Pyay and Srikshetra

Pyay, as the original Myanmar name Pyi is transliterated, is a busy river port. The Myanmar often referred to Pyay as Thayekhitra, the Myanmarnization of Srikshetra, the name of an ancient Pyu city whose existence is testified by the discoveries near the village of Hmawza, 5 miles south of Pyay.

Situated on the east bank of the river, where the Nawin stream flows into the Ayeyarwaddy, it is 161 miles north of Yangon and is connected by rail and motor roads and the Ayarwaddy water highway. Pyay is placed right between the rich lands of the Delta in the south, and the Dry Zone, the land of peanuts, cotton, tobacco, sesame seeds toddy palms – on the north. With the navigable waterways and a network of motor roads sprouting in all directions, and the Yangon – Pyay railway and its branch running through the market towns that are centers of fish and paddy products, Pyay is a thriving trading post.

Pyay came under the British rule in 1852, after the Second Anglo-Myanmar war. In 1862, a great fire completely destroyed the town and it was rebuilt. The railway line reached Pyay in 1877. Throughout the last war, the town was the target of several air attacks. In spite of all these tribulations, the town retains its importance as a center of commerce and administration.

On the other side of the river, 9 miles south of Pyay is a small town called Padaung. From there, it is 39 miles by road to Taung-Gok (Taungup) Pass and 100 miles across the Yomas to the coast of Arakan, or Rakhine as it is called nowadays. This route is often taken by more adventurous holidaymakers bound for Ngapali, a palm-fringed seaside resort near Thandwe.

PHO-OO-TAUNG

Pyay attracts Buddhist pilgrims from all parts of the country. Situated at the confluence of the two rivers, namely the Ayeyarwaddy and the Nawin, and surrounded by thickly wooded ridges with their winding grottos, where spirits and gnomes once wandered, (and as many people still believe, they still do) Pyay and its environs spell their own magic.

For the Myanmar Buddhists, the site of Pyay is sanctified ground. According to the legend, the Buddha once sojourned on Pho-oo-taung, a hill on the other side of the river. The place in those days was a primeval forest inhabited by spirits and celestials, gnomes, fairies, and mythical beings. These sentient beings were filled with joy at being in the presence of the compassionate Buddha and they attended upon him during his stay, looking after his needs.

One day, the Buddha stood on top of the hill facing the river; he pointed to the place where Pyay stands today and pronounced that there would arise a prosperous city called Srikshetra where his teachings would flourish. It was the Buddha’s wont to visit places with such supramundane futures and let his proclamation be heard by the celestials of the place.

Celestials of all levels, high and low, on the Pho-oo-taung hill, rejoiced in the Buddha’s words. They were joined by birds and beasts who could not but come under the overwhelming love and compassion of the Buddha. The hills echoed with the song of birds. There was love and peace all around. The running prey and the chasing beast stopped in their tracks and nestled together in loving kindness. 

So that there should be concrete evidence for posterity, the celestials of the place built a pagoda on the hill. The Buddha gave them the hair relics to be enshrined therein.

Pho-oo-taung is 900 feet above sea level. There is an ancient pagoda supposed to be built by the celestials; it is sublime by the very fact that it had been untouched by human hands. It was only in the 11th century that the pagoda was allowed contact with human beings.

During the days of the glorious Bagan kingdom (11th century), the place was a center of much religious activity. The present structure is evidently the renovation done during the 17th century, as records reveal. The pagoda is called Pho-oo-taung Pagoda, after the hill on which it stands.

The Pride of Pyay: Custard Apples

Pho-oo-taung hill is thickly wooded with custard apple trees; the fruit is the pride of Pyay. In the monsoon, the trees bring forth small flowers, brown outside and yellow inside, fragile like the ethereal creatures and nymphs of the olden days. The trees bear fruit in September-October.

The custard apple is about the size of a fist. The rind is green and it is embossed with rows of undulating bulbs that conform to the boundaries of numerous sections of white edible pulp inside.

