Taungpyone, a village 9 miles north of Mandalay is well known for the annual ritual feast held in July-August, an occasion for unrestrained merry-making, drinking, and dancing, where people just let themselves go. In the middle of the village is a hillock with a pagoda on top. It is a cave temple after the style of pagodas in Bagan. Not far from the pagoda is a nat-shrine, a shrine for local deities Min Gyi and Min Lay, in whose honor the annual feast is held.
The story of Min Gyi and Min Lay is closely associated not only with the ‘Wish-fulfilling pagoda’, but also with faraway places like Thaton, an ancient Mon city down south on the Tanintharyi coast, Mount Popa, and Bagan, the capital of the first Myanmar kingdom. Taungpyone Pagoda was built by King Anawrahta of Bagan (ruled 1044-1077 A.D), the builder of the first Myanmar kingdom and also a religious and social reformer who firmly established Theravada Buddhism in the land.
A colorful patchwork of romantic stories is woven around Anawrahta and his hero-knights whose physical prowess – some of them had the strength of five elephants – and exploits in the battlefield and romantic adventures shimmered through the sombre pages of history. Their names live today not only in folklore but also in songs, drama, films and above all, in the hearts of the people. To tell the story of Taungpyone, and the local deities Min Gyi and Min Lay, we must start with a flash-back to Thaton, the ancient Mon City down south by the sea, and King Anawrahta’s campaigns to obtain the Buddhist Scriptures, an essential element for the establishment of Buddhism in Bagan.
Two Dark Strangers at Thaton
The story begins with the brothers Byatwi and Byatta, the two dark strangers from India, who were shipwrecked off the Tanintharyi coast and pick up by a venerable monk and taken to his monastery. There they lived and earned their keep by attending to the needs of the monk.
One day the monk took the two brothers into the forest to collect fruits and faggots. Wandering around, they came upon something strange under a tree. At first, it looked like the body of a baby, but it had a beautiful golden color and it smelled like a bunch of luscious bananas.
The venerable monk at once knew what it was: a leftover shell of a man who had changed himself into a zawgi or demi-god. The monk explained to the brothers that a man who wished to be a zawgi took to the woods and practiced austerities and contemplation; he also collected herbs that had magic qualities and crushed them on a stone slab chanting appropriate mantras. The triumphant moment came when he had taken the right amount of herbs at the auspicious time: he then took a new form, a demi-god in red flaming robes, endowed with super-normal powers, like flying into the air, slipping into the dark bowels of the earth, and traveling underwater like an amphibian; above all, he would have longevity that could only be measured in thousands. Of his old body, only small remains were left, and it was what the monk and the two brothers found in the woods. The monk knew that whoever ate up the remains would be endowed with some super-normal powers, though not as much as the zawgi himself, but enough to be a superman of great strength and possessing immunity against death-dealing weapons. So he told the brothers to carry the remains to the monastery, intending to eat it in good time.
It so happened that the venerable monk never managed to have his fabulous snack, because he fell asleep tired from the journey; while he was asleep, the two brothers, unable to resist the appetizing aroma, ate the whole thing between them.
The two brothers suddenly found themselves in possession of supernormal powers. When they jumped, they rose high up into the air, when they tried lifting the monastery building, it came away in their hands, like a plaything. They then decided to play a trick; they lifted the monastery building with the sleeping monk inside and transported it into a dark corner of the forest. When the monk woke up he thought he was in a terrible nightmare, especially when the brothers lifted the building again and returned it to the old place. The venerable monk realized what had happened but he could do nothing. He had only to put up with the brothers’ mischievous tricks.
The Brothers became bandits
Later, things went out of hand when avaricious self-seeking people flattered the brothers into becoming bandits. They had a large following and the band of Byatwi and Byatta became the terror of the land. They scourged the country and people lived in fear of their life and limb.
