SHRINES OF BURMA
The Shway Sandaw of Prome
By U Ohn Ghine
( From the 'Light of Dhamma', Vol. 1, No. 3, Union of Burma Buddha Sasana Council, Rangoon, 1953)
Round this ancient pagoda linger many interesting legends, and since legends are truths wrapped in poetry and since what was once thought fantastic is, now that science is growing up and losing the scornful attitude of adolescence, often found to be founded more on fact than on fancy, we may the less readily disbelieve the truth of these old stories.
For instance the old tales speak of Hmawza, the capital of the kingdom of Thiri Khettara, as a seaport town and place it a few miles from where stands the present town of Prome. Now Prome is 160 miles approximately north-west of Rangoon and farther than that from the sea in that direction and though it is only about 70 miles from the sea at its nearest, there is a range of hills standing as barrier between. Nevertheless both geology and archaeology are showing that here where the Irrawaddy River is now so far from its goal, was once, many centuries ago, the sandy margin of the great ocean across which, how perilously, bold men sailed in their crude junks to drop anchor for trade at populous and wealthy Hmawza, now but a tiny village five miles down-river from Prome.
It is told how in those days, twenty-four centuries ago, when the Kingdom of Thiri Khettara was founded, the first king, with the help of those possessed of psychic powers, discovered a ruined pagoda already old in those ancient days since it had been founded, it was said, in the lifetime of the Buddha, 140 years before. The pious king cleared the jungle overgrowth and taking the enshrined relics, re-enshrined them in a new pagoda which he had built and which was to last until 623 B.E. (Buddhist Era) (1873 years ago) when it was again covered by the encroaching jungle.
There exists no exact record or account as to why Hmawza was abandoned at this time but there is thought to have been a severe drought and it is possible that seismic upheavals and the silting up of the shores, which still continues round the Irrawaddy delta, helped to spell the end of an interesting civilisation and scattered the peoples who went north and west.
One interesting account, lingering on in tradition, is that the Buddhist Teachings were written down on gold plates and enshrined in the old pagoda. Exact history places the first written Teachings at about 30 years B.C. (513 B.E.) when they were recorded on palm leaves in Ceylon.
Tradition, a much stronger tradition, has it that here in the old pagoda had been enshrined a hair of the Buddha. Those who were inclined to disbelieve such stories were less sure of themselves when, in the case of a similar story, of the Botataung Pagoda in Rangoon, after a severe wartime bombing the rubble was cleared away and an excavation made for the foundations of a rebuilt pagoda, a buried treasure chamber was uncovered which contained, among other relics, a hair that had been carefully mounted and preserved evidently a great many centuries ago.
During the reign of Nara-thi-ha-pa-te, coming to more recent history of the pagoda at Prome, that is, only 666 to 699 years ago, the king sent his son as Viceroy of Prome. The son built the new headquarters of the district at the site of the present Prome and the town has been there since then. Hmawza was in ruins and the old pagoda near which he built the new town was covered by dense jungle. With the help of a wise old woman, a religieuse, residing in the neighbourhood, he found the ancient shrine, then had the jungle cleared and rebuilt the pagoda once more. He resigned from the viceroyalty in favour of a more worldly and ambitious brother and devoted himself to the practice of "Insight" under the instructions of visiting Arahants.
He named the rebuilt pagoda, "The Shway Sandaw Pagoda" "The Golden Pagoda of the Hair Relic" and it is this pagoda which, with some additions and repairs since that time, is so prominent a feature of the modern riverine town of Prome and which rises from the flat, surrounding paddy-land in stately golden loveliness.
Wars, earthquakes, fires, pestilences, the struggles of men and the struggles of nature have changed the whole landscape of the country, but still this impressive shrine rises again and again and endures to capture the hearts of men in its shining symbol of truth and to increase its power for good in Burma and thus in the whole world.
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