A Short History of Kyaikhtiyo Pagoda
Kyaikhtiyo — the name spells magic, fantasy, and spiritual exultation to the Myanmar Buddhists, among whom the conversation often leads to the question: “Have you been to Kyaikhtiyo yet?”. It means: “You haven’t really lived until you’ve been there”. Among the Sino-Myanmar, to have been there three times means a realization of a life dream, and also a lifetime of blessedness and prosperity.
Kyaikhtiyo pagoda is about 18 feet high, built on a huge boulder 50 feet in girth, that rests precariously on a projecting tabular rock 80 feet high, which itself is separated several feet from the mountain edge by a deep chasm. It is an overwhelming sight to the Buddhists, not only as a marvel of nature but also as a grand manifestation of their ancestors’ faith in the teachings of the Buddha.
The area was known in the ancient days as Suvannabhumi or the Golden Land. It is to the north of what is known as the Tanintharyi. It is a coastal strip with its back to the mountain ranges along the peninsula which is shared by the southwest tip of Thailand and by Malaysia. It is where the two missionary monks Shin Sona and Shin Uttara landed after a perilous journey from India. Suvannabhumi is a picturesque country: rain forests and mountains on one side and the seashore lined with thousands of islands on the other.
To the non-Myanmar, the trip is exhilarating; the journey by train or car from Yangon, 100 miles along with the greenery of woods and paddy fields, includes a crossing over the Sittaung river by a beautiful suspension bridge 2,311 feet long. The first stop is Kyaikto, a small town, from where a bus route, nine miles long, leads to a base camp called Kinpun at the foot of the mountain ridge. There begins a seven and a half-mile stretch of mountain scrambling through the lush rain forests, towering hills, and rippling streams. Once the pilgrims reach Kinpun base camp, they see shrines with larger-than-life sculptures of nats, in the shape of venerable gentlemen in elegant old-style ceremonial costumes of silk, attended by monstrous-looking ogres and ferocious tigers.
From Kinpun camp, pilgrims begin their journey uphill. The place is a hubbub of activity, a wide stretch of woodlands of leafy trees and meadows, laced with cool clear springs. It is a welcome rest to the tired traveler. There, under the spreading trees, bullock carts stand at ease, propped on their shafts while the cattle graze nearby. There are zayats or rest houses where pilgrims may rest before their climb. Zayats is built by donors and pilgrims are under no obligation to pay anything for using them. Any contribution toward the upkeep is voluntary.
Festivals and con-men
During the festival season (October-March), the base camp is a trade fair. The long line of bamboo and thatch huts is an exotic bazaar where vendors from all parts of the country display their wares, mostly handicrafts, useful decorative things in cane, bamboo, and reeds. There are also medicinal herbs and animal products like horns, claws, and bones.
There are things that the Myanmar traditional lore recommends for home cures: for instance, tiger’s milk, the bile of boa-constrictor, tiger’s claws, and animal horns. Tiger’s claws worn around an infant’s neck are protection against infantile ills; tiger’s milk acts as immunization against infections, so does the bile of boa-constrictor. It is within reason that things like claws, horns, and bile can be obtained but, how on earth does anyone get tiger’s milk? Can anyone, with all the ingenuity humans are capable of, ever milk a tigress? We are enlightened, on this point, by the jungle lore which says that mama tigress, because of the roughness of her cub’s tongues, cannot bear to be sucked: so she lets her milk fall on leaves for her young to lap up. Tiger cubs, it appears, are not breastfed like other mammals.
Chances are that pilgrims will fall victim to con-men. I still remember with amusement an incident that happened to us many years ago while on a trip to Kyaikhtiyo pagoda. Our party was scrambling up the hill when a rough-looking hillbilly came out of a nearby thicket. He carried a basket on his shoulder; in the basket was the huge coil of a dead boa. We were very excited to meet a boa hunter in person; there was a chance to get genuine bile. We stopped the man to ask, but he was not very communicative, only eager to be off. He did not seem to understand what we said and he spoke a dialect with only a sprinkling of Myanmar words. It was sometime before reluctantly produced a few small sacs with black substances in them. One Mr. Know-all in our party said that it was, indeed, genuine boa bile. Then followed another fifteen minutes of gibberish and gesticulations. Finally, we did manage to get the sacs for a good price. When the man left, Mr. Know-all the poor did not really know the real worth of his wares. I felt guilty for having swindled the man.