The enjoyment of this exotic fruit needs a special technique; each section of the pulp can be quite easily scooped out by just following the pattern on the rind. But ay, here is the rub; to relish its flavor, the eater has to suck the pulp off the tiny black seed, which is a potential danger to the gullet; the seed has to be spat out without breaking any etiquette rules, if possible.

The little morsel of the pulp on the seed, sweet and savory though it may be, melts in the mouth even before you begin to enjoy it. The temptation to put many seeds in one mouthful must be resisted, however tantalizing it might be.

SHWE SAN DAW PAGODA

About the same time that the pagoda on Pho-oo-taung hill was built, the celestials of the place thought it meets to build yet another pagoda. This time it must be built on the hill overlooking the site where Srikshetra was to be. This proposed commemoration of the retrospective glory of the city was commended by the Buddha, who gave them hair relics to be enshrined. 

Today “Shwe-san-daw” Pagoda (‘The Sacred Hair Relic Shrine’) as it is called, is one of the desired destinations of the Myanmar Buddhists. Shwedagon of Yangon, Shwemawdaw of Bago, Shwesandaw of Pyay – this trinity of shrines is the most revered of the Myanmar Buddhists.

Shwesandaw is 127 feet high and it is gilded all over. The hti, the iron framework on top, is richly encrusted with jewels. Of all the pagodas in Myanmar, few, if any, had gone through catastrophes, such as fires, inundations, air attacks and earthquakes like the Shwesandaw pagoda.

Thanks to the devotion and generosity of the people, the great pagoda retains its splendor, rising once more out of the debris and ashes. 

Close by the hill on which Shwesandaw Pagoda stands is a mammoth sitting Buddha statue recently renovated. The original structure began in 1919 and today it has risen to the height of 219 feet. It is of good proportions and is very beautiful.

SHWENATTAUNG PAGODA

Nine miles south of Pyay along the river is a small town, Shwetaung, named after the hill overlooking the town. It is well known for handwoven silk textiles and Shwenattaung Pagoda on the hill. It stands on the Yangon-Pyay motor road.

According to the legend, Shwenattaung pagoda was built about the same time as the Shwesandaw and Pho-oo-taung Pagodas; that is, the time when the Buddha proclaimed the future glory of Srikshetra city. The Buddha, in his great love and compassion for all sentient beings, did not limit his sojourn to places like Pho-oo-taung, the habitat of the celestials.

One day, he turned his steps toward the place where the town, Shwe-taung stands. There was, in those times, a small settlement of refugees from the north, who had run away from tribal wars. Before the advent of the Buddha, the people worshipped the hill, called the Golden Hill (Shwe-taung), believing that a great spirit was enthroned there. They celebrated a ritual feast in his honor every year in March.

It was during the festival that the Buddha stood on top of the hill; his aura streamed forth and the woods and the hill became steeped in thousands of iridescent beams. The whole place echoed with the sweet music of birds, who warbled their native wood-notes wild, in the sheer ecstasy of being in the presence of the Buddha. The people, celebrating the ritual feast, at first thought that it must be the great spirit of the Golden Hill showing up to them in person. They were so filled with wonder at what they saw that they prostrated themselves in reverence.

Only when they heard the Buddha speak did they realize that it was someone even far, far greater than the spirit of the hill. They became established in the Buddha’s teaching. 

The people became such ardent devotees that they could not bear the imminence of the Buddha’s departure. They made a lifelike statue so that they could pay their respects. Later, they thought it wiser to built a pagoda on top of the hill and enshrine the statue in there, so that, it would be safe from vandals and such dangers. The Buddha gave them hair relics to be enshrined in the pagoda.

The pagoda is called Shwenattaung after the hill on which it stands. Legend says that the kings of Srikshetra had maintained and renovated the structure. The earliest record dates back to 1281 when the pagoda was raised to a height of 66 feet.

