Orange juice, toasts, eggs and fruits comprised the heavy breakfast at the hotel restaurant. I had it slightly later than usual since Tun Tun had planned the day to start only at 9 am. A sports team of young school children kept up a lively atmosphere in the restaurant, albeit in a disciplined manner. Last evening I had suggested to Tun Tun that he should have a GPS system installed on his phone so that we could avoid wasting time asking for directions and backtracking, which we did so many times over the past few days. This morning he said he had found a solution; he had hired a guy on a bike to conduct us around the whole morning. However, the pilot lasted only till the Mahamuni Temple. When we came out of the Temple the guy went missing; evidently Tun Tun had paid him in advance and that was that.
The Mahamuni Buddha Temple was founded in 1785 and is considered to be one among the five statues made in the likeness of the Buddha. Legend has it that Buddha visited the ancient Arakan region in 554 BC when the then king requested that an image be cast of him so that they could worship him upon his departure. The image was cast when Buddha sat under a Bodhi tree in meditation. Buddha breathed on the cast image and it became his exact likeness. By the end of the 19th century the image was moved to Mandalay. Today it is central to the lives of pilgrims. The sanctum sanctorum where the large image is displayed on a throne is not open to women. Male pilgrims climb a steel staircase to affix gold leaves on the image as offering. The narrow base on which the image is placed makes navigation around it a tricky affair. A missed footing can be disastrous. Tun Tun told me that the daily rituals involve washing the face of the image and brushing of the teeth.
A few boys and girls, dressed in white and pink respectively, were assembled In the temple premises. They were accompanied by parents and relatives. It was the day when they were being initiated into monastic life as novices. It did look a bit too harsh that such important decisions were taken without the consent of the child; but such are traditions and beliefs. A child becoming a monk or nun is supposed to bestow untold blessings on the family. After the temple ceremony the prospective novices are taken around various sacred sites in open vehicles accompanied by singers and photographers.
The next visit was to the Mandalay Palace, which was the last royal palace of the Burmese monarchy. It was constructed in 1859 as part of King Mindon’s founding of the capital city of Mandalay. It has 114 buildings within the walled complex surrounded by a moat with five bridges across it. All buildings are single storeyed and was the royal residence till 1885 when the British captured the Palace and established their sway over the entire Burmese territory. The Palace was even renamed Fort Dufferin, after the then Viceroy of India, and was used for billeting troops. During WWII the complex fell into Japanese control for a brief while and was completely destroyed by Allied bombing. Only the watch tower and the royal mint survived the assault. The present structures are the result of extensive restoration done towards the end of the 20th century. While the original structure was entirely teak, restoration was done using corrugated sheets and concrete.
The Hluttaw, the Supreme Court, where the official business of the court is conducted is a large wooden hall supported by massive teak pillars. Many members of the royal family are interred in the cluster of mausoleums in the palace grounds. The royal mint, one of the original buildings that survived the Allied bombing, was used as a bakery by the British troops. Dominating the entire complex is the 25m watch tower. There are 120 steps to the top of the tower from where one gets a panoramic view of the complex. A large number of local and foreign visitors throng the place. It also seemed to be a favourite hangout for young lovers, who found privacy among the 114 buildings in the complex!
The Golden Palace is a historic Buddhist monastery in Mandalay and a must visit for tourists. As we reached the Palace a large vehicle procession of the soon to be novices, with a lady singing sitting on an open bus with speakers blaring, was vending their way out of the complex. In Burmese the monastery is known as the Shwenandaw Monastery. King Thibaw, who lived his last years in exile in India, dismantled his father’s resting chambers of the royal palace in Amarapura and it became part of an existing monastery. Teak carvings depicting Buddha’s life and the Jataka tales adorn its walls and roofs. The structure and the carvings are still substantially intact despite it being over 160 years old. Such is the quality of Burmese teak which, then as it is now, was much sought after. Tun Tun mentioned that the teak forests are being wantonly ‘destroyed’ to satiate the huge demand in China.
The world’s biggest book is set in stone! At the foot of the Mandalay Hill is the Kuthodaw pagoda that houses 729 stone tablets around a central golden pagoda. The King, worried about the gradual British annexation of his country, convened the fifth Buddhist council in 1871 and caused the construction of the vast library of religious scriptures that would outlast invasions and occupation. The inscriptions on marble tablets are in Pali language and were originally gold gilded. The marble slabs are placed in caves that had gems secreted in them. Near the golden pagoda is where Susu approached me with bronze gongs, water color paintings and artistic works in bamboo. To indicate that the gongs were special she struck one of the triangular bronze gongs lightly a few times and gently blew on the side to create beautifully musical notes. i would have bought one of the gongs had it not been for the steep price she set for it. Just outside the complex were young girls readying flowers for sale. I was dumbstruck by the care with which they opened each lotus flower to display the attractive colours of the flowers.
After completing the sightseeing program for the day just after noon I wanted to get the tyres checked and, if necessary, fill nitrogen. Even though Tun Tun enquired at any places and got directions to get the work done, he was unable to guide me to the correct shop. After a lot of back and forth I lost my cool. He did not either have any knowledge of the city or possess a GPS system. Silver Hills was experimenting with me. They, it seemed, have no prior experience in handling self driving trips.