2015
06.16

Checking out the South of Mandalay.  About the biggest book in the world and a real nifty souvenir I found.  About the tallest and skinniest Buddha in the world a political slogan, and a few other memorable and not so memorable sights in Mandalay. 

The accumulation of merit seems to be one of the biggest past times in Buddhist circles.  Or is that rather the fear of hell?  In Myanmar even more so than Japan fire, hell and brimstone scenes decorate every temple.  And that, even though the Buddha himself — from all I know, and that is not much; please correct me if I am wrong — never scared people about hell.  As if it were not enough that hell is a firm part of Christianity and Islam, Buddhism, which didn’t have the concept had to invent, of all things, that!

Merit (karma) can be obtained in a variety of ways: pray, fast, observe the precepts of Buddhism, give alms to the monks and the poor, build stupas and places of religious worship.  One king in particular, King Mindon Min, must have been worried about his karma account or at least about the future of his new capital.  He first had a pagoda built, and then he decided to attempt the inconceivable and to carve the three most important texts from the Pali Canon of Therevada Buddhism onto stone tablets, to house each of the inscribed stones in its own mini-stupa, and to arrange them all around a big central stupa.  Yes.  And he did it in just 8 years (between 1860 and 1868), eternalized at the Kuthodaw Pagoda.   And then he had a copycat, the Venerable hermit U Khanti, who right across the street attempted a similar feat at the Sandamuni PagodaOr was it Mindon Min who copied U Khanti?  Hard to tell as all the references to the venerable monk were listed in a calendar referred to as M.E.  And with my limited internet access, I can not figure out where 1275 M.E. falls…  But hundreds more inscribed stone slabs of Pali Canon commentaries are erected here, too.  King Mindon, according to legend, went even further and had the entire canon recited nonstop by thousands of monks, which reportedly took over 6 months in 1871. These guys are nuts!

Combined, these monuments reportedly are the world’s largest book and in all likelihood there is nothing that comes even close.  They have been inscribed in the UNESCO world heritage sites of Myanmar.  And speaking of books: when I visited one of the pagodas today, a number of stalls were lining the entrance, that I had not seen before: “tattooed” books.   That’s what the stall owner called them.  On small bamboo leaves, with the help of a needle and ink, indeed very much like a tattoo, Buddhist texts and images are inscribed by puncturing the surface.   The individual leaves are then strung together into a foldable package.  Some of these books are just one leaf, some as many as 10.  I just had to have one!

Those books are done, bought, and donated for merit, too.  Buying them as a souvenir will most likely not keep me out of hell.  I have to figure out something else for that.  But in all seriousness, I wonder how many roads, bridges, orphanages, canals, or else the king could have built instead of his mega book.  Would that not have given him even more good karma? With all the poverty around here today, I wonder the same thing:  monasteries everywhere are expanding. New stupas and temples are being built even though there are already tens of thousands in place and even though people everywhere live in simply inconceivable poverty!

Bigger is better.  The more the merrier…  There seems no way around it.  And — the more recent, the gaudier!  One example of this is the so-called “Skinny Buddha”, better referred to as the Fasting Buddha.  Like everyone of these ensembles, this too, takes up a whole city block with all the entrances, sub-images and attendant figures.  Who can afford to waste real estate like this?  Who is actually paying for these new images?  Donations?  When I looked at some of the attendants of the Buddha, I had a flash-vision of a giant manger like this at St. Peter’s Square in Rome, or Centennial Park in Chicago.  Inconceivable!  But why?  Isn’t bigger better in the west, too?  Think of all the giant blowup snowmen and Santa Clauses that pop up at some of the neighbors’ lawns around Xmas?  All we need to do is institutionalize that concept and pull out all the stops.  Especially Americans might really get into this?  Sorry, am I mocking anyone here?

Mandalay is incredibly green, which becomes obvious when you see it from Mandalay HillThat spot is best visited at sunset, but I don’t last quite that long yet, so I visited in the morning.  The most green spot is a two square mile block surrounded by a water-filled moat and a granulated brick wall; the site of the former Royal Palace.  The palace was completely leveled but rebuilt from scratch only recently.  It therefore has that feel of “Theme Park” more than anything.  Granted, you get a bit of a sense of what a palace of the 18th Century looked like, but I just could not get that taste of fake out of my mouth.  The watchtower was the most interesting feature of the complex as it allowed a nice overview of the palace and the surrounding areas.

Quite fittingly or perhaps ironically, the military has taken over the entire square and controls the access road to the palace.  Photography has to be strictly directed towards the palace and nothing else, but even if you accidentally took a photograph into the other direction little more than greenery could be made out.  Military installations, government housing, training grounds, and whatever else there might be, are out of sight.  Only one big slogan prominently displayed at the entrance to the compound caught my eye:  TATMADAW AND THE PEOPLE COOPERATE AND CRUSH ALL THOSE WHO HARM THE UNION. They don’t mince words, do they?  And they obviously wanted me, the foreign visitor, to be able to read this, or they would not have displayed this in both English and Burmese.

The Burmese language is literally nothing like any other language I have seen.   I cannot read road signs, store signs, destinations on a bus, or anything else.  Few things, mainly foreign advertisements, are in English.  That’s it.  You have to rely on the locals to tell you what is where or what is what.  In the Middle East I always thought of Arabic as the “boat” language as so many letters are done with long boat-shapes, differences indicated by the number and the placement of dots.  Here, at times the language reminds me of rows of little chickens, huddled together and rolled up in balls.

Mandalay is sold as a hub more than anything but I find it interesting enough to spend at least one, perhaps two more days here to explore the sites in its surroundings.

And that’s it for today!  Good night.