The Sagaing District is squarely in the arid zone so it receives scant rain. But the big rivers like the Ayeyarwady, the Chindwin, and the Mu are a great help as the cool breeze from the riverside makes for a pleasant climate. It is rather sultry in March and April only.
The region is significant because there had appeared royal cities — Sagaing, Pinya, and Innwa — after the fall of Bagan. Those ancient cities, as well as the Sagaing Hills, are still adorned with numerous beautiful pagodas and religious edifices thanks to devout Myanmar kings and people.
The original name of the Sagaing Kingdom is Zeyapura (City of Victory), founded by Athinkhayar Sawyun in 684 Myanmar Era (14th century). The traditional rhymed saying to memorize the above years “Tharyar Waing, Sagaing Ti” describes the region in a nutshell because it means the location of Sagaing is surrounded on all sides by the most beautiful scenery.
The origin of Sagaing itself is botanical. Legend has it that long, long ago the raft carrying the two blind princes — Sula Sambhava and Maha Sambhava who were twins — was stopped by an arching branch of a sit tree (Albizzia procera) mid-stream so an ogress named Candamukhi was able to come aboard to partake of their food. She was then caught in the act, but she soon restored their eyesight. Sit means the abovementioned tree while kaing means arching or bending over. Hence the name sit-kaing (pronounced Sagaing). In fact, Sagaing virtually means Sagaing Hills to any visitor.
Along the middle of Myanmar, the Bago Yoma range runs north to south. However, the Ayeyarwady River crosses it where it tapers off, between Sagaing and Innwa. The portion of northern Bago Yoma from Sagaing to Ohn-tazin village up north is called Sagaing Hills, with heights ranging from more than 700 feet to 1,373 feet.
The Sagaing Hills comprises low hills and not so low hills, sparsely covered with trees. But with the Ayeyarwady snaking along its base the weather is just fine, not to mention an inexhaustible supply of potable water from the river. The scrubby, rocky terrain is no cultivator’s land. So over the ages, the area had been exempt from the royal tax, its nooks and secluded places being only fit for monks, nuns, and devout persons to practice the Dhamma.
The Region’s Beauty
Mandalay and its environs including Sagaing Hills, the Ayeyarwady, and the Duthtawady (Myitnge River) are undoubtedly the most beautiful region to a Myanmar if not a foreigner. Poets and songwriters of fame used to wax lyrical about it, yet with somewhat religious undertones. It seems a place of perfect Myanmar life or Buddhist culture.
The scenery is spectacular all the year-round: in summer many flowering trees are in full bloom, in the rainy season the numerous whitewashed pagodas nesting in the hills are observed against a leaden sky, and in the cold season with the Sagaing Hills. So the region is possessed of a particular beauty of its own during each season.
Again, two man-made structures nearby add to the beauty of Sagaing Hills, especially when observed from atop the highest peaks. They are the Innwa Bridge spanning the Ayeyarwady and the Kaung Hmudaw Pagoda with its unique design. The beauty of the two is such that they have won world fame.
The Sagaing Hills might bring to mind pockets of peace and quiet but they are never far from the madding crowd. The town has been a hub of traffic for many decades ago. It is linked to all parts of the country by motor road, rail, air, and waterway. The newly constructed international airport is also just across the Ayeyarwady.
Sagaing is only 12 miles from Mandalay. Now that the Innwa Bridge is open around the clock, Sagaing is just like a suburb of Mandalay. The toll gate at the bridge charges only a small sum for its use. There is a bus service running from early morning to nightfall. So visitors to Mandalay can visit Sagaing Hills during the day, with no need for overnight accommodation at Sagaing.
What’s more, there is even a motor road on Sagaing Hills so that the second highest peak with its famed Soon U Ponnyashin Pagoda is reachable by car. This is the preferred mode of transportation for virtually all visitors.
But, if you will, the traditional method of climbing up the stairway remains optional. Visitors come to the foot of the range from downtown Sagaing in a pony-cart, then climb up the long stairway enjoying the panoramic view all the while.
