I persevered the demanding slopes of Mount Kyaiktiyo—the most sacred mountain in Myanmar. The devotion-charged Golden Rock at its pinnacle was my reward.
Most Burmese pay homage to this wish-drenched balancing boulder at least once in their lifetime—a miraculous pilgrimage site they must visit before they die. Legend has it that a dragon serpent princess found this rock at the bottom of the sea and with her supernatural powers she transported it to heaven. Many believe that touching this gigantic sacred stone makes wishes come true.
Men ascending this massive mountain apply more gold leaf to enhance the rock’s already magnificent gilded glow. In the shadows of my photo you can see the silhouettes of two men offering me scale and the rock homage. But all is not fair. While women are free to climb these sacred slopes, no female can touch this stupa-graced wonder once they arrive at the top. In a gesture of solidarity I chose not to touch its shiny surface. Who made such grotesque rules? I bet the dragon princess is furious. In outrage I decided to find other ways to make my dreams come true.
Nevertheless, Myanmar is filled with wonder. In Bagan more than a thousand magnificent stupas were built about the same time the Renaissance was happening in Europe.
The setting sun brilliantly reflected off the shimmering golden spire adding to the heaven-sent rainbow celebrating my visit. This much revered Ananda Temple was built in the year 1090 AD. It is located roughly 490 yards east of the awesome pagoda, Thatbyinnyu, 550 yards north of the huge temple of Shwesandaw and about 1000 yards northwest of the magnificent Dhammayangyi. There are 997 other stupas nearby from which distance could easily be measured but I spare you the torture.
Ananda’s towering, perfectly proportioned edifice, heralds the stylistic end of the early Bagan era.
Myanmar’s piece de resistance, however, surely must be the glitter of golden spires and shiny Buddhas that cast an ethereal glow over Burma’s most sacred pagoda—Shwedagon Phaya—which looms above the country’s commercial capital, Yangon, or Rangoon as it was known in glory days.
Shwedagon takes your breath away.
Myanmar Buddhists dream of visiting here at least once in their lifetimes. No one, even tourists, ever forgets such a visit. It’s said there is more gold laced on Shwedagon’s surface than exists in the massive vaults of the Bank of England and perhaps even more than the mega tons stored at Fort Knox. Perhaps such overstatement is justified just to set the mood.
Long ago Rudyard Kipling waxed lyrical about this gold-swathed icon, “A golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon—a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun . . . “
Allow me to put this explosion of glitter into perspective by describing just the top portion of the main spire which is clad in 13,153 plates of solid gold measuring one square foot each. The top-most vane of this tower is sliver-plated and studded with 1100 diamonds totaling 278 carats with 1383 other precious stones embedded nearby. At the very top of the vane is a golden sphere enveloped with 4351 diamonds, weighing 1800 carats. And at the very tip-top of this orb is a single 76-carat diamond perched more than a hundred meters above worshipers below. There’s a telescope off to one side for those wishing a close-up view of these most precious jewels.
Buddhist monks circumambulate this glorious edifice to pay homage. The glaring gilded glaze can launch your eyes into pain. I allowed myself to be held spellbound and eternally blinded. Though my eyes and my heart and my words drift toward distraction, with Shwedagon my attempts at prosaic amplification always fail. My words and my photos struggle to offer validation. Go there one day and you might understand.
This place really exists. Kipling was not lost in a dream.
After Yangon I made my way up-country on “The Road to Mandalay.” Mr. Kipling wrote about this, too, in his book of same name. Today the city can be a bit scruffy around the edges but its magic can still be found if one has gifted eyes. The royal palace reflects glory in shimmering sunset-lit waters—but only if your rhythm and photographic expertise facilitates such exploitation of heaven’s rare bestowal of light meshed with the moment your are there.
And you can climb Mandalay Hill to see its commanding golden Buddha with outstretched arm beckoning toward your enlightenment.
But not every Burmese Buddha is gilded in glitter and gold. On a visit to Shwekyimyint Phaya Pagoda in Mandalay I was struck by this silvery serene rendition.
Even a young novice monk (taken aback by a wayward photographer) possessed poise and glory and glow.
The lotus is associated with Buddhism because its flower signifies the law of “Cause and Effect” or karma. And the lotus has the rare quality of manifesting its glorious blossom simultaneously with its seed. More symbolically, the magnificent lotus flower flourishes most superbly when it rises from the muddiest of swamps.
When we find ourselves trapped in such muck, Buddhism promises our lives can still blossom brilliantly.
Toward the end of my Burmese visit I found myself at the remote Buddhist pagoda of Yan Aung Nan Aung Hsu Taung Pyi. It was a quiet place; I was the only one there—no crimson-robed monks nearby. It was just me and this huge outdoor Buddha sitting there in a moment of ponder. I lingered for a while. After deep introspection I rose and resoundingly uttered the universally revered Buddhist chant, Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, tapping eternal respect and profound hope for the future—the weighty, resonant vibration in my voice was as if to shake leaves from trees. I collected by breath and carefully folded my umbrella. The rain had finally subsided perhaps signaling it was time to bid farewell to this incredible land.
Reluctantly I turned to leave.
Then . . . off to one side I spotted a sacred pond whose waters were extremely muddy.
I drew close and found fresh rain droplets dancing on lotus leaves defiantly rising from the muck.
We must always persevere.
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