Mandalay, Myanmar: Maha Muni and more

The last of a dozen or so posts from a long stay in Burma. The first was here.

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Only males can approach the golden Maha Muni Buddha in Mandalay. It’s one of just a handful of Buddha statues actually cast during the human Buddha’s lifetime. Supposedly Buddha himself gave it a hug, and some Buddhists think his soul lives on in there. It’s one of their most sacred relics, so it’s especially odd that even the most devout and dutiful Buddhist women of Mandalay are never allowed to go into the chamber and see it up close, while a non-believing American male was free to wander up, take some pictures, hang out, touch the statue, and more.

 

When you go up on the platform, the custom is that you take some pieces of gold leaf and press them onto the statute. That’s what all those wart-like bumps are on Buddha’s body: gold! The individual sheets gold leaf is so thin they’re hard to handle; you can buy a few tiny sheets (bigger than a postage stamp) for a couple of bucks. But the centuries of pilgrims adding gold to the Buddha have made its body a barely-recognizable blob. I pressed myself back against the side walls to try for better photographs, then dutifully pressed my slivers of gold leaf onto big Buddha’s shoulder and headed down the stairs.

 

Though the semi-belief that the statue is “alive” with Buddha’s soul inside mostly conflicts with Theravada Buddhist teaching, the monks nonetheless brush the thing’s teeth and wash its face once a day. Can’t hurt, right?  At a minimum, surely it’s good karma.

 

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Burma has been governed for decades by a fairly oppressive military junta, so my perceptions of their army were anything but kind and gentle. It was striking, then, to see this soldier spending his day off and some of his surely-modest salary to bring a tiny handful of flowers as an offering to the Maha Muni. He was also nice enough to stand still for a photograph.

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Even the local craft and industry revolved around Buddha. Just a few blocks from Maha Muni was Marble Street – home to dozens of businesses and hundreds of craftsmen dedicated to carving, polishing and selling Buddha statues out of big chunks of marble. Junior craftsmen carved the bodies, leaving the carving of the face for a master artist to do later – thus the blockhead Buddhas you see in the pictures.

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The Shwe ba Daung (aka Po Win Daung; aka Pho Win Daung) caves are a couple of hours west of Mandalay (a little west of Monywa, the place where we left our boat on the Chindwin), but my photography of the caves didn’t seem to warrant a blog post all their own.   There are hundreds of caves in the complex – large and small – most with big carved stone Buddhas and many with elaborately painted walls. They’re mostly 400 to 800 years old. Those Buddhas were carved in place (they’re bigger than the caves’ doorways): the cave-diggers just left the existing stone in place in the shape of the Buddhas and carved out the open space of the caves around it.

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I packed my camera bags after seeing the sun set at U Bein bridge in Mandalay, so that’s my final image from a great photography trip to Burma.

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