Mandalay

Introducing Mandalay

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In Mandalay, you come closest to the real Myanmar of old. The second largest city of Myanmar, with a population of 700,000, here lies the cultural heart of Myanmar where the most refined arts, traditions of dance, music and drama live on. Mandalay is also known for its fine gold and silver crafts, wood and marble carving, silk thread weaving and ancient tapestry.

The last capital of the Myanmar kingdom, Mandalay not only offers wonderful sights to behold, but also has a number of nearby attractions, most historical and fascinating, all within a 3.2 kilometre radius - from cool hill resorts to nostalgic market places, from an ancient palace to a river ride up the famous "Road to Mandalay", the Ayeyarwady River, or a ride in unique trishaws or horse-drawn carts. 

The major destination on travellers’ itineraries after Yangon, Mandalay is the country’s second city and a major commercial centre. Mandalay also represents the cultural heartland of Myanmar. It was originally established by King Mindon as a new focal point for the teaching of Buddhism, as well as his capital.

Mandalay did not survive long as the “Golden City” of Buddhist teachings, but it remains an important cultural hub, with numerous splendid pagodas. Today, despite the pre-eminence of Yangon, the city has not lost its position among the Burmese as a religious centre. It is said that two-thirds of the country’s monks still make their home in the Mandalay area. 

As a result of its proximity to China, Mandalay has benefited from an influx of investment and development. The city is now home to a whole array of new hotels and commercial buildings. Taking it even further along the road of progress is the upgraded airport, constructed with technical assistance from an Italian−Thai joint venture company, and designed to handle 45,000 aircraft movements a year.

In the city environs, there are several places worth visiting – all reminders of its glorious past. The three ancient capitals of Amarapura, Inwa (Ava) and Sagaing, as well as the town of Mingun, all lie within a stone’s throw of Mandalay. Among the ruins of palaces, pagodas and kyaung, the visitor can find abundant evidence of the political and religious power that belonged to Upper Burma between the 14th and 19th centuries, between the fall of Bagan and the British occupation.

Top places to visit in and around Mandalay

Mandalay Hill

Rising 240 metres (790ft) above the city and its surrounding plains, Mandalay Hill (daily 8am–5pm; charge) has been an important pilgrimage site for Burmese Buddhists since King Mindon sited his palace around its foot in the mid-19th century. Aside from the meritorious ascent of its sacred stairways to reach the hilltop’s richly decorated shrines, the main reason to make the climb is for the spellbinding views from the summit, which extend for many kilometres in every direction.

Remember to take off your shoes at the bottom. The most frequented southern route comprises 1,729 steps, shaded by a roof that keeps the stone cool and protects visitors from the sun while still allowing fresh air to circulate. Along the way, astrologers and souvenir peddlers ply their trades, while monks, nuns and Burmese pilgrims (often smoking huge cheroots) scale the steps. About halfway up you’ll encounter the first large temple, which contains three bones of the Buddha originally unearthed in Peshawar, Pakistan.

The four different stairways converge two-thirds of the way up the hill on the gold-plated Shweyattaw Buddha, his outstretched hand pointing to the spot where the Royal Palace was built. This stance is unique in the Theravada world, symbolising Gautama Buddha’s prophecy which King Mindon realised in 1857 when he moved his capital to Mandalay.

Further up the steps rests another unusual statue – that of a woman kneeling in front of the Buddha, offering him her two severed breasts. According to legend, Sanda Moke Khit was an ogress who was so overwhelmed by the Master’s teachings that she decided to devote the rest of her life to following him. As a sign of humility, she cut off her breasts. When the ogress’s brother asked the Buddha why he smiled as he accepted the gift, he replied that Sanda Moke Khit had collected so many merits that in a future life she would be reborn Min Done (Mindon), the King of Mandalay.

