Sale, an Ancient Myanmar Town Steeped in Cultural Heritage by U Thaw Kaung
Visitors to the ancient capital Bagan often make a 20 miles trip south to see Sale, an ancient town rich in Myanmar culture.
There is a good metalled road to Sale going through the town of Chauk, a Myanmar oil-producing center. It is a pleasant drive from Bagan for a day trip, traveling across a rather dry countryside dotted with tall toddy palms.
As Sale is also on the great Ayeyarwady River, like Bagan, another pleasurable way to get there is to go by one of the small motorboats available for hire and which usually leave Bagan from the Bu-Hpaya jetty. Sitting in comfortable cushioned chairs you can watch the river crafts on the big waterway, once the only real lifeline of Myanmar, with all the old towns lining its banks.
Some say that Sale has ancient pagoda which dates from the Bagan Period. There are over a hundred ruins around Sale, but unlike Bagan, many of them have never been systematically studied by archeologists and historians. Sale seems to have been developed as a town in the latter part of the Bagan Period and has been a center of Myanmar culture for at least over 700 years.
For the present-day visitors, Sale is famous for its Yoke-sone Kyaung ( a 19th-century wooden monastery ) with exquisite wooden carvings, and also as the birthplace of one of Myanmar’s greatest poets and authors, Sale U Ponnya. In fact, since 1994, the Yoke-sone Kyaung also houses a museum to celebrate U Ponnya’s life and works.
Sale to the Myanmar people is also well-known for its zi-thee, the local plums, these tasty fruits are practical without the large seeds found in plums from other places. The plums are often dried and preserved and sent to towns all over Myanmar because the Sale plums are said to be the most delicious. Sale is also the town that has a fertilizer factory, producing fertilizers for the whole country.
This old monastery is from the last years of the Konbaung Period, the last dynasty of Myanmar kings. The rich carvings are therefore a good example of Myanmar art from that period.
Visitors should know something about the donor U Pho Kyi and about the learned monk U Guna for whom the monastery was first built.
U Po Kyi was born in Taung Tha town to the northeast of Bagan, and although not much is known about his forebears, local scholars think that he probably came from poor peasant stock. He became fairly rich by trading in leather and hides, a trade which at one time was in the hands of Muslim merchants as Myanmar Buddhists were reluctant to do business in animal products.
U Po Kyi started this trade in King Mindon’s reign (1853-78) and was still very much involved in the same trade at the time of the Annexation (January 1886) of Myanmar to India of British Emperor, when personal trading records that he left behind ceased.
Among his personal family records written on parabaik ( paper folding books ), there is an interesting case of dacoity when he was robbed in his house in Sale by armed men, during the time of King Thibaw (1878-85). U Po Kyi left behind records of what the dacoits took from him in 1882 and how he wrote to his influential patron at the Royal Court in Mandalay, Hle-Athin Atwinwun U Shwe Maung, to obtain help from the Myanmar Hluttaw Parliament. Some of the robbers were eventually brought to justice.
The First Presiding Sayadaw
The leading Sayadaw or Abbot of the Yoke-sone Kyaung Monastery, U Guna, was a leader of the Thudamma Sect, the main sect of Buddhist monks in Myanmar from the time of the Konbaung kings to the present. The Sayadaw was born in 1872 at Kon Saung village near Sale and his personal name was Maung Htaung. He became a monk from the age of 22, and later became the Thudamma Myoma Gaing Htauk Sayadaw, whom King Mindon and his Queen Sein-done Mibaya Gyi personally supported. Queen Sein-done had suzerainty over Sale and Talok towns. She first met Shin Guna in Amarapura while she was still a maid of honor and respected the learned monk all her life. King Mindon and his queen wanted the learned monk to come to the capital and reside in a Royal Monastery, but the Sayadaw did not accept the royal request as he wanted to practice religion as a “forest-dwelling monk” in tree-clad surroundings away from the busty life of the city, and he chose to stay on in Sale.
