Photography blog

Burma Part 5: The broken stupa and the white temple

The next part of our trip would take us to Mingun. For that he had to head to the banks of the Irrawaddy on the West side of Mandalay, where you can find a boat that will take you upriver. Near the docks there is a large group of bamboo shacks and we could see people busily collecting and splitting bamboo. I decided to go down to take a closer look.

Our guide later referred to them as "river gypsies". Itinerant people that change their location seasonally, and that right now were down here making a living out of bamboo. You could see that entire families, from children to old people, were working away, carrying bamboo and chopping it with machetes. I did notice that these Burmese were not as quick to smile as most other I had met until then, which I must confess can be a little unnerving when you are intruding amongst people many of which are holding sharp machetes. But I kept venturing forward in the hope of getting some interesting pictures, and in the end I even got a smile or two.

Leaving the river nomads behind, we took the 11km boat trip upriver to Mingun, and once there we were met by the impressive sight of the ruins of Mantalagyi (Great Royal Stupa), which are absolutely immense, despite the building actually never being finished.

From what our guide told us, the story goes that in 1790 King Bodawpaya, of the Moksoe dynasty, began the construction of Mantalagyi at Mingun. He commissioned some architects to build what would have been the biggest stupa in the world, 150 metres tall. But once the herculean construction was well underway the architects realised the place they had chosen for its construction was seismically unstable. Afraid they would lose their heads if an earthquake damaged the stupa due to their choice of location, they started spreading the rumour of a prophecy which was coming to people in the kingdom during their sleep. The prophecy went something like this: "Once the great pagoda has been wrought, the Moksoe dynasty will come to nought".

After hearing of this prophecy the king stopped harassing his architects about when the stupa would be finished, and the project was gradually abandoned. Funny that. And surely enough, an earthquake in 1838 caused heavy damage to the structure, including some massive cracks on the outer walls which can be seen today.

While exploring around we run into a group of young monks that were visiting the temple and had a chat with them. They were really charming and good humoured, and seemed happy to allow us to take their picture.

A short walk from Mantalagyi is a very different temple. Mya Thein Tan pagoda is strikingly white by contrast, and it was built to represent Mount Meru, the mythological five-peaked mountain that is considered to be the centre of the physical, metaphysical and spiritual universes in Hindu, Jain and Buddhist cosmology.

Thus ended our day at Mingun, so we returned to our boat to head back downriver and have a nights rest before departing for Pindaya, the next part of our journey.