King Manuha, the ruler of Thaton, set a high reward on the heads of the brothers, but, what with their extraordinary powers, they could not be seized until one day one of the commanders hit upon a plan. Perhaps he could get hold of Byatwi the elder brother, if not both. Byatwi had a mistress in the city, a girl named Ma Oh Zar, whom he visited at night. The commander was told by wise men that Byatwi’s supernormal powers could be destroyed by defilement, that is by making him walk where women’s nether garments were hung overhead. That was quite easy since the commander had been informed by Byatwi’s movements at night. The commander’s men secretly did what was necessary where Byatwi was wont to pass. That night, as soon as Byatwi passed the spot, he was seized with a horrible spasm of itching. He at once knew that something evil was afoot. The next moment the men were upon him. When he tried to leap as of old, he found that he could no longer rise out of the reach of his captors.
Byatwi would not die
However, it was not the end of Byatwi. When the men tied him to the stake and tried to beat him with clubs, hack him with swords, and stab him with spears, they could not so much as give him a scratch. Even though his supernormal powers were gone there was something that would not give way: his undaunted spirit.
Until and unless Byatwi voluntarily gave up his life he would not die, even though he suffered pain. He bore the pain knowing full well that his tormenters would have to give up; it was the battle of the wills. The commander had to think of a ruse. He taunted Byatwi, saying how foolish he was to suffer pain when he had nothing to live for, his mistress Ma Oh Zar having betrayed him for the reward. With the ample dowry she had, she could choose any nobleman in King Manuha’s court. Byatwi did not believe the story. Then the commander told Byatwi that he could produce proof; his mistress Ma Oh Zar herself tell Byatwi that she wanted him to die – this she would do by a gesture. Ma Oh Zar would come to Byatwi with a quid of betel and a cup of water, which, the commander explained, was, according to the local custom, a gift to a dying man.
Byatwi, being a foreigner, did not know that the ‘custom’ was invented by the commander on the spur of the moment to suit his purpose. The commander said that if Ma Oh Zar did indicate a wish that Byatwi should live, he would let him go free. But if, on the other hand, Ma Oh Zar should bring a quid of betel and a cup of water, then he should be man enough to read the message and meet his death.
Then the commander told Ma Oh Zar a different story. He said that Byatwi had been pardoned by the king and that he was waiting for her. The woman, overjoyed by the news, was about to rush to her lover. The commander, as if in an afterthought, said was she going to him empty-handed? Why she might take him a quid of betel and a cup of water. And Ma Oh Zar did.
When Byatwi saw Ma Oh Zar coming towards him with the ominous gift, he was completely overcome; his loved one’s betrayal stronger than the executioner’s swords quite vanquished him and his mighty heart burst. He scarcely heard his mistress’s protestations of love nor did he feel her tender arms around him.
Now that Byatwi was dead, the wise man suggested to the king to make good use of his remains for the defense of the city. Byatwi’s flesh and insides were buried at the four corners of the city walls, which were then sprinkled with his blood. In this way, Byatwi’s spirit would have to guard the city against invaders.
Meanwhile, Byatwi’s brother Byatta had escaped to Bagan and had taken Asylum at Anawrahta’s court. He became a trusted henchman of the king and his assignment was to train the king’s men in horsemanship and other martial arts. His headquarters was the area around Mount Popa. Since his real commission was a guarded royal secret, he was only known as the supplier of rare flowers to the queens and ladies to the court. It was at Popa that Byatta met his love, Mai Wunna, a forest nymph who lived on flowers. When their two sons were born, the king honored them by giving a solid gold pot to each; they were known as Shwe Phyin Gyi and Shwe Phyin Lay, “Gold pot the Elder” and “Gold pot the Younger”. Later they were called Min Gyi and Min Lay, “the Elder Lord” and “the Younger Lord”.
In central Myanmar areas, the Myanmar expression for ‘pot’ is ‘Phyin’, which in the manner of mono-syllabic languages is synonymous with ‘inferior’; hence the names Shwe Phyin Gyi and Shwe Phyin Lay are often misinterpreted as inferior gold.
King Anawrahta and Thaton
Anawrahta was interested in Thaton, not so much as a potential for military conquest but as a future alliance in cultural and religious works which were part of his plan for the unification of the Myanmar kingdom.
