Former capital of the Mon kingdom and the Second Burmese Empire, Bago (Pegu) had its golden age between the 1420s and 1530s when its treasuries were filled with gold amassed from trade in silk, spices, and slaves across the Indian Ocean. With close trading links to India and Sri Lanka (Ceylon), the city also became an important center for Theravada Buddhism. Spectacular religious monuments are scattered across the modern town, all of them in pristine condition, having been upgraded in typically contemporary Burmese style with layers of gilt and vibrant gloss paint which belie their considerable antiquity. The sights are concentrated in two main groups: one in the grid-planned old quarter to the east, the other farther west across the creek.
Shwemawdaw Pagoda Pagoda
No monument in the region conveys the power and wealth of the lost kingdom of the Mons as dramatically as the Shwemawdaw Pagoda, whose gilded pinnacle soars 374 ft (114 m) above Bago’s old palace quarter. It was built to enshrine relics of the Buddha, including two hairs said to have been gifted by Gautama himself during his lifetime. The original structure erected here has been rebuilt or enlarged on several occasions, both by the city’s own Mon rulers in times of prosperity, and by repentant Bamar monarchs as atonement for the loss of life incurred by their conquests. Bayinnaung even donated his crown jewels to make a new hti, or finial, in the 1550s. Several devastating earth quakes and storms in the early 20th century nearly destroyed the pagoda, before it was overhauled by public subscrip tion in 1947. It is now officially Myanmar’s tallest zedi (stupa). Four covered zaungdan, or stairways, lead to the main terrace, where a small museum houses antique Buddhas recovered from the rubble after a strong earthquake in 1930. Remnants of the old banana bud, which also fell during that temblor, can be seen near the eastern approach. As the area’s most important religious site, Shwemawdaw is visited in great numbers year around, but deluged during April when thousands of local farmers take advantage of the pre-monsoon lull in the rice calendar to attend the pagoda’s annual festival.
Hintha Gon Hintha Gon
The top of a low hillock next to the Shwemawdaw is believed to be the spot where the hamsa birds of Bago’s origin myth landed. Statues of the pair stand at the entrance to the Hintha Gon, a temple built to mark the auspi cious event. It can be reached via a staircase at the east side of the Shwemawdaw. The summit is a great place from which to admire the sun setting over the golden stupa to the west. The temple is also an important center for nat (nature spirit) worship and the venue of a lively nat pwe festival, when trans vestite dancers perform spirit possession rituals to rau- cous musical accompaniment.
No sign of the original Mon palace has been found at Bago, but in 1990, traces of huge post holes and brick foundations were discovered in parkland just south of the Shwemawdaw. Archeologists identified this area as the site of Bayinnaung’s royal palace. One of the most powerful kings of Burma, Bayinnaung (1516–81) took the great city in 1551 with a combined force of his own elephant corps and Iberian mercenaries. Court chronicles record that in a last bid to save his capital, the Mon ruler, Smim Htaw (r. 1550–52), challenged his Burmese adversary to single combat on elephant back, a duel that Bayinnaung is said to have won with ease.
Among the travelers dazzled by the splendor of the palace built in the wake of this victory was the Englishman Ralph Fitch, who visited in 1586 and spoke of sumptuously gilded wooden buildings of great workmanship. The somewhat gaudy, fanciful reconstruction of the palace installed by the Tatmadaw gov- ernment probably bears little resemblance to the origi nal, but it does convey a sense of the scale of the lost buildings.
Snake Monastery Bandula
A popular diversion for both local Buddhist pilgrims and foreign visitors is the Thatana Lin Yaungshwe, or Snake Monastery, which is located near the Hmorkan Tank, a couple of blocks south west of the Kanbawzathadi Palace area. Its pride and joy is a 30ft (9m) python that is believed to be the reincarnation of a famous abbot from the Shan Hills. Streams of devotees come every day to pay their respects to it by leaving cash donations or food, particularly during the period of Buddhist Lent. Five monks are required to carry the snake between enclosures. Visitors are sometimes allowed to touch the reptile, which is said to be around 110 years old, except during the Burmese month of Waso (JuneJuly), when it is said to be fasting.