The most famous pagodas in the Sagaing Hills are Soon U Ponnyashin, Oo-Min Thonze, and Padamya Ceti. A visit to Soon Uo Ponnyashin is always a must. Seen from the spacious platform of this pagoda, the panoramic view is simply magnificent. You can enjoy at one stroke the cityscape of Mandalay, the Ayeyarwady and the Duthtawady, Kywetnaphar mountain, the foothills of the Shan plateau, the gorgeous Innwa Bridge, and the massive Kaung Hmudaw Pagoda, etc..etc.
What does the epithet of this pagoda mean? Legend again says that however early in the dawn after the full moon one may make an offering of food to the Buddha at this pagoda, he is always preceded by a similar action performed by the devas (celestials).
Again, both the Soon U Ponnyashin and Oo-Min Thonze are much adored by those in the employ of the State. It is believed that if a government worker worships or meditates in such and such a manner at those pagodas, his troubles disappear and his fortune picks up. So the pagoda board of trustees has made arrangements to cater to their belief.
The Padamya Ceti sits atop the highest peak (834 feet) in Sagaing Hills. It is said to be a donation of King Asoka. The pagoda is famous for its festival which falls on the full moon of Tawthalin. The festival gets crowded all the more because on the same date is held the donation ceremony of the illustrious Malun Rice Donation Association which is over a century old.
Places of Religious Retreat
Sagaing Hills would be nothing without its nooks or places of religious retreat, going by the term Chaung (pronounced joung). “Chaung number in hundreds of thousands, or millions,” goes a popular song. Of course, it is a poetic license. The actual number is 536. There are separate chaungs for monks and nuns. Compared with the prewar period, seekers of the noble life are said to have nearly doubled.
The tradition of setting up a chaung dates back to the 14th century when two monk brothers moved in just after Innwa city was founded.
Sagaing Hills is a favorite spot with pilgrims coming from afar because of its pleasant natural surrounding and roaming opportunities all over the place. Numerous monasteries and chaungs are a good reason for merit-making activities to be held here, especially Kathina robe-offering ceremonies. One of the most famous is the Kathina ceremony held every year by stall owners of Zegyo Bazaar in Mandalay.
So festivities abound on the eve of the full moon of Tazaungmon with the climate at its best. Young people keep bustling about late into the night, visiting one chaung after another with their musical entertainment. The chaungs also seem always ready to give them refreshments.
The Kathina robe-offering is essentially meant for all members of the Order. Yet some monasteries remain without an offer of such a ceremony until the moon of Tazaungmon. In the Sagaing Hills, these monasteries are sought out on this day, and a Kathina ceremony is duly held for them. These ceremonies are called Moepaw-kya-Kathina, i.e. a Kathina coming out of the blue.
A traditional egg-tapping game attracted visitors at the Zina Mhan Aung Lawka Chanthar Pagoda festival, which is being held in Sagaing from 18 to 20 February. Visitors to the annual festival enjoyed the game in which two contestants tap boiled eggs against each other and the player who makes the rival’s egg crack is considered the winner. The winner also gets the losing player’s egg. If both eggs crack in the fight, the player whose egg is placed at the bottom is considered the winner. Boiled duck eggs were sold with a price of K250 per unit to contestants.
The folk game can be seen only at the Zina Mhan Aung Lawka Chanthar Pagoda in Sagaing. The festival aims to preserve the country’s intangible culture which is believed to date back to the time of Myanmar Kings. In their time, the king’s servants played the egg-tapping game at night, and it soon became popular. The festival is still popular today due to the game. The game is a part of the Buddha Pujaniya festival. Visitors also offered ration rice and offertories to Sanghas (Buddhist monks) as part of the festival.
In short, the Sagaing Hills has attractions in both practical terms and legends, many of which persist up to the present. Moreover, the general beauty of Sagaing Hills itself is just short of legendary.