It was not only swash-buckling heroes that Anawrahta had around him but also sagacious statemen like Kyansittha, later his successor, and Shin Arahan, a learned monk, his spiritual advisor. Shin Arahan had explicitly told Anawrahta that in order to introduce Theravada Buddhism into the land, he must have authentic writings of Buddhist Scriptures and learned monks to teach them. At that time Thaton was the center of Buddhist learning in Myanmar. It was essential that Anawrahta seek the help of King Manuha to get the Scriptures and the learned monks from Thaton.
Anawrahta duly sent a mission to Thaton requesting King Manuha send him the Scriptures and some of the learned teachers to Bagan, so that Theravada Buddhism would be well propagated throughout the land. In those days, geographical distance and lack of proper communications bred misunderstanding. To King Manuha of Thaton, the men of central Myanmar were but warring tribes, not worthy of the Buddha’s teaching; and he said so in no uncertain terms of the men of Anawrahta’s mission.
Campaign against Thaton
War became inevitable and Anawrahta’s forces marched to Thaton and laid siege to the city. But they were up against the supernormal powers of Byatwi’s spirit who guarded the city walls. Anawrahta’s men could not come within a stone’s throw of the city walls. Anawrahta sent Byatta, who knew the terrain well, to gather information regarding the city’s defenses. One night, Byatta left his attendants behind and approached the city walls from which his men were repulsed by some mysterious forces. They had come back from their offensive operations with attacks of hysteria and stories of headless monsters and other creations of the heat-oppressed brain. Byatta suspected something evil and he had to find out what it was.
People still use the expression “to ask for a quid of betel and a cup of water” in everyday conversation when they are in a desperate situation in which all hope is lost. One wonders if the unwillingness of the Myanmar to walk under the clothesline on which women’s nether garments are hung had its source in Byatwi’s tragic experience.
Byatta was looking hard at the city wall as if commanding it to give up its secret when he was startled by some mysterious presence. He suddenly found himself gazing at a wraith-like apparition, shadowy but recognizable as his late brother Byatwi. Byatta shuddered, unwonted goosepimples arose all over his body. In the well-remembered voice of his brother, the spirit of Byatwi told him that he could not but guard the city walls as commanded by King Manuha. He had been completely enthralled as his body had been used to guard the city walls. Byatta insisted that there might be a chance of Anawrahta’s forces penetrating the city walls, could Byatwi help? Byatwi replied that the weakest point in the city’s defenses was a space not covered by his blood, for he would be powerless over that area, though it was but “a sitting hen’s gap in the wall”.
Once the secret was in the hands of Anawrahta’s men, the city fell. Buddhist Scriptures, learned monks and the royal family of King Manuha were brought back to Bagan and Theravada Buddhism became firmly established in the land of Tampadipa, as Anawrahta’s kingdom was called.
Today, close by the ruined remains of the southern wall of the city of Thaton is a small brook running into the city. Local people point out to visitors that it is the “sitting hen’s gap in the wall” where Anawrahta’s forces made their assault. Right on the place are sculptured likenesses of Byatwi, and Byatta who died during the siege, and Ma Oh Zar, Byatwi’s mistress, whose spirit had been reconciled to that of her lover.
Back to Mandalay:
The building of “Wish-fulfilling Pagoda”
Now that Byatta had given his life during the Thaton campaign, Anawrahta took his two sons Min Gyi and Min Lay into his service. They were stationed at Taungpyone near Mandalay to see the Building of a pagoda wherein the emerald Buddha image, a trophy from a campaign to Yunan, was to be enshrined.
Min Gyi and Min Lay had distinguished themselves during the Yunan campaign, and the fantastic stories of their exploits were the talk of the town. The two brothers had proved themselves to be worthy sons of Byatta who was nothing less than a superman in the eyes of the people.