The events that led to this auspicious occasion were Bizarre. The once glorious kingdom of Bagan was destroyed by the forces of Kubli Khan, and the then reigning Bagan King and his army retreated down the Ayeyarwaddy. At that time the king’s son had consolidated a stronghold at Pyay.

The king’s hope of finding a refuge in his son’s protection was never to be. On his arrival at Pyay, his barge was surrounded by armed men led by his son, who was determined to kill him. Before his death, the king made the last request that his jewels should be employed to renovate the Shwenattaung pagoda. It was within sight of the pagoda that he was killed.

The patricidal son fulfilled his father’s last wish and raised the original structure to the height of 66 feet.

In the 16th century, Tabin-shwe-hti, king of Toungoo, gilded the pagoda. He was at that time engaged in building a united kingdom. This involved him in much tribal strife and the place where Shwetaung and Pyay stand today was the scene of many riverine engagements. The king’s act of gilding the Shwenattaung pagoda is probably a celebration of one of these riverine victories.

In 1874, Uparaja, the son of King Bodawpaya who ruled Myanmar from 1784 to 1819, was on his way back from a campaign in Rakhine. He was the one who brought back the Mahamyatmuni Buddha statue, now in Mandalay, from Rakhine. He gilded the Shwenattaung Pagoda and built many shrines and rest houses in its precincts.

Shwenattaung Pagoda’s involvement in the country’s turbulent history goes on and on. There is a monument commemorating the separation of Myanmar from India in 1937 when Myanmar was given a new constitution by the British government. Being only 120 feet high, it is smaller in size than Shwesandaw, but its sublime beauty is breathtaking. The pagoda rises on top of the hill overlooking the deciduous woodlands, whose circular crenate leaves spiral up the hill in tiers of golden flounces in March, the festival time. No wonder the ancient people worshipped the hill as the Golden Hill.

NEIKBEINDA: A RETREAT AMONG THE HILLS

Three miles north of Pyay is a ridge of hills with thickly wooded ridges and glens wherein monasteries and nunneries lie half-hidden. When dappled dawn has scarce arisen, there come out of the shrubby glades, yellow-robed monks in twos and threes. They have black alms bowls cradled in their arms. As they walk on with downcast eyes, lay folk come out with alms food as if out of nowhere. 

The monks stop only for a moment to receive the offering and walk on in silence. The lay folk stay on to wait for other groups to come their way. It is merely for a few moments and then they all melt away.

The woodland is empty but for the soft beams of the morning sun. It is as if the monks and the lay folk have never been there at all. This place, called Neikbeinda Retreat, can be reached by a somewhat rough country road. This retreat offers the devotees of Pyay occasional peace and quiet, away from the stress of their workaday lives. People from other towns often come and stay there for spiritual as well as physical repose.

Neikbeinda Retreat, in its quiet way, is a center of religious activity. On the days of Buddhist observances, such as the Buddha’s Nativity in May, people from Pyay town come here to celebrate, with the usual alms-giving to the reverend sangha.

MINGYI-TAUNG: WHERE THE STORY OF SRIKSHETRA BEGAN

Down south of Pyay along the river is a ridge of hills with grottos and monastic retreats. This place is called “Mingyi-taung” (“Hill of Kings”). It is a special place for Myanmar because it was here that the events leading to the founding of the city of Srikshetra began.

Among the hills, there is a grotto, called Beydayi Grotto, named after the girl who was destined to play an important role in the history of the city.

Beydayi was only a small child when she was found by the hermit living in the hills. The hermit picked her up and raised her as his own child. She grew up to be a beautiful maiden. The hermit then thought it unseemly to have har around the whole day.

So he devised a plan to keep her away from the grotto which was the hermitage. He gave her a huge gourd shell with a tiny hole at the top and told her to go down to the river and fetch water. The plan worked. Beydayi went down to the riverside and dipped the gourd shell in the water and waited for it to fill, and not surprisingly, it took the whole day. She came back to the grotto late in the afternoon.

