One of the great spectacles of Upper Burma is that of Sagaing Hill rising from the bleached west bank of the Ayeyarwady, its denuded ridges encrusted with whitewashed domes and shimmering golden spires. Thousands of Buddhist pagodas and monasteries cluster in and around this riverside market town south west of Mandalay. They are the legacy of a brief period in the early 14th century when, as the country plunged into turmoil following the demise of the Bagan Empire, it served as the capital of a powerful regional dynasty led by the young King Sawyun (1300–27). After only 50 years, however, one of Sawyun’s descendants, Thadominbya (1345–67), decided to move the royal palace across the river to a new, more easily defensible site at Inwa (Ava). Sagaing has since devoted itself largely to spiritual rather than political matters. Today around 6,000 monks reside in the numerous kyaungs (monasteries) dotted around the town, and buses loaded with pilgrims are very much part of the local scene.
Crowning the southern extremity of a long ridge rippling north all the way to Mingun, the gilded Soon U Ponya Shin is the most prom- inent of the many temples scattered across Sagaing Hill. It can be reached on foot, by following one of several covered walkways leading to the summit via a constellation of ancillary shrines, or on a bumpy metaled road that ends at the temple gates. Either way, visitors first pass through a hall lined with dazzling turquoise glass mosaic where a huge, golden-robed Buddha smiles down benefi- cently. Beyond, the east terrace affords a spellbinding view over the Ayeyarwady and the myriad temples that overlook it. Just below the Soon U Ponya Shin, a northern spur of the main Sagaing Hill approach road winds up to the Umin Thounzeh, a cave temple housing 45 Buddha images arrayed in a grand semicircular shrine. Decorated with a back- drop of sparkling glass work, the richly gilded statues offer one of Sagaing Hill’s most distinctive photo opportunities.
From the terrace of Umin Thounzeh another great view extends west over a patchwork of millet and sesame fields toward Monywa, a landscape dominated by the huge golden dome of the Kaunghmudaw Pagoda, on the outskirts of Sagaing. Rising to a height of 150 ft (46 m), the gigantic zedi dates from 1636 and was built to celebrate the foundation of Inwa (Ava) as the royal capital. Local legend claims its unusual shape was inspired by that of the breast of Thadominbya’s queen, although the Abhayagiri Dagoba in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, was more probably the model. Interred inside the stupa is the fake tooth relic with which the Ceylonese famously hoodwinked King Bayinnaung of Bago (Pegu) (see p95), and which was brought here as plunder by the Taungoo ruler Anaukpetlun in 1599.