So that the people of all levels could participate in the building of the pagoda, the king had decreed that each person must bring a brick to the building site. Attracted by the glamour of the gallant heroes, Min Gyi and Min Lay, and inspired by the honor of having a pagoda to grace the locality, the people rallied round with heart and soul. It was a happy time for all people coming to the site in groups, each carrying a brick, accompanied by music troupes, dances, and songs. Everyone had a sense of belonging to the pagoda and the news that the king himself would be favoring the place with a visit when the pagoda was completed delighted them all the more.
The pagoda under construction became something special to each and every one and each felt his or her own wish would be fulfilled. So fervent was their faith that the wish of each person was fulfilled in some way. So the pagoda came to be called “Wish-fulfilling pagoda”.
Yet there was an ominous shadow of fear amidst the festivities it was the dominant power of the brothers Min Gyi and Min Lay who ruled the place. Endowed with good looks, gallant and dashing, they were courted and flattered by hangers-on who led them into corruption. Min Gyi, the elder brother, who was the quieter of the pair, often tried to play mentor to his younger brother albeit with something less than success. Stories of Min Lay’s drinking bouts and licentiousness were whispered around. Respectable people tried to avoid them and folk locked up their daughters when they heard that Min Lay was around.
Ma Shwe Oo, a maiden chaste and pure
One of the most irksome of Min Gyi’s responsibilities was to keep his brother from amorous adventures which were becoming increasingly vicious. Thus when Min Lay set himself upon winning a girl named Ma Shwe Oo, Min Gyi feared the worst. Min Gyi knew only too well that she was not just another girl to be trifled with. First, she was virtuous and pure, not at all like the blithe and buxom maids Min Lay was used to. Second, she was the daughter of the headman and administrator of Inkyinyaw village, a man respected and loved by the people.
If Min Lay thought for a moment that he could satisfy a whim and ride away in triumph, he was greatly mistaken. He was politely but firmly put off because Ma Shwe Oo already had a lover, who had been accepted by her parents.
In a society that considered seduction of a woman married, or promised to another, as a crime worse than murder, Min Lay, notwithstanding his popularity, glamour, and power, would not be able to get away with it. Min Gyi tried to warn and reason, but his brother would not listen. Ma Shwe Oo’s modesty had stirred Min Lay more strongly than any strumpet with all her vigor. Min Lay visited Ma Shwe Oo’s home, planted himself at the loom where the girl worked and pressed his suit.
At first, Ma Shwe Oo put him off gently explaining that she was already affianced to Ko Yin Maung, a forester who was then away on a logging expedition up north and that it was unseemly for Min Lay to harbor such a thought. When Min Lay became more and more vehement in his wooing, Ma Shwe Oo could no longer be courteous. She hurled abuses at him: she called him a homeless wanderer, rootless, not belonging to any respectable clan, a man without a country, the progeny of the trash of a man who was washed ashore from nowhere; an alien of unknown breed; a mongrel; and just because the king had favored him with honors-honors which sat on him as a giant’s robe on a miserable dwarf – he was giving himself airs; a man who was not worthy of touching the hem of her skirt, and so on and so forth.
Min Lay in all his young errant life had never had such a dressing down. Used to having his own way; Min Lay for a moment wanted to kill this slip of a girl. But then, it would not do for the great lover to kill a girl who refused him. He would be the laughing-sock. He must change his tactics.
Min Lay acted as if he did not hear a word of Ma Shwe Oo’s words. He laughed, cajoled and teased the girl, playing the buffoon. He fell at her feet declaring that he would die then and there for the love of her until Ma Shwe Oo ran out of her colorful expletives.
Ma Shwe Oo took flight
As the situation worsened, Ma Shwe Oo’s parents, helped by loyal friends, took flight and tried to lie low in a village called Ye-gyi where the parents of Ko Yin Maung, Ma Shwe Oo’s intended lived. The family lost no time in having the marriage of Ko Yin Maung and Ma Shwe Oo contracted. Then the parents made arrangements to report the matter to the king, who would arrive soon to witness the completion of the ‘Wish-fulfilling Pagoda’. Once the matter was known to the king, they would be safe. Ma Shwe Oo and her family were helped and supported by other families whose daughters had been unwilling victims of Min Lay’s debaucheries. They all prepared cases to be reported to the king.