Today the toy shops on the steps of pagoda sell small gourd shells each with a tiny hole on top. Encased in woven cane work and fitted with sling loops, they make attractive playthings for the young and not so young. It is supposed to be the replicas of the shell Beydayi used in those ancient times.

The grotto, now called Beydayi Grotto, has sculptures representing the daily life of the hermit and the girl. There is a narrow gully, now blocked, which people say, used to be open down to the riverside, and that it was the subterranean pathway the girl took daily to the river.

This story often comes to life in plays, poems, and songs and in decorative motifs on lacquerware and silverware. The scene where the girl meets the two princes floating down on a raft on the river is a favorite with artists. Of course, the girl must meet someone to break her monotonous routine.

Love that comes a long way

The thread of romance that comes into the story of Beydayi and her gourd shell began in the old city of Tagaung up north, an ancient site which many Myanmar today claim as the cradle of Myanmar History.

The story of the two blind princes Maha Thambawa and Culasa Thambawa began at Tagaung, the legendary Myanmar capital on the Ayeyarwaddy river up north. The kingdom was ruled by a Queen who had a lover, a fire-breathing Naga prince. He took the form of a young man and visited the Queen every night. The Queen’s lover would not have any rival. All attempts to marry the Queen and seize the throne were foiled. Finally, a brave and clever man came forth and killed the Naga prince with a stratagem. He put a stem of a banana tree on the queen’s couch and hid himself behind the arras holding a sword. When the Naga prince came, he was enraged to find someone lying in the Queen’s bed. So he resumed his Naga form and struck the interloper with his mighty fangs. The fangs sank into a banana stem, and before he could free himself the hero came out and cut him to pieces with his sword.

So Maung Pauk Kyine, this being the name of the hero, became King and married the Queen, who could not get over the loss of her Naga lover. She had her servants make the skin of the Naga into pillows and mattresses and cushions. The powerful scent of the Naga’s body was such that her twin sons were born blind. The young princes were unwelcome reminders of the Queen’s love affair, and they were also considered unworthy to be heirs of the throne. So they were put on a raft and floated down the river.

Fortunately for Beydayi, the princes, when they reached Pyay, had already regained their eye-sight, an event which brings yet another yarn into the main plot, as follows:

It so happened that the raft on which the two princes were riding got caught in the branches of a flowering acacia tree at a place where today the old town Sagaing stands, on the west bank of the river. Sagaing is joined today to Mandalay by the Inwa bridge. People say that it was how the town got the name Sagaing (pronounced “Sitkaing”) which means “Bending Acacia Tree”.

While the two princes were having their meal, they became conscious of an extra pair of hands. They immediately got hold of the offending limb and demanded whose it was. Instead of a formidable enemy, it was a nymph who had seen them from her flowery perch on the acacia tree. She had playfully trapped the raft in the branches and made her presence known by sharing their meal. She had a knowledge of herbs, so she offered to cure the princes of their affliction.

The princes took the nymph with them as they floated down south. Under her treatment, the princes regained their eyesight. By that time the younger prince and the nymph had become lovers. When they came to the place where now the town of Magwe stands, they had to leave the nymph, for she was enceinte and her time was near.

As for the two princes, as sons of a royal house, they had a mission to fulfill, that is to search for new lands and to found a kingdom. So they went on their way, leaving the nymph. The younger prince, of course, made promises, the usual ones men make to girls they meet on the way.

Now to Beydayi

The next stop was where they met Beydayi at her daily vigil by the riverside. This time, the elder prince sprang to action even before the younger brother knew what was happening. He went to the girl and asked her what in the world she was doing with a huge gourd shell. The girl answered she was only trying to get water. What a stupid thing to do, the prince said. So saying he broke open the gourd shell with his trusty sword.

