Shwebo, The First Capital of the Last Dynasty by U Thaw Kaung
Shwebo the City of Victory was founded in 1753 by U Aung Zeya, better known in Myanmar history as King Alaungphaya, “the embryonic or future Buddha”.
It is located about 64 miles northwest of Mandalay on the Mandalay-Myitkyina railway line. From the main Ayeyarwady River, the life-line of Myanmar, it is about 17 miles inland and can be reached by road from Kyaukmyaung, a riverside town.
Tourists and visitors to Shwebo can go by plane, rail or road to Mandalay, and from there it is only about a three-hour to Shwebo. It can also be reached by railway or by steamer going up the Ayeyarwady. There are now private railways which go to Myitkyina and tourists can travel on it, getting off at Shwebo after about three a half hours from Mandalay.
Before Alaungphaya became king, the original name of the town was Moke-so-bo Myo “the town of the hunter“. Shwebo has altogether five names, the three other names being Konbaung, Yadanna Theinkha, and Yangyi Aung.
Konbaung is also the name of the last dynasty of Myanmar kings, the Konbaung Dynasty began with King Alaungphaya in 1752 and ended in 1885 with the British Annexation of the country when King Thibaw the last Myanmar King was deposed. There were altogether 11 kings in this last dynasty. The name Konbaung means a ridge of land and is the name of a ridge that runs north to south near Shwebo. Some say that the real meaning of the name is Kon or “high ground”, and baung “to heap up” and comes from the old irrigation embankments of the 13th century which can still be seen in the countryside around Shwebo. This area became known as Konbaungpyi, the land of the irrigation embankments near the Mu River. The town therefore also acquired this name.
King Alaungphaya after building the Royal Capital in 1753, at Moke-so-bo, gave the city its Royal title “Yadana Theinhka” which means the “City of the precious order of Buddhist monks“. It also means the place where all the precious jewels of the secular and the religious worlds are gathered together.
A less commonly known name for Shwebo is “Yangyi Aung“, given by King Alaungphaya after the final repulse of the Mons. It means “Victory over Great Enmity“. This King renamed several cities, in this manner, including the former capital of Myanmar, which he renamed “Yangon” meaning “End of Strife” and thus changing it from its former name of “Dagon”. In King Thayawaddy’s reign (1837-1841) the name Shwebo was substituted, probably to suppress the word “mokso”, or hunter, and keep the Five Precepts (the First Precept being not to take any life, not to kill any living being). “Shwe”, meaning “Golden” is an epithet that Myanmar people like to use for anything precious, royal and dear to their hearts as in Shwe Dagon, Shwe Myodaw, and so on.
Seven royal buildings and places were constructed, all on the same auspicious day and time in 1753 by King Alaungphaya to establish the Royal Capital at Shwebo. These seven royal buildings and places were:
- Royal City
- Royal Palace
- Royal Moat
- Royal Nat or Spirit Shrine
- Royal Lake, i.e. the Maha Nanda Kandaw
- Royal Watch Tower, for keeping correct time
- Shwe Chet-thoe Pagoda, to mark the place where King Alaungphaya was born
Present-day visitors can still see these seven places. Within the last years, the Maha Nanda Kandaw, the Royal lake has been dredged, with many trees and flowerings shrubs planted along its banks to form a pleasant park. It is situated about one mile to the north of the Royal City.
The Royal Palace grounds were converted into jail during the British colonial times but in recent years the whole area has been cleared and the Shwebo Yadana Mingala Royal Palace is being rebuilt from 1995 according to the original plan and design as recorded in old records and parabaik folding books.
There are numerous pagodas around Shwebo, out of these, 27 can be identified with proper names and titles.
One of the most famous pagodas in Shwebo is the Shwe Chet-thoe Pagoda, built by King Alaungphaya at the place where he was born. It is also known as Shwe Chet-kya Pagoda. Shwe is an honorific meaning “Golden”, and Chet-thoe or Chet-kya means “a place where umbilical cord and placenta has fallen or buried”. It is about 103.5 feet in height and is one of the tallest pagodas in Shwebo. It was built at the same time as the Royal City and the Royal Palace in 1753. It took 16 months to complete the pagoda. There are two stone inscriptions on the southeast corner of the pagoda platform, but the date given on these inscriptions is 1751, two years earlier than what is recorded in the chronicles.
Historians now think that the date 1751 is too early as Alaungphaya became King of Myanmar only in 1752. Visitors to this pagoda can also see the original Bahosi bell which was on the Royal Watch Tower, another of the seven auspicious buildings and places. It can be seen by climbing the 40 steps of the Sidaw Zin tower on the southeast corner. This bell was taken off the Royal Watch Tower in 1763 when King Hsinbyushin, the third king of the Konbaung Dynasty, shifted the capital to Innwa. At the time, the Chief Queen of King Alaungphaya was still alive and she arranged for the Watch Tower Bell to be donated to this pagoda.