The rich merchant U Po Kyi and his wife Daw Shwe Thet supplicated King Thibaw for permission to build a big monastery modeled rather like the wooden palace of the Crown Prince with four stairways. The King not only acceded to the request, but he and his queen joined in the merit-making by giving a free permission to cut and take big teak trees from the Royal Forests. The best teak from forests near Rakhine Yoma hills was cut for the 154 big posts which formed the main supports of the monastery. It stretched 152 feet in length by 76 feet in breadth and had seven main rooms. Although the building of the monastery was started in 1882, the Third Anglo-Burmese War of 1885 and the subsequent years of unrest delayed the completion, so that about 12 years were spent in a building. In 1892 in the early years of the British period, the Dedication ceremony to consecrate the monastery was held.
The main rooms of the Sale Yoke-sone Kyaung monastery were:
- Kyaung Oo Pyat That, or Front Hall with wooden Pyat That tiered roofs
- Sanu Saung, or the Connection Hall
- Saung Pu, or the Low Hall
- Saung Hla (Beautiful Hall), or Zetawun Saung
- Saung Ma, or Yun Saung, the Main Hall
- Gone Saung, or Arched Hall (with arched roofs)
- A Nauk Saung, or the Back Hall
The whole building is built of wood and is a fine example of the monastic architecture of the late Konbaung Period. Only the four stairways are of brick and stucco. A wide-open corridor goes right round this single-storied building.
The main attraction of the monastery is the decorative wooden panels made by the master carvers of the period whose meticulous workmanship is in many ways superior to those of later periods.
The carvings have a main theme, that of curbing shameful behavior, and sexual desire in order to live a model life as a Buddhist. The scenes usually
illustrate certain selected scenes from the Dhammapada and Jataka Buddhist texts. But there are also some scenes from what Myanmar call Hto-Zat, drama based on fantasy or legends, like the “Story of Ma Shwe U” or “Shwe Lu Wun and the Princess” where a man like bear married a princess.
The beauty of the carvings lies in the naturalness and humor of the depictions, like in the scene where an old lady knocks the head of her old man who is in his dotage. Of course, the background scenes and the costumes are all of the Konbaung Period, and we can see for example a lifelike view of a Yadanabon Mandalay shophouse, a couple offering food to monks, a caravan of bullock carts and so on.
For many years some of the scenes depicted in the carvings have baffled scholars, but now most of the scenes have been interpreted, and they have all fitted in like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle into 26 depictions, some stories having up to three panels so that there is a total of 45 three dimensional wooden carved reliefs. They can now be admired as gems of Myanmar carving on the outside of the buildings.
Apart from the scenes from the Buddhist stories, there are also nine figures of Kinnara, a mythical bird with a human head, and by the side of the outer veranda like corridor there are stone sculptures of princes, Zawgyi or alchemists, and ogres carved out of sandstone and put on top of the supporting teak posts. Each of the four stairways are flanked by stucco figures of a mythical animal called naga, like a dragon with an elongated body, the mouths of the four nagas on the north side have their mouths open and the four on the south have their mouths closed, probably to differentiate stairways for going up or coming down.
There are also some fine examples of Buddha images from the Mandalay Period like the impressive large standing Buddha completely gilded which visitors can see in the Zetawun Saung.
As part of the U Ponnya Museum exhibits visitors can view the old lacquerware collected from around Sale and displayed on the tables. The ceiling also has some fine carvings. Chinthes, the mythical lions which guard religious buildings and stupas in Myanmar, can also be seen at the main entrance.
Monks used to reside in this building up to about six years ago when it was turned into a museum and put under the protection of the Archaeology Department. A new monastery has been built for the monks nearby.
Sale also has a number of old pagodas and other monasteries, like the Sasana or Lay-thar Monastery which is well worth visiting.
It is said that the Annexation of the country in 1886 and the court case which called in the presiding abbot as a witness were the main factors that prevented the completion of all the carvings because the scenes had been personally chosen by unhappy that he did not complete the carved panels. Sayadaw U Guna left the monastery after the Annexation and went to Lamu-gyi village in Hinthada District in Lower Myanmar where he died sometime after 1897.
In recent years the wooden monastery has been renovated and turned into a museum to honor U Ponnya, a native of Sale and one of the most famous Myanmar poets. The museum is open from 9 am to 4:30 pm daily.
Visitors to Sale can enjoy the delightful wooden carvings of traditional Myanmar art as well as see the exhibits on Sale U Ponnya’s life and works. It is well worth a day’s visit from the ancient capital of Bagan.