Myinkaba, Bagan : Its Legends and Historic Pagodas

U Thaw Kaung

('Myanmar Perspective', September, 1999)

        Bagan, the fountainhead of Myanmar culture is a place I have visited many times since my student days. Bagan is actually several historical sites centered on the old Myanmar capital of Bagan ( 11th to 13th century AD ) . Of the several old, interesting sites around Bagan , like Nyaung Oo where the airport is situated , to the villages of Minanthu, East and West Pwasaw, Myinkaba, and towards the southern end Thiripyitsaya near which the new Bagan town is fast developing, Myinkaba for me is a most interesting site. It is a place steeped in legends with several intriguing historic pagodas, both chedis (stupas) and gu-phaya ( hollow temples).

        Places come alive if you know their legendary history; Myinkaba is no exception and there are several interesting legends which are centered around the early Bagan Kings Anawrahta, the founder of the first Myanmar kingdom and Kyanzittha who consolidated the first union of Myanmar by cementing friendship with the Mons. The legends also cover the Mon King Manuha who lived in Myinkaba as a captive.  

        The name Myinkaba itself is connected with the first historical king, Anawrahta (AD1044-1077) who defeated and killed his half- brother King Sokkate in single combat on horseback near the bank of the Myinkaba stream which still flows through the village sharing the same name. The name Myinkaba means " Brought on the horse's saddle " ( Myin=horse, ka=saddle and ba or pa=brought). Legends says that King Sokkate provoked Anawrahta who mustered his army and marched against Sokkate. They met near Myinkaba stream; Sokkate's lance struck the pommel of Anawrahta's saddle, but Anawrahta's lance pierced Sokkate through and through . Sokkate fell into the stream and died , his body was lost and only his horse's saddle was recovered at the place now known as Myinkaba.  

        Some of the guides who do not know this legend might wrongly inform visitors that Myinkaba means the "World of Horses" (Myin=horse and kaba=world ). Actually the village was known as Myin Bagan in earlier times. 

        Anawrahta later built a simple, solid stupa called Myinkaba Hpayar ( Pagoda ) to mark the place where his half- brother Sokkate was killed by him. In a way this was an act of atonement because Anawrahta was said to have been torn with remorse for having to kill his half- brother. This is the earliest of the stupas built by Anawratha and stands on the north bank of the Myinkaba Chaung (or stream) where it enters the village of Myinkaba. Some say that it is the place where Anawrahta recovered the saddle of his half-brother.  

        Myinkaba is about two miles south of the walled Bagan capital city and it was the place where the captive Mon king, Manuha and his family were kept by King Anawrahta, after the conquest of the Mon capital Thaton in Southern Myanmar. By all accounts both legendary and historical, the Mon king was not kept enchained but allowed to live in comfort and some style with a palace of his own,and retainers to wait on him. Later Anawrahta became fearful because whenever Manuha came to see him a radiance issued from the Mon king's mouth every time he spoke. Anawrahta restorted to a stratagem to demean Manuha's glory,by giving him food that had already been offered at the pagoda. After taking this food, Manuha's radiance vanished. 

        In Bagan the kings and queens, the princes and princesses all built pagodas large and small. Manuha the Mon king, detained in Bagan, also wanted to build a temple of his own. He did not have ready money in cash, so he sold his priceless Manaw Maya jewel to a rich merchant of Myinkaba and obtained six cartloads of pure silver. He used this to build the impressive Manuha Temple which you can visit, as it is still a place of worship for the Buddhists. You can easily find the temple as it is on the right side of the main road going south from Bagan, and right in Myinkaba village. King Manuha's inscription says that it was built in AD 1067 about a decade after the Mon king was brought to Bagan.

        The temple is a series of reduplicated squares with the lower storey larger than the upper. There is a large seated Buddha image, 46 feet high, with the right hand touching the earth. Two smaller Buddha images, each 33 feet high, flank this large image on each side. For devotees there is barely room to sit down to pray, the large image and the two smaller ones filling up nearly all the space in the cramped interior. Some say that Manuha purposely put the images in such cramped positions to denote his feelings under detention in Bagan. There is also a huge reclining Buddha image 90 feet long, in an adjoining chamber at the back, with the head pointing to the north which symbolises the dying Buddha about to enter Parinibbana, the Demise. This image too is in a very cramped enclosed place and not in an open shed like the reclining Buddha image in Bago. At one time visitors could climb a tiny, winding stairway built into one of the side walls and view through an open aperture, the head of the huge seated Buddha.

        Connected also with King Manuha is the lovely, little Nan-paya Temple next to the Manuha temple, a short distance to the south .This is suppposed to be either the actual Palace building where King Manuha lived in exile, or a temple built on the site of his Palace. The inner walls are built of bricks surfaced with sandstones on the outer walls. The Nan-paya, meaning the " Palace Temple" is dated stylistically to the 11th century. Professor Luce, an eminent historian of Bagan called it an architectural masterpiece without close parallel in Myanmar or India. 

        The temple is a small hollow square with a vestibule to the east. You should see the beautiful perforated windows and stone carvings of eight three-headed Brahma figures on the four stone pillars inside which support the whole structure. There are dormer skylights above to give some light and fresh air. See also the carvings and artwork on the frieze and arch pediments, the Kalatha pots with lotus flowers and floral "kanote" designs which are all fine examples of the art of stone masons and carvers of the early Bagan period. 

