Yangon: Gateway to the Wonderland
The gateway to the wonderland of Pagoda legends is Yangon, a town that has its own share of urban ugliness – steel and concrete, asphalt and noise. This might seem quite incongruous.
The great golden majestic Shwedagon looks on from the hill. But, forbear, traveler, not yet, if you please; because you cannot begin to enjoy the wonder of the great pagoda until you have met the mythical beings who were involved in its creation. They, these mythical beings are still extant as you will soon find out.
The satellite town of Okkalapa is named after the legendary king and founder of the kingdom of Dagon, as Yangon was called in days of yore. He was the king who was the builder of the stupa which later rose to be the Shwedagon of today.
MAI LAMU PAGODA
Mai Lamu Pagoda in North Okkalapa is the Shangarila where the story of King Ukkalapa’s mother, an ethereal maid of the woodlands, unfolds.
The place where the Pagoda stands today was an untamed rain forest, interspersed with tidal creeks, the habitat of crocodiles, as tigers and other beasts wandered on land. There an old hermit lived; so great was his compassion and loving kindness that he lived in peace with the fearsome denizens of the wilds.
The birth of Mai Lamu
One day wandering in the woods, the hermit saw an uncommonly large fruit on a Lamu tree (sonneratia caseolaris) the kind that grew in profusion in the marshes. He brought it to the Hermitage. Days later, a beautiful maid came out of the fruit. It was no wonder to the hermit who was familiar with the ways of his time: he knew only too well that the creatures of fairy tales, so pure and chaste, could only be brought into the world in this immaculate manner.
The hermit guessed that the girl had been sent by good, benevolent Nats (spirits) so that he could have someone to look after him in his old age. He called the girl Mai Lamu after the fruit whence she came. She was a good daughter to the old hermit. She gathered fruits and fetched water and did chores around the Hermitage.
It so happened that Mai Lamu had a greater mission to fulfill than looking after the old hermit. One day Thagyarmin, king of the celestials above, found that his downy couch, which was so soft that he sank to his waist when he sat on it, had become as hard as a stone slab. This was a portentous warning that he had something very important to do in the cause of the Buddha’s teaching.
This often happened, because Thagyarmin was the custodian of the Buddha’s teaching as he had been so commissioned by the Buddha on his deathbed. It is (present tense is used because Buddhists believe that it is so even today) Thagyarmin’s duty to see that people live according to the Buddha’s Way and also help and participate in activities in the cause of Buddhism.
King Ukkalapa and the Dagon Kingdom
Thagyarmin, awakened from his godly pleasures, looked down on the abode of humans and saw that the place where the hermit and his daughter lived would rise up to be a prosperous city called Dagon, where the Buddha’s teaching would flourish, and that Mai Lamu was destined to bear the son who later would be founder and ruler of Dagon kingdom.
Then Thagyarmin realized the part he had to play, namely, to be Mai Lamu’s lover and father of her illustrious son. So he took the form of a young man (handsome, of course) and manifested himself near the Hermitage. He wooed and won Mai Lamu, and with the consent of her hermit father, married her.
Thagyarmin could not stay in the abode of humans for long. He had to go back to the celestial regions above. Mai Lamu, pining for her lover, fell sick. Thagyarmin sent his trusty servant with a cask of holy water to Mai Lamu. The messenger took the form of a dove, and as he flew to where his master’s love was, he was attacked by a hawk, who was none other than Thagyarmin’s jealous queen.
Some drops of water fell into the sea, but the messenger managed to save the rest which duly reached Mai Lamu. She revived, and a son was born. Thagyarmin saw that the young prince, named Ukkalapa, grew up as a future king should, sending messengers to teach him all the princely arts. He helped him found the kingdom of Dagon, which grew to be a prosperous state under his rule.
The likenesses of Thagyarmin and Mai Lamu stand today on the precincts of the pagoda which, as the legend goes, was built by Mai Lamu. For many decades, the pagoda was lost among the growth of trees and bushes and its re-discovery is as fantastic as the story of its building.
The re-discovery of Mai Lamu Pagoda
Sometime in the 1950s, a young matron had a dream in which she met a good nat who told her to clear a certain spot and to repair the ancient stupa so discovered. She told her dream to reverent monks and lay devotees who immediately went on with the work of clearing the woodland.
They did not have to wait long to discover the remains of an old stupa, which had been clawed through by the predatory roots of the gnarled tree. Even if it were no miracle to find an ancient stupa among bushes and trees in this land of pagodas, it is by no means a small miracle to turn the place into a wonderland of aspired pagodas and sculptured figures, all done by voluntary donations starting with the smallest denomination of pyas.
Mai Lamu Pagoda is an overture to the Myanmar Buddhist legends – a blend of religious faith, superstition, folk culture, and animistic beliefs. Near the entrance stands the statue of a venerable gentleman in traditional colorful silk costume; he is a good nat, with his finger pointing towards the pagoda.
There is a smooth round piece of rock in front of that figure. This good nat is also an oracle: one might try to find an answer to some important question with his help. One just makes a small offering of flowers and respectfully recites a simple formula: “Please say that I shall get my wish by making the stone uncommonly heavy“. One then lifts the stone to see if there is any ‘uncommon heaviness’. Then, one reverses the formula and says “Please show that I shall get my wish by making the stone as light as feathers” and again sees what happens.
Maybe it is all wishful thinking and self-hypnotism – but it is more fun than pulling out the petals of a daisy reciting: “He loves me, he loves me not”!
Wandering among the tableaux of sculptures each of which tells an episode or story, the pilgrim is drawn into the Myanmar Buddhist system of cosmos and infinity of time. If the story of the building of Mai Lamu pagoda dates back for beyond authenticity, a stickler for facts might be even more aghast to be taken back into the abyss of time.
One of the sculpture groups shows the Buddha and his disciples walking in line towards a young hermit who lies prone right in the way. It is the Dipankara Buddha declaring that the young hermit would come forth into the world as Gotama Buddha after eons and several world cycles had passed.
Even as the visitor tries to work out how many Buddhas there might be – Buddhists believe that a Buddha comes forth once in several world cycles, each cycle spanning several eons – attention is attracted to the figure of a girl, with lotus flowers in hand, paying respects to the Buddha.
She is the weaver maid, who upon hearing the Buddha’s proclamation, was so moved that she made a wish to the Buddha that she might be the young hermit’s helpmate throughout his long journey of rebirths as he strove to attain Buddhahood. It is a love story that lasted millions of rebirths, until the pair was reborn as Prince Siddhattha and Princess Yododhara, twenty-five centuries ago, within the memory of recorded time.
This story should prepare the visitor for more stories wherein characters are born and reborn in various guises all accompanied by the deeds and wishes they had made as they progress through the cycle of rebirths. This principle of rebirth, one basis of Buddhist teaching, permeates all the legends.