All the time, Min Lay looked for Ma Shwe Oo who seemed to have disappeared altogether. He became more and more enraged, as his hangers-on were unable to pry into the secret of the girl’s hiding place, which was loyally guarded by their friends. He threw himself into drinking bouts so completely that he became careless and negligent of his duties.
Meanwhile, the building of the pagoda went on, each person bringing a brick to the site.
King Anawrahta at Taungpyone
Finally, the day came for the king to visit the pagoda. Inside the temple were local officials to welcome the king and his entourage. Outside the temple was a huge cheering crowd eager to get a glimpse of the king and his court who had honored them with the visit.
There was a tumult of cheering as the king made his appearance and the people fell on their knees to pay homage. The king and his courtiers entered the temple and looked around to see if everything were perfect. All of a sudden a fearful hush fell on the crowd; each looked at the other in consternation. They then followed the king’s gaze up to the wall of the shrine. There were two spaces left unattended for two bricks. Who dared to fail in the duty of bringing the bricks? Everyone knew that it was Min Gyi and Min Lay who had foiled the site.
Even before anyone could utter a word, the king’s men came in with the request that the headman of Inywa village and his family sought a royal audience.
With the king’s permission, Ma Shwe Oo, her parents and her husband Ko Yin Maung were brought into the king’s presence. Ma Shwe Oo’s father pointed to the space of the missing bricks and said that the two brothers Min Gyi and Min Lay were responsible for the omission. This was a serious crime in itself. But there were other charges against Min Lay, carefully prepared and supported by families who were dishonored by Min Lay’s misadventures. The king ordered the brothers to be executed, which was duly done.
The Brothers’ Spirits beg a favor from the king
On the day the king was to leave for Bagan, the royal barge would not move from its moorings; it stayed stuck as if held by an unseen hand. The king suspected evil and at once struck the water with his sword. And there on the surface of the river appeared the two brothers Min Gyi and Min Lay. They were kneeling with their hands clasped in supplication.
Commanded by the king to say what they wished, the brothers asked the king’s forgiveness for their negligence of duty, but in consideration of their former services, would the king be so gracious as to grant them a place to live. The king, moved by the brothers’ plight, decreed that the Taungpyone area should be theirs; they would be the vassal lords with all the feudal privileges of tithes and taxes.
Friends and followers of the brothers built shrines for them and held annual feasts in their honor, a tradition that lives on to this day.
Death could not end Min Lay’s love
Even though Min Lay had passed away to the existence of a spirit, his love for Ma Shwe Oo did not die. He was still determined to win her. He could manifest himself to her and say words of love. he said that he had died for love of her and would die a thousand deaths before he stopped loving her.
Ko Yin Maung had made ready for another jogging expedition, even though his young wife was loath to let him go on such a long and dangerous journey. But then, he had to provide for their future. When Ko Yin Maung left, Ma Shwe Oo busied herself at the loom. Her small home industry was not only for domestic use but for the market. She was well known for her skill and artistry and Ko Yin Maung was a lucky man, especially in those days when a woman who could not weave was considered no better than a cripple. Ma Shwe Oo, working on her loom, counted on her fingers and waited for the day of Ko Yin Maung’s return. She said to herself happily that she no longer had to fear the unwelcome attentions of Min Lay – but this she said too soon.
Suddenly, there floated in the air a fetid smell of blood and green leaves and Ma Shwe Oo quaked with an unknown dread, breaking out in goose-flesh. She felt some evil presence nearby. Even though she guessed who it was, she was frightened even to think of that name. When she finally found enough courage to look, she saw Min Lay in person. He was dressed as usual in gorgeous robes with a flaming red scarf tied round his chest; he held his sword in hand as if ready for action; the bejeweled scabbard hung on his waistband. He showed the same audacious face with the same lascivious leer which Ma Shwe Oo hated so much. Yet there was something different, and Ma Shwe Oo shuddered at the sight of it. For, at Min Lay’s feet crouched a huge tiger ferociously growling and baring his teeth. It was Min Lay’s trusted servant ready to pounce on anyone at his master’s bidding.
