There is yet one place to see before leaving Mandalay, the Shwekyetyet Pagoda.
The traveler turns west out of Mandalay and passes through Amarapura which had been the royal seat since 1783 till King Mindon moved the capital to Mandalay in 1857. There is an interesting footnote to history connected with the abandoning of Amarapura as capital.
King Mindon wished to know how people felt about moving the royal city to Mandalay, so he sent his brother, the Crown Prince to go disguised as a commoner among people and take note of what they said. The road between Amarapura, the old city and the new city that was being built was a hub-bub of activity; a long caravan of bullock carts carrying building materials creaked endlessly along.
The disguised Prince asked for a list in one of the carts and he fell into conversation with the old man who was driving. In a roundabout way, the Prince brought up the topic of moving the royal seat to Mandalay and asked how the old man felt about it.
The old cart driver thought the whole thing totally unnecessary after all, what was wrong with Amarapura? Why all this fuss and trouble? The Prince asked if the old man thought things might be better when the younger brother came to the throne.
Here, the old man grimaced and said: “No bastard from the blank — blank –blankety — family would be any better!”. Back at the palace, the royal brothers had a good joke even when it went against them. It was not every day that royalty was so entertained.
The story was passed around not only in the court circles but also among the commoners. The spontaneous remark seemed to fit not only high dames and mighty earls but also lowly churls. It remains to this day a favorite expression to describe just about anybody’s kith and kin (sometimes, even your own) who invariably qualifies for the epithet. No amount of repetition throughout the century has tarnished the brilliance of its biting wit.
Leaving Amarapura, the traveler goes on towards the bridgehead of Inwa Bridge. But just before he or she gets there, there is, on the right side, a small pathway winding and losing itself into the woods. It has a signboard which reads: “To Shwekyetyet Pagoda”. A dirt road leads to a small hill.
The climb up the hill is easy and pleasant; a few white pagodas crawl up from halfway to the top and tower above the sandy beach, which is alive with fishing boats and washing women and children playing in paddly pools.
Far away on the other side of the river looms the long wooded Sagaing range, dark and moody, but for the pagodas, some golden, other gleaming white, each riding on the crest of rolling hills – a scene once described; “Like white sails on the Atlantic”. The wide brimming river mirrors the reflection of the Sagaing ridge and lengthens it toward the rock cliff on which Shwekyetyet pagoda stands.
The pagoda is named after the rock cliff: it is called Shwe-kyet-yet (“Golden Fowl’s Run”) because according to the legend, the place was once the habitat of the Buddha-to-be, who in one of his former lives was born a Golden Fowl.
The Golden Fowl was menaced by hunters who were under orders of the king to catch him, so he and his brother, after days of evading the trappers found safety on this rock cliff. The elder Golden Fowl roosted on the top and his younger brother a little way down the slope as marked by the two groups of pagodas.
Later, yarns of the ancient legend were woven into authentic historical events. In the 3rd century B.C., when Emperor Asoka sent out Buddhist missionaries to distant lands, a team of thera (monks) came to Myanmar, then called Sunarparanta. One of them having supernormal powers saw that the rock cliff was indeed the habitat of the Buddha-to-be, then born a Golden Fowl.
So, with the help of the tribes and chief-trains, they built a stupa and enshrined the Buddha’s relics therein. In 1165, when the first Myanmar kingdom flourished in Bagan, King Narapatisithu repaired the shrine and he did something rather unusual. He put heavy guards around the cliff, and no one could come near the place but on pain of death. Why he did it is told in the legend:
Narapatisithu was only a younger brother of the then reigning king. One day, foresters came to the Queen Mother and presented her with a young maid, who they said was born out of a bamboo stem. (Such was the immaculate manner in which the fairy-girl characters in legends were born).
She was named Veluvati, Bamboo Maid, a gentle ethereal creature she was, but her ear lobes were such that they detracted from the perfection of her beauty. The Queen Mother presented her to the elder son the king, but he was not very enthusiastic about making her his queen.
So Veluvati was given to the younger son Narapatisithu. Later the Queen Mother had some surgery performed on the girl’s ear lobes, the only flaw in the otherwise enchanting face. One day while the king was holding court he saw Veluvati, bedecked with jewels as befitted a Crown Princess modestly sitting by her proud adoring husband. The king was filled with an unseemly desire for her. To think that he had let this treasure of a maiden slip through his hands! He was determined to have her by fair means or foul; and unfortunately, foul it had to be. The king sent for his brother and ordered him to march to the border where, he said, there was an uprising to be quelled.
The prince was not without misgivings. He bade a sad farewell to his wife and left instructions with his faithful servant Maung Pyi to jump on the prince’s own fleet-footed white horse and follow him post haste should anything untoward happen.
As soon as the prince departed, the king took Veluvati by force. The faithful servant Maung Pyi did the only thing possible – threw himself on the white horse and rode hard to his master. Riding through the dark night in the woods, Maung Pyi lost his bearings. He found himself encircling a hill many times. At last, he reached the bank of a stream. To his anxious and weary eyes, the stream was overflowing with surging waves and he laid himself down in despair to await the light of dawn. It so happened that the prince was encamped on the other side of the stream. The horse, scenting the presence of his master, neighed all night. Maung Pyi, worn out with exhaustion, fell fast asleep.
