes, or the roaring wind coming up from the ravines.
Just over 200 years ago a king had pursued his grand dreams and made part of his dreams come true. But Mingun is still a pastoral poem, and it needs a simple dream to appreciate its theme and its beauty. It is said that life is an unending dream, and after all, in this age of hustling dreams it is good for the soul to have such a simple one, isn’t it?