Ma Shwe Oo was struck dumb when Min Lay spoke. He said he had died for love of her, and she should at least be kind to him; could he not be her spirit lover coming to her sometimes and talking to her? He could watch her pretty hands work at the loom; as they were no longer in the same plane of existence, why should she not be kind to him? And the most important of all, could she not say that she was sorry that he had to die that way and that she cared for him just a little?
Ma Shwe Oo was outraged, she said that any feeling she could spare for him except that of hatred and contempt would be a betrayal to her adored husband Ko Yin Maung, whose feet he did not deserve to touch; to think that such an accursed thing like him who had died like a baited animal at the stake – a beastly death for one so beastly – should dare to come near her and speak like that!
Min Lay taunted Ma Shwe Oo saying what a wonder that she preferred that milk-sop of a husband who would not dare to come anywhere near his sword point, a man who instead of keeping his wife in style, as she deserved, kept her at the loom working her fingers to the bone. Min Lay could shower her with silks and jewels and she would not have to sit at the loom, but live like a queen. When Ma Shwe Oo was not at all moved by his words, Min Lay threatened to set the tiger on her. Even as the tiger snarled and growled Ma Shwe Oo said he could do his worst. Min Lay did not wish to hurt her, so he commanded the tiger to seize her girdle and carry her out of the village.
There were hue and cry in the village. Min Lay made himself invisible except to Ma Shwe Oo and the people thought that it was just an ordinary tiger. They gave chase to the “spirit tiger” which soon disappeared among the trees. Min Lay followed the tiger into the woods, all the time pressing Ma Shwe Oo remained adamant. She would rather die in the fangs of the tiger than submit to such unwarranted violence.
The trail of the tiger carrying Ma Shwe Oo runs through the fields on the south of Taungpyone, and it is today marked by places bearing names that tell the story of the girl’s macabre journey. Each place is marked by a shrine or a pagoda. On the spot where Ma Shwe Oo’s girdle gave way and dropped to the ground is a shrine; it bears the name Khar-sir-kya, which means “where the girdle dropped”. An old broken down pagoda marks the place where the girl bled to death and it is called Thway-set-kya (“Blood drops fell”).
The place where Ma Shwe Oo’s flowers fell is marked by a grove of Tharapi flowering trees (Calophyllum Spp.). It is a sanctified place; when the blossoms come forth in April, “no one would pluck them for the market or personal use; instead, people celebrate a flower-picking festival where the flowers are gathered and offered at the shrine of Ma Shwe Oo’s spirit.
The shrine for Ma Shwe Oo’s spirit is on what is known as Thakin-ma Taung (“Milady’s hill”) named in her honor. She is known in the area as Thakin-ma. She is very much respected and loved by the people. There is also a shrine on Mandalay Hill with her image in it. On Thakinma Taung, a grand palace of a shrine had been built with images of herself and her husband Ko Yin Maung, who died of a broken heart and joined her there. An annual festival is held in her honor at the end of August.
The story of Ma Shwe Oo lives today in songs, plays and in films. In the In-Kyin village, Ma Shwe Oo’s birthplace, the place where her family had lived is marked by a huge stone boulder. It was said to be the stone Min Lay carried from the nearby hill to show his strength when he was courting her. The place, up to this day, is not used for residence, as people believe that bad luck would attend whoever lived there.
At nat-pwe or Ritual Feasts which are held today all over the country and in the heart of Yangon, people watch with awe and wonder as the professional mediums are possessed, one after another, by the pantheon of Nats and spirits and as the mediums perform traditional dances. One of the highlights on the third and last day is the performance of the man who is possessed by Min Lay’s Tiger-Spirit. He would make a leap like a feline animal, crawl, and crouch and clutch a coconut, scratch and break open its cover and husks with his claws and his fangs, to the amazement of the spectators.