The prince having found out that there was no uprising on the border, lay on his bed tormented by the worst fears of the king’s intentions when he heard the neighing of his trusty horse. Early in the morning, Maung Pyi saw to his terror and astonishment that the stream was dry. He crossed it and reached his master and reported the matter. When the prince learned that Maung Pyi had spent the night on the other side of the stream, when every moment counted, he was beside himself with rage. He ordered Maung Pyi to be executed on the spot.
The prince then marched to the city of Bagan. On the way, he stopped at the rock cliff where Shwekyetyet pagoda stands today. He entered the shrine and made a wish that he might be successful in his plot against the king.
Having nothing to make an offering to the Buddha image, he took off the robe he was wearing and stretched his hand to put it respectfully on the shoulder of the Buddha statue. That instant, he saw something his normal senses would never have thought possible. The statue suddenly became alive and its shoulders moved even so slightly to receive the gift.
The prince and his men were heartened and Narapatisithu became sure that good gods were on their side. After all who would want an adulterous and incestuous king on the throne? The coup was successful and Narapatisithu became king. Now the king, realizing how effectively the shrine on the “Golden Fowl’s Run” had fulfilled his own prayer, put guards on the place. He did not want any of his enemies to find their way there.
The story of Shwekyetyet pagoda is associated with one of the best-quoted pieces of Myanmar literature, four short verses written by a wise minister of that time, Ananda-thuriya. He was one of the victims of King Narapatisithu’s fury over the loss of his queen to another man – a situation the Myanmar idiom describes as “being possessed by Deindalein Nat”, which might be rendered as “a cuckold husband’s fury”.
The king committed many cruel and thoughtless crimes; he ordered the wise minister to be executed for no other reason than that he had not been able to dissuade the king from his adulterous act.
The four verses submitted by the minister so moved the king that he ordered a reprieve, only to be confronted by his officials who supplicated before him with the words: “Mercy on us, O Great King, the sword of power had gone and done its duty!”
The spirit of non-vengeance in the poem, however, had a lasting effect on the king. He could not but see himself a baser being, who had perpetrated acts of senseless cruelty, making innocent ones bear the brunt of his mad fury.
The weight of his wrongs – starting with the killing of his faithful servant Maung Pyi – lay heavy on him. His tortured mind turned to the shrine on the Golden Fowl’s Run Hill. Why had the powers that be granted his wish, if it meant such evil consequences?
The king then sought the counsel of the venerable thera (monks). They told him that it was not the powers above that had granted his wish; his wish had been fulfilled by virtue of his own deed; he had paid respects at the shrine and made the offering of his own robe spontaneously; the force of the deed was a natural thing; if he had used it to his own evil purpose, it was his own responsibility. The venerable thera then advised the king not to brood ever the past, which would be no help at all, but to be aware of the evil nature of his past actions and be mindful in future. His own realization and mindfulness alone would help him to lead a good life, and to be at peace with himself.
The king realized his own evil deeds and he had to steel himself to be man enough to admit that he alone was responsible for them. He took the first step toward a better life by passing an edict that all sentences of the extreme penalty must have stayed a month until the king had renewed them.
He no longer wanted the “sword of power to go and do its duty” at the slightest provocation.
In memory of his faithful servant Maung Pyi, who appeared before him as a spirit, the king granted him the area around his place of execution as his domain. The local inhabitants gave an annual feast to the “Lord of the White Horse”, as Maung Pyi has come to be known to this day. He was, or rather is one of the genial good spirits of the pantheon. He is represented as riding a white horse.
The king also commemorated Maung Pyi’s last fateful ride giving appropriate names to places, so that his story might be remembered. The hill which Maung Pyi encircled many times is today known as Myin-hle-taung (“Horse encircling Hill”); Kut-taw-yar (“Place of Execution”) is the name of the place where Maung Pyi met his fate; the island on which Maung Pyi’s body lay after floating down the river is Shwe-pyi-kyun (“the Island of Golden Maung Pyi”). “Golden” is an affectionate suffix the king gave him, a faithful servant who gave his life for his master.
As for the wise minister Ananda-thuriya, he needs no memorial; his four verses live on to this day, outliving all the monuments, marble or gilded:
1. If one person,
To upward rises,
Down goes the other,
Such is the law,
2. In gilded home,
He dwells in state,
With lords and peers,
Happiness he enjoys.
Like a bubble,
That rises up
On the sea’s surface
Lasts but a lifetime.
3. With compassion,
Spared I might be,
From death, and yet,
This end so certain,
Must all men face,
This solid flesh
Being so mortal,
The fate of all beings.
4. I bow down to thee,
My Liege-lord king,
With deep respect,
I, thy faithful slave.
On our way through
This cycle of rebirth
If we shall meet,
Desire not I,
With love deep and true,
I’d let thee be,
No grudge I bear,
For, it’s in mine
Own blood dwells
Leading to the end,
Before the traveler leaves Shwekyetyet hill, he wonders if he should make a wish at the shrine. The risk of having his wish fulfilled is so great that he is not sure if he is prepared to play such high stakes.