Nawdawgyi Myathalyaung Buddha
On the west side of town is a monumental Buddha, the Nawdawgyi Myathalyaung, oriented east to west facing a rectangular tank. Built only in 2002, it is even longer (250 ft/ 76 m) than its better-known neighbor, the Shwetalyaung Buddha, although it receives a lot less attention. The figure makes for a great photo oppor- tu nity in the early morning, when it is reflected in the glassy waters of the adjacent reservoir.
Immediately north of the Nawdawgyi Myathalyaung Buddha is Shwetalyaung, Bago’s superb reclining Buddha, the star attraction among the monu ments on the west side of town. Measuring 180 ft (55 m) from head to toe and 52 ft (16 m) in height, the figure is thought to have been built in 994, although by the time of Alaungpaya’s sack of 1757, it lay wreathed in jungle and all but forgotten. It was only in the 1880s, after a British survey team spotted the head of the statue protruding from the foliage below, that the Buddha was renovated. A corrugated- iron tazaung (pavilion) was erected over it soon after to protect the paintwork, which has since been main tained in pristine condi tion. The mosaic pillow is a 19th-century addi- tion. While this is not the largest reclining Buddha in the country – that honor goes to the one near Mawlamyine (see p193) – it is the best loved, thanks to its particularly serene expression. The statue’s countenance is meant to convey to worshippers the joy the Buddha experienced on his deathbed at the moment of entering parinirvana, as well as the meaning of his final words to his assembled disciples: “All living things are subject to decay; strive with diligence for your liberation.”
As part of a wider effort to revive the monkhood following the demise of the First Burmese Empire, King Dhammazedi (1412–92) constructed this grand ordination hall close to the Shwetalyaung Buddha. Its name derives from the Kalyani River in Sri Lanka, site of a famous Mahavira monastery, to which a mission of 22 monks was dispatched by the king to be reordained. Dhammazedi’s reasons for wishing to do this are set out on a series of 10 inscription stones erected to the west of the hall, dominated by expressions of dismay at the sectarianism that had taken hold of the faith in the late 15th century. Some of the stones were damaged in attacks by de Brito in 1599 and others during the sack of Bago by Alaungpaya in 1757 , when the hall was totally destroyed. The tablets, written in Pali and Mon, are of value primarily as a testament to the close links between Burma and Ceylon in medieval times.
The hall itself, used as a model for over 400 similar struc tures erected by Dhammazedi across his kingdom, was rebuilt after collapsing in the earth quake of 1930, and now has a modern appearance, with gleaming marble floor tiles and glass mosaic adorning the main chamber. Mirror-encrusted nat figures stand beneath the pillared arches lining the side walls. The Kalyani Sima remains in use for twice-monthly con- fessional assemblies, in which monks are publicly asked whether they have committed any offences against the stric- tures of their monastic order. Elaborate instructions for the rituals car ried out on these occasions are contained in the Dhammazedi inscriptions.
Mahazedi Pagoda Mahazedi Rd. Open 7am–9pm daily. & day ticket. Less than a mile (1.6 km) west of the Shwetalyaung Buddha stands the whitewashed Mahazedi stupa in which King Bayinnaung famously interred the gold and diamond- encrusted relic he had been tricked by the Ceylonese into believing was the tooth of the Buddha. King Anaukpetlun removed the tooth in 1599, and in later cen turies the stupa was destroyed both by Alaungpaya’s attack and the great earthquake of 1930. Mahazedi was restored to its former glory, along with Bayinnaung’s Victory Ground and the mini ature Bagan-style Ananda Temple, also in the complex. The former features vibrantly painted statues of Bamar troops posing in full battle dress with an auspicious white elephant (writing in 1586, the English traveler Ralph Fitch reported seeing four albino pachyderms in the compound of King Bayinnaung’s palace).
This less-visited stupa, a short distance south of the Mahazedi Pagoda, is noteworthy for the vaulted chamber encircling the base of the monument in which 64 seated Buddhas were installed. The building was constructed in 1494 during the reign of King Byinnya Ran II
Kyaik Pun Pagoda
The Kyaik Pun Pagoda – literally “Four Figures” pagoda – rises from the scrubby southern outskirts of Bago. Built by King Migadippa in the 7th century AD and restored in 1476 by King Dhammazedi, it consists of four colossal seated Buddhas. Placed back to back facing the cardinal points around a square central pillar, they are said to represent Kakusandha, Konagamana, Kassapa, and the historical Buddha, Gautama. The figures measure an impressive 90 ft (27 m) from head to toe.