Near this pagoda, King Bodawphaya, one of the sons of Alaungphaya, in 1770 built a Pitaka Taik, a library or a repository for Buddhist scriptures. Palm-leaf and parabaik books were selected and placed there by U Wimala, a monk, on royal orders. Unfortunately, this library was destroyed by fire in 1888.
Zabu Simee Pagoda
This pagoda was built by King Alaungphaya’s father-in-law U Hpo Mya and his wife Mai Palaung. They were the parents of his Chief Queen Khin Yun San. The title of the pagoda means “The oil lamp of Jampudipa”.
Shwe Tansar Pagoda
This pagoda dates back to the Bagan Period and is one of the oldest pagodas in Shwebo. The main chronicles give two different Kings of the Bagan Dynasty as the original donor, viz, King Alaungsithu (1112-1167 A.D) and King Narapatisithu (1173-1210 A.D)
A famous Buddha image called Shwe Tansar made of fragrant wood about 45 inches in height can be seen in the square-shaped base temple. The main pagoda which is named after this Bagan Period Buddha image is 63 feet in height. This Buddha image is so famous that Kings of Myanmar have taken it to different capitals, to Innwa, Hanthawaddi, Taungoo and again to Innwa, Sagaing and finally brought back to Shwebo by King Alaungphaya.
Shwe Theindaw Pagoda
This pagoda also dates back to the Bagan Period and marks the place where the Thein or Sinn, Ordination Hall of venerated monks, used to be. It is about 48 feet in height. According to the inscriptions on the two bells donated by King Badon which can still be seen in this pagoda, the original donor who built this pagoda was King Narapatisithu.
Visitors should not miss seeing the four Chinthe mythical lion statues guarding the four corners of this pagoda. Unlike other Chinthe statues usually made of brick and mortar, these four Chinthe figures were carved out of pure white, smooth Sagyin Marble.
This pagoda is unusual also in that it is enclosed, not by a single wall, but by three wall enclosures. The outer two walls are in ruins, but the innermost stone wall is still well preserved.
Mya Theindan Pagoda
Like many of the pagodas in Shwebo, this pagoda was also built by King Alaungphaya. For those who study Myanmar literature, this pagoda has close associations with the first Myanmar novelist James Hla Gyaw. He repaired this pagoda in 1918 and was able to donate a new ornamental finial Hti (or tiered umbrella) the next year, a few months before he died. James Hla Gyaw was born in Shwegyin near Taungoo in 1866. His parents, who were Buddhists, passed away when he was young and his aunt Daw Hmyin and her husband Sitke U Nyo who were also Buddhists originally brought him up. When his foster parents were converted to Christianity, he was also baptized. James Hla Gyaw settled in Shwebo from December 1912, and he became a Buddhist again soon after. He is famous in Myanmar literature as the author of Maung Yin Maung, Ma Me Ma, the first Myanmar novel published in 1904. It was an adaptation of Alexander Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. James Hla Gyaw’s ashes were placed in an Ayoe-o-gu in the wall enclosure of the pagoda he repaired.
The Victory Land
As Shwebo was the first capital of the last dynasty of Myanmar kings, there is a belief that the land in this place is a land of victory. Even after the capital was shifted to other places, the Kings, their royal officials and high ranking army commanders used to come back to tread the “earth of victory land” at Shwebo, in a ceremonial way.
During colonial times this belief was discouraged, but still, the people continued to believe that before any important undertaking the victory land at Shwebo should be treading. After Independence, the people of Shwebo, under the guidance of Webu Sayadaw, built a Victory Land Pagoda and established a Victory Land Enclosure, and also a monastery called Aung-mye Kyaungdaik or Victory Land Monastery. Visitors nowadays usually take back a handful of Victory earth to keep in their houses.
Shwebo is also famous for the thanakha, the fragrant face cream (paste) or powder made from the bark of the thanakha tree.
Although King Alaungphaya who gave prominence to Shwebo died on one of his campaigns in 1760, his body was brought back to the royal city where he was born, and from where he started his task to reunifying the whole country. A pyatthat was built over his bones and ashes after the cremation ceremony and this building can still be seen today.
With the rebuilding of the Shwebo Yadana Mingala Royal Palace at Shwebo, and the restoration of many old pagodas, lakes and parks, this first capital of the last dynasty of Myanmar kings will soon become an interesting place for visitors from far and wide.