The view from the summit, reached after 40–45 minutes, is phenomenal. To the west lies the Ayeyarwady and beyond that, crowned with pagodas and temples, the Sagaing and Mingun hills. To the north, the Ayeyarwady rice country extends into the distance. The purple Shan Plateau can be seen in the east. To the south, in the midst of this vast plain, lies the city of Mandalay and the palace complex.

Shwe Nandaw Kyaung

At one time part of the royal palace, the Shwe Nandaw Kyaung (daily 8am–5pm; charge) is the only building from Mindon’s “Golden City” to have come through bombing of World War II intact. It was dismantled and moved, piece by piece, to its present site by Thibaw after his father died inside it. The king then used the building for private meditation, but he later gave it to the monks as a monastery. Its survival was miraculous, allowing future generations a glimpse how sumptuous Asia’s last great teak palace complex must have been before the British invasion. Intricate woodcarvings of ornamental figures or flowers adorn most of its surfaces. Although the monastery was once gold-plated and adorned with glass mosaic, both inside and out, all that’s left of the gold today is layered on the imposing ceiling. Thibaw’s couch and a replica of the royal throne are displayed inside.

Maha Muni Pagoda

The Maha Muni Pagoda (charge), 3km (2 miles) south of the city centre on the road to Amarapura, is the most revered Buddhist shrine in Mandalay (and second, in national terms, only to the Shwedagon), thanks to the presence in its central chamber of a magnificent gold Buddha image – the eponymous “Maha Muni”, or “Great Sage” – which Bodawpaya’s troops took as booty from the Rakhaing (Arakan) campaign of 1784. Revered by pilgrims from all over the world, it is believed to have been one of only five likenesses of the Enlightened One made during his lifetime, although historical evidence suggests the statue was probably cast in AD 146, five or more centuries after the Buddha’s death. 

A striking feature of the image’s body, rising to 3.8 metres (12ft 8ins) in height, is its covering of pounded gold. So many leaves have been pressed on to it as offerings that they now form a 15cm (6in) -thick, lumpy carapace extending all the way around the back. The Buddha’s face, however, remains gleaming, as it is lovingly polished twice each day at 4.30am and 4pm by the monks.

The present temple complex is largely modern and undistinguished, its predecessor having been destroyed by fire during Thibaw’s reign in the late 19th century. In its northern corner, a cement structure houses six magnificent bronze statues brought as plunder with the Maha Muni from the Arakan capital, Mrauk-U. Representing Hindu deities, they are of Khymer origin and once stood in the great temple of Angkor Wat. Pilgrims believe them to possess healing powers, and rub the body parts of the statues corresponding to their own afflictions, which have left them with burnished patches. A total of 30 statues were originally carried off from Mrauk-U, but many were melted down for use as bronze cannonballs by King Thibaw in the 1880s.

Amarapura

Founded by Bodawpaya in 1782, Amarapura – “City of Immortality” – is the youngest of the royal capitals near Mandalay. It replaced Inwa (Ava), an hour’s walk southwest, on the advice of royal astrologers, who were concerned about the bloody way in which the king ascended to the throne. In May 1783, the court and entire population duly packed up their belongings and shifted to land allocated to them around a newly built palace, surrounded by a wall 1.6km (1 mile) in circumference, with a pagoda standing at each of its four corners. The site, however, would only be occupied for less than 70 years. In 1857, King Mindon dismantled the royal enclave and transported it to a completely new location, 11km (7miles) further north at the foot of Mandalay Hill.

Today a town of 10,000 inhabitants, the former capital has almost merged with the southern fringes of Mandalay’s metropolis to its north, but it has a markedly different feel to the big city, its streets draped around the leafy shores of a shallow lake. Many of Amarapura’s families are engaged in the silk industry, weaving exquisite acheik htamein (ceremonial longyis) that are worn on special occasions by Burmese women. Every second house seems to hold a weaver’s workshop, and the clickety-clack of looms forms a constant soundtrack as you stroll around. Amarapura’s other traditional industry is bronze casting: cymbals, gongs and images of the Buddha are made here out of a special alloy of bronze and lead. 

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