That day Beydayi came back to the grotto much earlier than usual. The hermit demanded an explanation. Hearing from the girl what had happened the hermit told her to bring the princes to him, so the two princes presented themselves before the hermit, who saw that they were no mean persons but sons of a royal house. The elder prince asked the hermit for Beydayi’s hand in marriage. They were duly married, but the prince died shortly after. So, Beydayi was given to the younger prince. They had a son, Duttabaung, a man destined to greatness.

THE FOUNDING OF SRIKSHETRA

Duttabaung, the son of Beydayi and the younger prince of Tagaung was destined to be the founder of Srikshetra city, according to the legends, about 2400 years ago. Now, the celestials who had heard the Buddha’s prophecy were still living, their life span being much longer than that of the humans. They took it to be their sacred duty to help Duttabaung to build the city and to fulfill the promise of prosperity and the flourishing of the Buddha’s teaching.

All the spirits led by Thagyarmin, the king of the celestials, came round to help Duttabaung build the royal city. Thagyarmin drew the city plan by standing right in the middle of the site as a huge dragon slithered around pulling a rope to draw a circle.

Archaeological discoveries indicate the existence of a Pyu city, Srikshetra, five miles south of Pyay. The Pyus were early immigrants into Myanmar and they had already settled in the central part of the country by the beginning of the Christian era. Archaeological evidence indicates that Srikshetra attained its height of prosperity between 500 AD and 900 AD.

Excavations reveal the ancient city to be roughly circular in shape, the circumference being eight miles and a half. Some sections of the massive walls built of large baked bricks stand today to a height of 15 feet. Excavations and explorations around the city yielded valuable antiques, revealing close contact with South India. Some of them are now in the museum, site in Hmawza village. Some are now in the National Museum in Yangon. A number of large and important temples and pagodas are still intact.

The earliest inscriptions in Myanmar are found at Srikshetra. Some readable and datable inscriptions suffice to establish the fact that Theravada Buddhism was flourishing in Srikshetra.

A RIVAL KINGDOM: BEIKTHANO CITY

Now the story of King Duttabaung of Srikshetra picks up a loose thread, which was left untied when Duttabaung’s father left his mistress, the forest nymph who had cured his and his brother’s blindness.

In the course of time, the nymph bore a daughter named Panhtwar. She was destined to be a great queen; she was loved by the celestials of the place, who later helped her found a city named Vishnu, or Beikthano as the Myanmar called it.

Beikthano city came out of the veils of legend and myth when excavations around ruins lying some twelve miles west of Taungdwingyi in Magwe district revealed the existence of yet another ancient Pyu city, a contemporary of Srikshetra.

Remains of the immense fortifications and objects of antiquity, coins, urns, and other artifacts bespeak the greatness that was once Beikthano. They also establish that links existed between the city and Srikshetra and that the Beikthano civilization probably pre-dates Srikshetra. Beikthano, as the excavated remains indicate, stood on higher ground, 330 feet above sea level, overlooking the fertile plains irrigated by streams which eventually flow into the Ayeyarwaddy.

The city could wield considerable power over the plain from its strategic position on a western outlet towards the water highway, the Ayeyarwaddy. Beikthano, with its rich fertile hinterland, was right on the India-China overland trade route, its vicinity was convenient for merchants and adventurers to go down south to the sea by the river Ayeyarwaddy. The prosperity and the power of Beikthano city, being a potential rival to Srikshetra, is seen in the nucleus of facts.

The legend says that the power of Duttabaung grew, as it certainly would while he was situated in rich fertile plains and lush forest lands. Many states and settlements came under his rule.

Only the city of Beikthano stood defiant, ruled by the proud queen Panhtwar, his own half-sister, the daughter of the nymph whom his father loved and deserted.

Duttabaung made many attempts to bring the city under his power, but he failed. A ridge of hills rising up to 750 feet runs between the river and the city itself. Down that ridge, the area of approach towards the city was a labyrinth of streams and rivulets with their unpredictable ways meandering in all directions. This was a natural protection against any hostile approach.

