Wednesday, March 25, 2015
Down in Mandalay
Few things spur the traveler on like a difficult-to-reach place with a poetic name. That the name Mandalay was straight out of an actual poem by an actual poet added further zeal, despite the fact that the poet himself had never actually been there. As it was, my own road to Mandalay was essentially a water route, followed by a small-prop plane that traced a simple arc high above during its quick thirty minute flight. A fitting shortcut I suppose in an age where a quip holds far more weight than even the most masterfully crafted verse.
And on first glimpse, the city seems to be resting on its laurels. It was always a city prone to fire, and a series of fires during the 1980s wiped out whatever charm Kipling imagined it to have. It has been rebuilt by the subsequent waves of Chinese immigrants, along lines more practical than aesthetic. Even the great palace that was the city's heart was destroyed during the war, and it could be said that the final king who ruled from there hadn't a heart at all, having arranged for the murder of seventy-two of his relatives in order to consolidate his power.
Despite all this, the city still held it charm, in a way that a similarly sprawling Chiang Mai does. In both cases, the residents lived at a far slower pace than their brethren in the larger commercial centers to the south. It was a city of life lived out on the streets, of bicycles, vendors, and ambling monks. The subdued hues of the garb of the latter found a counterpoint in the young boys who were to soon join their ranks. These aspiring novices were ushered out of the world of attachment with great aplomb. Dressed in the finery of the ancient royals, they were paraded around the city in the back of pickup trucks, perched atop cheap plastic chairs. Their female counterparts were similarly dressed up in metallic pink, ready to undertake an ear-boring ceremony, the idea of which I found great ironic glee, at this Buddhist act of attachment.
Many of these pickups wound up at Mahamuni Paya, home to a Buddhist image supposedly constructed during the living Buddha's lifetime, which would contradict his very teachings. Regardless, this image was considered to be the most sacred in Burma. As at Golden Rock, men were allowed to affix small sheets of gold to the image, in the hope of accruing spiritual merit. Many generations of applied gold had given the Buddha a somewhat lumpy look, yet somehow, the ungilded face (lovingly washed every morning at 4 a.m. in a ceremony open to the public) has maintained its proportion to the body. Far more interesting to me were the unadorned statues elsewhere on the temple grounds. These were the ultimate travelers, having been carried from sacked capital to sacked capital, bearing such poetic names as Angkor Wat, Ayutthaya, Mrauk U. Rather than good travel stories, these statues offered the power of healing, with believers rubbing a spot corresponding to their own physical ailment.
We headed next to where Buddha's gold leaf was manufactured. It was a noisy place, due to three bare-chested men swinging their sledgehammers down upon small nuggets laid atop large stones. It looked to be brutal work, bent forward at the waist, their heavy hammers coming down again and again in perfect syncopation. Their foreman seemed oblivious to the noise, sitting nearby reading a newspaper. It was as close to a vision of slavery as I've ever seen, though I know that there are far worse working conditions out there in the world. I made my departure after only a few minutes, unable to take any more. There was a young woman out there, standing in the sun with her crying infant. She wasn't a beggar per se, and I generally don't give money to beggars anyway, but something in me made me hand her five dollars. The woman seemed positively thrilled. I wondered if, in the watchful eyes of the Buddha, my actions deemed me greater merit that affixing small pieces of precious metal to a goddamned statue.
While Mandalay had served as Burma's final royal capital, three former capitals had existed on the city's outskirts. The most impressive of these was Inwa, which like Bagan, was simply a mere collection of ruined stupas spread across a dusty plain. But there was a more lived-in feeling here, with small villages tucked between the brick towers, and the abundance of swamp and canals bringing more color to the land. Here too were the obligatory horse-carts, but here they served as traffic of their own, long queues spreading along the narrow lanes that wended their way through the towering brick pyramids.
Another capital was Sagaing, whose main feature was the temples spreading across the hillside, interconnected by covered staircases. I was most impressive with Umin Thounzeh, a narrow cave that housed a crescent of thirty Buddhas that was devoid of life but for a sleeping caretaker. It reminded me somewhat of other similar temples I'd seen on the Indian subcontinent, bringing home yet again just how Indian Burma was, little surprise considering that the British had ruled this country as a province of its larger neighbor to the west. A very interesting place Myanmar, with people somewhat resembling Thais, with an South Indian culture, and an undefinable Chinese element flowing beneath.
The third of the former capitals was Amarapura. The town has essentially been swallowed up by greater Mandalay, with little of the old capital remaining. Most notable was the U-Bein bridge, a masterpiece of teak stretching across the waters. I had been exposed to teak before on previous journeys to SE Asia, but it was here in Burma that I truly fell in love with it. One of the old Mandalay palace buildings had been recycled into a monastery nearby, and the carvings upon its beams and doors were truly magnificent. Here at the bridge, these carvings seemed brought to life, in the figures crossing its length, backlit by the sun. Watching the sun set behind its spans is quite popular here, but I'd already been let down somewhat by sunset the previous night atop Mandalay Hill, as the hazy air diminished its glory, unable to penetrate this dust globe that is the dry season in Myanmar.
It was far nicer to contemplate the sunset from the pool at my hotel, and the musicians warming up for that night's show somewhere beyond the swaying palms. To me, the name of Mandalay are syllables blown upon the wind, a whisper. And with a similar light touch, a bird suddenly swooped down to drink from the pool, leaving behind a handful of feathers to drift across the surface of time.
On the turntable: "The Library Of Congress Archive Of Folk Culture: Anglo-American Ballads, Volume One"
On the nighttable: Rory MacClean, "Under the Dragon"