        The figures of Hindu gods inside this temple have led some scholars to think that the Nan-paya was originally a Hindu temple. But actually it is an early Mon temple . You can see Mon motifs such as the Kalatha pots, figures of Hamsa, the( Brahmany duck) which became a symbol of the Mons at Hamsavati (Bago/ Pegu). There are also figures of the Makara, the crocodile-like sea creature and of Thiri goddesses. 

        About a mile south of Myinkaba village just by the side of the road on the east, there is a raised ground on which is the pair of Sein-nyet Pagodas; they are together in an enclosed broad-topped brick wall. This pair of pagodas is known as the two "Sein-nyet Sisters". The 'Ama' or Elder Sister is a gu-phaya or hollow temple and the 'Nyima', Younger Sister is a pahto or chedi, a solid pagoda which cannot be entered. 

        The Sein-yet Ama, Elder Sister Pagoda is said to be built by the Sein-yet Queen in the 11th century. The style of the architeture puts it much later in the 13th century. The Primate of the Buddhist monks in Bagan after the demise of the famous Shin Arahan was a Sein-nyet Prince who lived around the middle of King Alaungsithu's reign; we do not know what connection there is between the Primate and the two pagodas. Much of the interesting stucco art work is now lost, but you should examine closely what remains: hamsa birds holding flowers in their beaks, dragons with heads reverted, crested cocks or peacocks, lions, kirtimukha frieze loops and so on. 

        Inside the entrance arch there are tondoes on the ceiling; also a row of 28 Buddhas. There are many Jataka panels with writings (glosses) in Myanmar though the painting seems to be Mon. 

        The temple stands impressively firm and high on the windy hill by the roadside with magnificent views all around the desolate area. 

        There were probably wooden monasteries on three sides of the enclosure beside the two pagodas, but they have all been lost in the ravages of time. 

        The Sein-nyet Nyi-ma is a pagoda with three receding square terraces and a bell-shaped dome. A ribbed, bowl-shaped disc symbolozing the amalaka or myrobalan fruit, crowns the top, above the dome. The harmika on top of this pagoda evolved from those of Singhalese origin as seen in the Sapada Pagoda in Bagan. This pagoda although commonly known as the "younger sister," is thought to be older than the Sein-nyet Ama or "elder sister." There are also Jataka glosses in old Myanmar. Traditional belief is that they were built by two royal sisters. 

        Between the village of Myinkaba and the two Sein-nyet pagodas is a large monastery in ruins called So-min-gyi Oke-kyaung. There were many monasteries during the Bagan period but as many were built of wood they have nearly all disappeared. Only the brick monasteries called kalakyaung or Indian monasteries have survived, though mostly in ruined states. The So-min-gyi is a large, elaborate type of monastery, square in plan, with a double-storeyed sanctum on the western side and a vestibule on the east. It can also be reached easily from the main road by climbing a small raised ground to the west. These monasteries were built "to give a pleasant shade agreeable in all three seasons" as recorded in a Bagan inscription. 

        The wooden roof disappeared a long time ago. A central hall with cells ranged along its northern and southern sides can be seen in ruins. It was a kind of residential college for the study of Buddhism. There is also the So-min-gyi Stupa nearby, which the Archaeological Department dates to AD 1218. This great stupa should be visited to see the lovely green and yellow glazed bosses, panels and corner masks, which are the chief glory of this pagoda. It is indeed a Ratanaceti. Unfortunately many of these lovely glazed works were removed at the end of the 19th century by a German geologist named Fritz von Noetling and taken to the Berlin Volkerkunde Museum. They might have been destroyed during the Second World War. A few remain in the Bagan museum. Some beautiful floral friezes from the glazed designs were copied for use in the Universities' Central Library new building facade in Yangon in the late 1970's. 

        "So-min" is a title for a senior queen or princess of the Bagan Period, so the monastery and the stupa were probably donated by such a lady of high rank. 

        In this area can be seen a small 16 feet high " Pawdawmu Pagoda" which can be reached on the east side of the road, just across the So-min-gyi monastery. It is a good example of an encased pagoda from an earlier period and well-preserved because a larger pagoda was built around it. There are several encased pagodas in Bagan. Note the unusual features about this pagoda. The usual three terraces are not square in shape as in most pagodas but hexagonal. Above the usual bell-shaped dome, the finial which surmounts it has a peculiar shape. Instead of being ringed and conical it is smooth and pyramidal in shape and terminates in a double lotus, topped by a small cone.  

        Three other pagodas around Myinkaba, namely Apeyadana, Nagayon and Gubyaukgyi will be featured in the next article on the pagodas of King Kyanzitha and his queen and son. 

        Bagan new town with its numerous hotels and guest houses is only about a mile and a half to the south of Myinkaba. There are also a few guest houses, teashops and restaurants in the village. Lacquerware is made there and can be bought at a cheap price. 

        Visitors to Bagan should plan to stay for several days, to wander around the various ancient sites, view the many interesting pagodas and monuments and come to understand something about the early artistic and architectural achievements of the Myanmar people which are preserved for posterity in the glorious edifices of Bagan, Myinkaba and the surrounding area.

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