Only when we showed off our acquisitions to the local people did we realize who it was that was swindled. We had been treated to a rare exhibition of showmanship: the dead boa in a basket; the man’s sinister look; his reluctance to speak and some gibberish. We had a good laugh at ourselves. I almost thought the man really had earned his money. It was a good show and we certainly paid a good price for it. If the con-men make an easy (or is it that easy?) living, there are others, who really earn it with the sweat of their brows – the porters and carriers. Porters carry the pilgrims’ luggage and the pilgrims who are unwilling or unable to make the long climb on foot.
Children are carried in cane baskets hanging from poles flung over the carriers’ shoulders. Adults go up in hammocks, a strong cotton blanket tied lengthwise to a bamboo pole and carried by two men. It looks like a nice ride; some even read a paper or a book. So, children and adults swing along merrily up the hill as others scramble up no less cheerily.
People usually begin their journey in the cool hours of the afternoon and as the darkening twilight closes in, bamboo torches light the way up. There are many stop-overs on the way where the forbidding inclinations give way to kinder slopes. There is a hut or two, where vendors sell things to chew. Some of the climbs are quite steep and challenging, especially to the residents of the flat-lands. They have expressive names like ”’Shwe-yin-so”’ (Heaving Chest) and “Pho-pyan-taung” (Old-man-turns-back-hill). There is a flow of pilgrims going up or down the path. Those coming down hail the up comers with words of encouragement; “Come on, the pagoda is just ahead,” or “You are doing fine – keep it up”. At one of the stops, called “Myin-daw-mu” (The View) pilgrims have a glimpse of the Kyaikhtiyo pagoda – something really exhilarating. The pilgrims then are convinced the trip was worth everything they had gone through. There, telescopes are available on hire.
After three miles of trudging, the pilgrims come to “Yay-myaung-gyi” (Big Stream Camp). There again are zayats where pilgrims may refresh themselves. Food and snacks and soft drinks are available at the shops. The highlight of the place is the deep, wide stream brimming with cool clear water, wherein pilgrims may dip. There are bathhouses, complete with mirrors and thanakha bark and stone stab to grind on. The thanakha paste, cool and fragrant, is a must in the Myanmar ladies’ beauty ritual.
Yaymyaunggyi has a magic of its own, for it was here that young queen, Shwenankyin, stopped on her way back from her husband’s palace to her parents’ home. She was the daughter of a Highland chief and King Tissa had fallen in love with her while he was in the locality building the Kyaikhtiyo Pagoda, two thousand years ago.
It was the custom of Shwenankyin’s family to make offerings to the family guardian nat on occasions like marriage. In the fuss and excitement of the royal favor; they forgot the traditional ritual. The king took the girl to his kingdom to be his queen. Later, Shwenankyin became pregnant and was sick most of the time. Her father heard of her illness and decided that it must be due to their failure to make the offerings to the family nat. He went to the royal city and asked the king’s permission to take his daughter home so she could offer apologies and ritual offerings to the nat. The king, though he did not quite believe the queen’s sickness was due to the nat’s anger, thought it wise not to go against the tribal customs of his subjects. And it would not do to have his young wife obsessed with superstitious fears.
So, Shwenankyin went along with her father. It was a long journey through the untamed forests. By the time they reached the “Big Stream Camp”, they had lost most of their retinue through sickness or in the jaws of wild beasts. There were only three of them, Shwenankyin, her father, and her brother.
The family nat now felt the family was within his power. He instantly set his tiger on them. As the tiger shot out of the thicket, Shwenankyin’s father and brother ran for their lives, leaving her alone. Heavy with child, Shwenankyin felt the only refuge would be the contemplation of the Buddha’s infinite compassion. She looked toward the Kyaikhtiyo pagoda, wherein her royal spouse had enshrined the Buddha’s hair and surrendered herself to her fate. The tiger retreated into the jungle leaving Shwenankyin unharmed: Separated from her brother and her father, she went on her journey until she came to the pagoda platform. Exhausted but filled with the ecstatic joy of looking on the pagoda, and contemplating the Buddha’s attributes, she happily laid herself to rest – forever.
Before she took her final breath, Shwenankyin made a wish to be near the pagoda for all time: she prayed that her body would never be removed from the place. When her sorrowing husband and relatives came to bury her, they found the body had turned to stone. Today, a shrine is erected to her memory. Her spirit is still there. She has become a nat that radiates love and goodness.
The pilgrims are helped along by good nats like Shwenankyin who lived in the memory of men and women and whose spirit rejoices in their good deeds. All-round are layers of hills and ridges, the hilltops floating like islets in the sea of billowy mists.