As excavation reveals today, the rhombus-shaped city had formidable walls built of large baked bricks. The gateways gradually curve inwards. The arms and ramparts on either side of the entrance passage extended to about 86 feet.

There are traces of a well-planned interior Residential areas with the palace and houses, religious edifices and monasteries, and the irrigated agricultural grounds with lakes and canals; all these are found to be carefully worked out, each in its own sector.

The archaeological discoveries point out the possibility that the city would have been well provided with food and water, adequate support in times of long sieges.

Duttabaung was determined to subjugate the city and its proud queen. When his attempts failed he resorted to machiavellian tactics, of espionage and sabotage. At long last it paid off. He sacked the city and brought the proud queen to Srikshetra and made her his consort.

Charred remains of the wooden gates, rusted iron sockets and crumpled walls standing to a height of 15 feet today are a silent testimony of the city’s fate in the lands of the besiegers.

The Queen’s Revenge

Now came the tragic sequel. Queen Panhtwar could not forgive Duttabaung for the shame and humiliation he had brought on her. Though loved and cherished she could not accept the status of a queen consort – she, who once ruled over a powerful, prosperous city, a queen in her own right. She thought of ways and means of taking her vengeance.

It so happened that the king had a long silvery hair in the middle of his forehead. This strand of hair curled up into a small coil which shone like a jewel. It was believed that this coil of hair was the king’s charisma and that the king’s power lay in there. The king was called ‘the King with Three Eyes’, the coil of hair making the third eye.

The queen devised a plan, a very ingenious plan it was. She stitched three black fines on the train of her skirt and called them ‘eyes’. Other ladies followed the royal fashion. So the three eyes, the symbol of the king’s power and mystique, became but a trimming on women’s skirts.

From that time on, the king became an object of ridicule. People came to regard him with contempt. He no longer had the power to rule over his subjects. He died very shortly, a broken man. The queen met her death at the hands of the king’s friends, who wreaked their vengeance on her, an alien woman whom they had mistrusted and resented.

These personalities and events, though beyond authentication, are very much alive. They often penetrate the mists of legend with tremendous force and vividness in songs, poems, and plays. There are still many places which bear the mark of their eventful history.

Near Shwetaung, there are villages with strange names which people say were so named to commemorate a royal visit of King Duttabaung and his queen Panhtwar. There is not a pagoda in the neighborhood that does not have a legend of being visited by King Duttabaung and Queen Panhtwar, who are listed to be the donors of jewels for the relic chamber and other shrines.

And one more thing survives. The eyes or the three black lines are still seen today on the train of the richly embroidered wrap-around, which makes up the ensemble of a Myanmar lady’s ceremonial dress, usually worn by brides and prima donna doing classical dances. The three black lines still bear the name ‘eyes’ as named by the proud Queen of bygone days.

BEIDAYI

 

The great hermit   the father

to send the daughter away   the whole day long

makes her carry   the stream water

in a brown gourd   water won’t get in.

 

Father’s orders!

nothing to be trifled with.

Young Beida goes out   every day

days in   days out   days pass by.

‘Why such poor lot?’

perhaps she wonders.

 

Has fortune smiled   on her?

The Thambawa brothers come

Out of the blue   their raft puts in

the way this child of nature meets her love,

this sweet young girl Beida:

This legend of gourd   and its enlarging

I’ve heard it told

 

But

I feel the truth   in the tale

I long to see   it happen in life and

I make it out   in my imagination

how the elder Thambawa

would take the gourd   from her

and with his sword’s point   all at once

would push   and turn   and make big the hole

while all the time   the girl Beida

her face glittering   with blushes

how she would look away   to smile

And how I’d love to see it.

Poet: Htin Lin, Translated by Maung Tha Noe

AUTHOR: KHIN MYO CHIT, BOOK NAME: A WONDERLAND OF PAGODA LEGENDS, CHAPTER FIVE: PYAY AND SRIKSHETRA

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