2015
06.24

Washing the face of the Buddha — ritual at the Mahamuni Temple.  The river road from Mandalay to Bagan.  The relativity of time.  Even more heat.

The “speed” boat which can do this trip in about 8 hours runs only between October and March.  It mainly transports tourists.  Then, the river levels get too low and as it gets hot, the tourists stop coming.  But the slowpoke government ferry runs a couple of times every week year round and manages to reach its destination in about 15 hours or 20 or even 36, depending on how much loading and unloading has to be done and whatever else unforeseen might happen:  rain, storms, engine failure.  And it mainly transports the locals and cargo and during this time of the year, all the off-season tourists, too.  We were about 16 of us today occupying the “first class” area set up with plastic lawn chairs.  The locals had brought mats and were mainly spread out on the floor sleeping, nursing, eating, chatting.  The lower deck was reserved for cargo.  Very few of the locals went all the way.  It seemed in the end it was only “us foreigners” left who reached Bagan at the reasonable hour of 7 PM.  That was only 14 hours total.  It must have been a very good day and fast day for the ferry.

What’s another 7 hours or even 20, right?  It’s all about the experience, and time certainly takes on different shapes when you are on the road.  For the life of me, I could not tell you what day it is or what date.  I know that by now I have reached the end of my official visa — now I am overstaying and hope to get away with it.  It has been done before.  I have slept 12 hours in a row, something I can never do at home and last night, you may recall, I decided not to go to sleep at all since I had air-conditioning and internet and both worked.  There was no way I could let that go to waste.  Thanks to… whom?  There must by now be an internet deity, certainly!  Thanks, I-god.

To make the best of a night without sleep I decided to squeeze one attraction into the schedule most tourists shy away from as it involves a 3:45 AM departure from wherever you are in town to reach the Mahamuni Buddha Temple by 4 AM for the ritual washing of the Buddha’s face.  The Mahamuni Buddha is the main image in town, transported here from Mrauk U in the olden days.  It is anyone’s guess what it really looks like as it sits on its pedestal as a pretty unshapely blob, disfigured from pounds and pounds of gold which has been put on over the centuries.  But its face is a golden shiny beauty and to watch the spectacle that unfolds to keep it that way at least once, was quite something.

The temple was already hopping when I arrived at 4:15 AM.  I had just missed a whole long file of monks walking out of the sanctuary with huge flower and gift pots in their hands — most likely the gifts from the preceding date.  Several attendants in white robes and funny hats were clearing the area around the Buddha image and putting three golden cloths around his neck, like a bib — presumably from preventing the face washing liquids to spill on his body.  A four-man live band was playing loudly off to the side and a three-man panel plus one woman were seated facing the image chanting scriptures without any particular organization and ringing gongs.  The area immediately in front of the image was crowded with men worshiping; the section beyond that, filled with women.  After that it was a mixed crowd.  Many people in the audience had trays of food in front of them, offerings for the monks that would first be offered to the Buddha before being whisked away to the monks who were lining up outside the temple for breakfast.  I saw them — not posing for me!  But as I said in a previous blog, there is always something:  I was moving in my taxi and it was still way too dark…

The music inside created an atmosphere of frenzy, and the multiple, uncoordinated voices, gongs, rings, chants, and claps were utterly chaotic.  Wow, what a spectacle!  Finally, the monk in charge of the washing appeared among the white-clad attendants and with a spray bottle wetted the face of the Buddha.  This was more than water, as for quite some time after this the face looked streaky and cloudy.  With multiple cloths the monk cleaned the image and then polished it with, I kid you not, at least ten different cloths, each of them a different color, each of them handed to him by one of the attendants.  At the end, the face was sparkly and shiny again with not a trace of anything, ready for another day.  I could not wait for the end of the ceremony, because I had to make my ferry, but things wound down when I left around 4:45 AM.  The musicians had disbanded, the worshipers were trickling out, even the scripture-chanting woman was done while the priest still polished the face.  I guess, that was it.

Now the day could begin.  A whole group of police officers filed in praying, offering flowers and bowing to the image.  I wonder if that has a positive effect on police brutality if the police force goes to the temple every morning…!?

In plenty of time to purchase my ticket, I reached the jetty.  The ferry was going, I was early enough to grab a middle, back-row seat at the very end — for the life of me I don’t like to sit in the middle of a crowd.  Just about as we were ready to depart, the sun rose.  St. Peter was merciful distributing a few clouds in the sky.  Every little bit helps, even this early in the day.

Over the next 14 hours we made about seven different stops loading and unloading people and cargo.  Each time, the ferry announced its coming by a succession of three long honks.  The signal for the villagers to get ready — after all, the schedule is only approximate.  Each stop had its character:  On one the boats lined up to take people to their homes, at another, the ox carts.  One stop was in the middle of nowhere but dozens of heavy bags had to be loaded.  The next one was just a narrow path for people one by one to appear in the thick of the grass.  Other than that, the river just flowed, the land was relatively flat and except for a few villages that lined the shore nothing much was going on.

To my right the foreigners’ section unfolded.  To my left a small cabin was equipped with three beds, a table, a few chairs and its own toilet.  That was the VIP section occupied by a family accompanying a very, very old and weak man.  Two of his sons administered fluids through an IV and moved his fragile body every couple of hours into a more comfortable position — if there was such a thing on the bare wood…  I guess, to transport this old man this way is a lot more humane than to put him into a car and onto a bumpy road.  I am sure flying was out of the question.  He was going home to his village to be with his family in his last few days or hours of his life.  It was very moving when he eventually was carried out by one of his sons, across the wooden planks onto an ox cart where another family member had made a small bed and sheltered him with an umbrella…

This reminded me of the flight from Sittwe to Yangon when we observed a mother-daughter team accompanying a foaming sick child…Here, too, they administered fluids by just holding the IV as high as they could, taking turns.  The child was barely breathing…  Scenes like this just break your heart.

I hope the old man will find a peaceful end in the circle of his family, home in his village.