According to the legend, the pagoda was built by King Tissa, 2,500 years ago. The building of the pagoda was no small feat. It could not have been done but for the help and support of Nats. In this case, that of no less a nat than Thagyarmin, King of Nats, who came down from the lofty regions to make things possible.
King Tissa’s birth is a fantastic story. His father was a demi-god or Zawgyi, whose figure we see today on the puppet stage, a glamorous being resplendent in flaming robes. His mother belongs to the race of nagas, a kind of nat whose shape is a serpent and whose habitat was the sea; nagas with their godly powers can change themselves into any shape they wish.
One day, a Naga girl, who had lost her loved one, came to the human abode. She took the shape of a beautiful maid and wandered in the woodlands. There was a demi-god who lived in a cave near a hermitage. He was a disciple of the hermit whom he revered. He went daily to the hermitage and gave the hermit his personal service. The naga girl saw and fell in love with him. She was not sure how he would respond to her advances. Maybe he did not care for such pleasures, having the hermit as his mentor. So she went into his cave, while he was away at the Hermitage, and made a beautiful bed of fragrant flowers. She hid nearby to see what would happen. If the demi-god threw away the flowers, he must be above such pleasures.
Things went well. The demi-god enjoyed the flower bed and the naga girl, too. They lived happily. One day the girl laid an egg. Out of the egg grew a boy who was reared as the hermit’s own son. One day, the people of the hermit’s former kingdom came and asked him to come back and be king. The hermit, having no wish to do so, gave the boy to them to rule the kingdom, which prospered under him.
Tissa became a great king and he often went to pay his respects to the hermit. One day, the hermit sent for him and told him how once the Buddha himself had come to this land and had given him a tress of hair, which he had kept in his own hair-knot. Now that his end was near; he wanted it to be enshrined in a stupa. One of the conditions he wanted was that Tissa must find a rock that looked exactly like his head. On such a rock, a shrine must receive the Buddha’s hair.
It was a cue for Thagyarmin, king of nats to come down and help. He scoured the boundless sea beds to look for a stone that looked like the hermit’s cranium. He found one and the king, feeling he had to do his part in the great deed, asked Thagyarmin to allow him to carry the stone in his ship. The stone, the one on which the pagoda stands enshrining the Buddha’s hair, was taken on the king’s ship. As soon as the rock was placed on the precipice, the ship turned into stone because, after carrying such a sacred object, no lesser cargo must be allowed to defile the vessel. There, on the stone shaped like a boat, stand “Kyauk-than-ban” pagoda, (Stone-Boat pagoda).
Around the Pagoda
The story, fantastic as it is, is as real as if it had happened only a short time ago. All around the environs of the pagoda are testimonies. There is a cave whose entrance is shaped like a crow’s beak. There are Buddha images in there. Perhaps not quite appropriately, for the place was the scene of romance between the naga girl and the demi-god. It was in there that the naga made an inviting floral bed exotically scented to seduce the demi-god.
There are hills with names like Yathae Taung (“the Hermit’s Hill”) and Mokesoh Taung (“the Hunter’s Hill”). The cup-like marks on a stone slab tell the story of how a hunter, on meeting the hermit, knelt in respect and how he left his calling to become a good disciple. The cups on the stone slab show where his knees, rested.
There are springs and waterholes whose waters are believed to cure ills. People take the water home in bottles. To the north of the “Hunter’s Hill” are twin pagodas built on a massive stone slab. There are gold leaf vendors who also do the gilding which, in itself, is a breathtaking feat. The vendor takes the gold leaves and crossed to the stone slab, on which the pagodas stand, by means of a rope flung across a gap one hundred feet wide and fifty feet above the ground. The vendor hangs on to the rope with his hands and moves along, alternating his hands to move forward. He comes back the same way.
About a mile away from the “Twin Pagodas”, there is another set of twin pagodas, called the “Naga-paya” (“the Serpent Pagoda”) and “Pha-paya” (“the Frog Pagoda”). These pagodas commemorate an event that happened during the lifetime of the hermit, according to the legend.
One day a serpent was chasing a frog until they came to the environs of the Hermitage. So great was the hermit’s power of loving-kindness that the two stopped in their tracks, the predator without any desire to hurt, and, the prey without fear.
It is impossible to be in the vicinity of the Kyaikhtiyo Pagoda or any pagoda in Myanmar, and not be emotionally involved. There are hermits full of loving-kindness and virtue, the naga girl in search of romance, the demi-gods full of the joy of life, the nats both good and bad, and the all-powerful Thagyarmin, king of the nats; to put things right.
There’s fantasy, magic and adventure and very little, if any, history, — but who minds?