This giant pagoda between the main road and riverbank was the last major building project at Bagan before the Mongol invasion of 1287. Nothing about the structure, however, suggests an empire on the decline. The scale, complexity, and precision of the stonework is exceptional, and the number of expensive ceramic plaques adorning its three receding terraces unri- valed. It is a testament to the extravagance for which its spon sor, King Narathihapate (1238–87), was renowned – in a donatory inscription, the king boasts of commanding an army of 36 million men and eating “300 dishes of curry each day.” Yet beneath the bravado, the city’s coffers were emptying fast and the king’s grip on power slip ping away. The black hole in the treasury’s finances had grown during Narathihapate’s reign. Even as his slaves toiled on the lavish Mingalazedi, Kublai Khan’s Mongol army were attacking Bhamo, gateway to the Ayeyarwady and central Burma. Only a couple of years after work on the building was completed, the king fled in panic to Pyay (Prome), where he was arrested and forced to take poison, earning for himself the unflattering epithet Taok Pyay Min, “the king who ran from the Chinese.”
Until 2012, it was possible to scale the steep flights of steps that lead to the cylindrical base of Mingalazedi’s bellshaped stupa, but access has since been forbidden.