Exploring Mandalay Hill

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The fact that nearly all of Mandalay Palace was destroyed in  1943 lends great significance to the Konbaung-era monu- ments grouped northeast of the palace complex. The pick of  the bunch is the transplanted Shwenandaw Monastery, the only part of Mindon’s inner palace to have survived the Allied bombs. Nearby, a string of whitewashed and gilded temples holding tablets bearing the entire Tipitaka canon set the scene for the ascent of Mandalay Hill itself, best undertaken barefoot on the long, stepped zaungdan (walkway).

Shwenandaw Monastery 

The sole remnant of the  Konbaung Dynasty’s magnif- icent Golden Palace is the  Shwenandaw Monastery. Formerly part of the personal apartments of King Mindon, the building only survived the Allied bombing raids of World War II because in 1880, Mindon’s son Thibaw had it dismantled and moved to its current site outside the palace walls. His father had passed away inside the hall in 1878 and Thibaw is said to have found the space too distressing to be in.

The rich exterior carving of the monastery and the gilded pillars and ceilings inside give visitors a vivid impression of how sumptuous the complex of which it formed a part must have looked in its prime

. Atumashi Monastery

West of the Shwenandaw Monastery stands a modern  reconstruction of a grand edi- fice originally built by Mindon in 1857. Surmounted by five rectangular terraces, rather than the more usual Konbaung­style receding tiers, it formerly held a 30­ft (9­m) Buddha made from the king’s own lacquered silk clothes. The enormous diamond that was once embedded in its forehead was looted during the British invasion of 1885, and five years later the Buddha itself was lost in a fire, along with the rest of the building. Although ornately decorated, the present structure, built by the Tatmadaw using convict labor in 1996,  does not approach the refine- ment of its predecessor.

Kuthodaw Pagoda 

King Mindon commissioned the sumptuously gilded Maha Lawka Marazein stupa, at the foot of Mandalay Hill, as the centerpiece of the walled Kuthodaw Pagoda in 1857. The 100­ft (30­m) zedi, or stupa, stands in a complex dominated by 729 slender, whitewashed  ancillary pagodas, each con- taining carved alabaster slabs  inscribed with a page of the Tipitaka, the Theravada Pali canon. The inscriptions were created to mark the Fifth Buddhist Synod of 1871 and, when they were completed, took 2,400 monks six months to recite. Local guides love to describe the collection as the “World’s Largest Book.” In common with most of the Konbaung capital’s sacred sites, this one fared badly at the hands of the British in 1885, losing precious stones off the stupa’s hti or crowning finial, gold leaf from the zedi itself,  and 6,370 bells from the mini- ature pagodas, which were  melted down and used to cast ammunition. The original Tipitaka slabs were also looted for use by the British army in road construction.

Sandamuni Pagoda

Adjacent to the Kuthodaw stands the lookalike Sandamuni Pagoda, where 1,774 more inscribed marble slabs are housed in rows of neatly whitewashed shrines. Often dubbed “Volume II of the World’s Largest Book,” the inscriptions are commentaries on the Tipitaka. Before this pagoda was built, the site was where King Mindon and his family lived while waiting for work on their new palace to be completed. It is synonymous with the bloody coup of 1866 in which two of the king’s sons mounted a bid for the throne, killing the incumbent crown prince and two others ahead of them in the line of succession. The victims were buried where they died, along with other members of the royal family who perished in the rebellion. A mausoleum in the complex is their final resting place. Pride of place in the Sandamuni Pagoda, however, goes to the large iron Buddha cast by the despotic, expansionist King Bodawpaya in 1802, which is now heavily encrusted in gold leaf.

Kyauktawgyi Temple 

An even larger Buddha occupies  the main shrine hall of the late- 19th-century Kyauktawgyi  Temple, diagonally opposite the southern entrance to the hill. It reportedly took between 10,000 and 12,000 men 13 days to drag  the single piece of solid, pale- green marble 15 miles (25 km)  from the quarry at Sangyin to Mandalay city. Several smaller statues of the arahants, or Great Disciples, attend the Buddha.

PMandalay Hill

Four different zaungdans, or stepped, covered paths, wind up Mandalay Hill, each taking around 45 minutes to climb. A motorable road also zigzags up the north side to the summit.

The start of the southern stepway, the most popular, is  flanked by a pair of huge leo- gryphs, or chinthes. First of the  numerous landmarks along this route is the U Khanti Tazaung, a hall built as a memorial to the hermit-monk U Khanti who lived on the spot during the colonial era. The holy man was instrumental in the creation of Mandalay Hill as a pilgrimage site, raising funds to build numerous shrines and pagodas. The tazaung is also noteworthy for being the place where the Peshawar Relics were enshrined until World War II, when they were removed for safekeeping. Unearthed in 1905 inside the remains of a massive stupa on the outskirts of Peshawar, Pakistan, the three fragments of clavicles encased in crystal were brought to Burma by the British in 1924 as a gift. However, anticolonial sentiment was rife at the time and the Burmese never really accepted the relics as genuine. They are now in a pagoda near the base of the hill.

A short way farther up the steps, the unusual pose of the gilded Shweyattaw Buddha, sited where two paths meet, refers to Mandalay’s foundation legend. The Buddha was said to have prophesized that a city would spring up at the foot of the hill 2,400 years after his death – hence the statue’s outstretched arm and finger, which point directly to the palace where King Mindon fulfilled this prediction in 1857. The penultimate shrine on the route centers on a statue of Sanda Mukhi, an ogress to whom the Buddha is said to  have made the famous proph- ecy. On first meeting the great  teacher, she entered a devo- tional frenzy of such force that  she purportedly cut off her breasts and placed them at his feet as an offering. So impressed was the Buddha that he told her she would be reincar nated 2,400 years after his death as the king of the great city whose founda tion he had foreseen.

The terrace encircling the Sataungpyei Temple at the summit offers stupendous views over Mandalay city. Surmounted by a forest of gilded spires and a central pyramidal pagoda covered in gold, the building is set amid colorful flame trees and magnolia bushes. Although a peaceful spot now, the slopes  witnessed ferocious hand-to- hand fighting during World War  II, when Japanese forces dug into machine-gun posts mounted a desperate defense against battalions of Gurkha and British troops.

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