Ponnya grew up to be a fine young man who absorbed all the learning his master the learned monk taught him. His master was a much-respected teacher of the king, so Ponnya had to accompany him on his visits to the king’s court. The king could not help but notice the engaging personality of the young man.
Ponnya was soon given a place in the king’s court and he rose to be – a senior minister. One day, the king received from a distant land a bejeweled gold casket; he used it as a betel casket, in which he put betel nuts, leaves and other ingredients used by addicts of betel chewing.
From the time the king used the casket, he became afflicted with a mysterious disease. He consulted the astrologers and they said that there must be something inside the casket that made the king ill. So the king sent for the minister Ponnya and told him to see what was wrong.
Ponnya took the casket home and got a goldsmith to dismantle it. Then something happened, out of the crevices of the casket came the Buddha’s relics shining in a thousand iridescent colors. Ponnya and the goldsmith prostrated themselves filled with wonder and adoration.
Ponnya realized that donors of the casket had meant ill for the king. They had put the holy relics hidden in the casket so that the king would commit, though unwillingly, the act of desecration when he used the casket as a betel container.
It was late in the night; there was no time to go and report to the king. So Ponnya and the goldsmith took the relics to a hilltop, today known as Ponnyashin after the minister. Overnight they built a stupa with the relics enshrined in it.
It was Ponnya’s intention to go early in the morning to the king and bring him to the stupa. But even before Ponnya could get to the king, news had already reached the palace. Some jealous people had set the king against Ponnya, insinuating that the minister had done an act of treason.
And, as if to testify to the statement, a resounding clamor arose; when the king opened the window to look, he saw streams of people going toward the river which was filled with boats of all sizes and shapes. The air was rent with cries of the minister’s name, Ponnya, the builder of the new stupa. All the people were on their way to Ponnyashin hill, as it came to be called today.
The king shuddered at the thought that those people might easily be commanded to come against him and destroy him. He instantly ordered that the minister be arrested and put to death by drowning. Even as Ponnya was about to enter the palace to tell the royal master the good news of the stupa, he was met by executioners, who bound him hand and foot and took him in a boat to the middle of the river.
As soon as the funeral boat reached where the river was deepest, the executioners threw Ponnya into the river. That moment a miracle happened. The waters, instead of swallowing up Ponnya, circled around him in the shape of a lotus bud, and the minister was now miraculously free from his bonds.
The next moment all the boats carrying pilgrims to the stupa gathered round Ponnya with cries of cheer for him and vengeance for the king. Ponnya was soon taken aboard on one of the boats and all the people were at his command. Ponnya allayed their anger and made clear that he had nothing but absolute loyalty to his royal master.
So, finally, the king heard from Ponnya’s own lips the whole story of the relics enshrined in the stupa built overnight; the king, convinced of his minister’s loyalty showered honors on him; Ponnya remained a trusted minister to the end of his days.
There was one unique honor the king conferred on Ponnya. The important ritual of offering alms-food at the shrine at the break of dawn – the very first offering of the day – was to be done by Ponnya and no other; not even the king should deprive him of the right.
People say that the spirit of the minister Ponnya still does his daily dawn offering of alms-food at the shrine; no one has ever succeeded in offering alms-food earlier than that Ponnya himself does. If you go there with your offering, before dawn, you will find that someone has been already there before you. And who else but Ponnya, now dead for these four hundred years? This is why Ponnyashin Pagoda is called Soon-Oo Ponnyashin, “Shrine of the earliest dawn offering”.
So this was indeed the mission Ponnya, the son of Varuna zawgyi and the princess had to fulfill. Ponnyashin Pagoda is today one of the most revered shrines in the Myanmar Buddhist world.
After paying respects at the Ponnyashin Shrine, the pilgrim goes down the footpath shaded with champac trees, toward Zetavun Pagoda, built by the ogres tamed by the Buddha. Before he takes a boat up north, he looks toward the village called Yewunn, “Encircling Waters”, named to mark the place where the minister Ponnya, thrown into the river, was seen afloat amidst circling waters.