by Sudha Shah
Mandalay is a fascinating city full of structures and memories of a period not so very long ago, when Burma (now known as Myanmar) was a kingdom, and the city its capital. Today, it is the second largest city in Myanmar, and the cultural and religious centre of the country. Considerable Chinese influence, of the modern kind, can be seen in the city due to a large number of successful ethnic Chinese who have settled here.
My interest in Mandalay began in 2004, when I started the research for my book, The King in Exile: The Fall of the Royal Family of Burma, which was published in 2012 by HarperCollins India. It tells the story, from a human-interest point of view, of King Thibaw and his family. Thibaw, the last king of Burma, was toppled by the British in 1885 and exiled to India. He and his family lived in Ratnagiri (Maharashtra) as state prisoners for over 31 years until his death in 1916.
Mandalay is a relatively young city. The story goes that Lord Buddha visited Mandalay Hill and said that in 1857 CE a grand city would come up at the foot of the hill, a city that would be an important centre of Buddhism. To honor this prophesy, in 1857 the reigning king of Burma began the construction of the city.
In the foreground are the palace moat and the fortified walls of the palace. The palace is located just below the hill, and the city of Mandalay lies in a grid-like pattern mainly to the palace’s West and South.
The exquisite palace—said to have been like a glittering jewel that could not fail to dazzle and impress—was very unfortunately bombed during World War II by the Allies as the Japanese had occupied its grounds. The government reconstructed the palace in the 1980s, and it is today open to the public. This is a photograph of the newly constructed pyathhat, or the stepped wooden spire, that stood over the Lion Throne, and was very grandly said to mark the centre of the universe!
The newly built palace does not have the intricate detailing and the imposing grandeur of the past. To get an idea of what the palace was like, a visit to the exquisite Shwenandaw Kyaung (Golden Palace Monastery) is essential.
Myanmar is deeply religious country, and one of its holiest sites is located in Mandalay—the Mahamuni Pagoda. The Buddha image it holds was brought to its present location in 1784 and is greatly revered. Made of bronze, over the years devout worshippers have covered it with a thick layer of gold leaf. The main entrance to the pagoda is lined with many shops selling interesting souvenirs.
The Kuthodaw Pagoda is said to hold the world’s biggest book. Around a large imposing golden stupa, on 729 marble slabs each housed in its own little stupa, are the entire Buddhist scriptures written in Pali. It was built around the same time as the palace by the same king who built the city—King Mindon.
Street food in Mandalay—a bit like our bhajjia, but mainly of the non-vegetarian kind! The Myanmar people love their fish, and their most popular condiment is ngapi, which is made of fermented fish or shrimp and is used to flavor almost everything. However, vegetarians need not despair—a lot of vegetable dishes and salads are easily available. Interestingly, Khow Suey, the Myanmar dish so popular in India, is a breakfast food in Myanmar.
Thanaka, a yellowish brown paste, is commonly used as a cosmetic and a sun block all over Myanmar. It is made from the ground bark of a flowering shrub (murraya paniculata). Flowers are also commonly and artistically used as ornamentation in their hair by women and girls.
The Ayeyarwady River flows on the West bank of Mandalay. This river is the main arterial river of Myanmar and runs almost vertically through the country. It continues to be a busy river used for the transportation of both people and goods. Across the river from Mandalay and seen in this photograph, is the stupa studded Sagaing Hills. A visit to Mandalay is incomplete without a visit to the four nearby and enchanting ancient towns— Mingun, Sagaing, Inwa and Amarapura.
The Moustache Brothers, a troupe from Mandalay, puts on a show every night in their home, combining slapstick humor with a song and dance show. Until its transition into a democracy in 2011, Myanmar was a military dictatorship for almost 50 years, where any form of criticism of the government was not tolerated. The Moustache Brothers used humor to make anti-government statements and poke fun at their government—and were repeatedly jailed for this. Of course, with much more freedom in the press, their relevance is not great today. But they are an institution in Mandalay, and witnessing one of their performances enriches a visit to the city, and provides a glimpse into a period that was.
(Sudha Shah became an author almost accidentally. She was trained in economics and worked in finance. After reading Amitav Ghosh’s novel The Glass Palace, she was deeply moved by stories of the four Burmese princesses who spent such a large part of their life as exiled royals in Ratnagiri, and she began to hunt for a suitable book that documented their lives. There was no such book. So Sudha began her own investigations – amply aided by her husband Pradip Shah – and eventually, when the research had taken a life of its own, she decided to write the book she had been looking for herself. She researched The King in Exile for seven years, travelling extensively in India and Myanmar on the trail of this fascinating story, and it took her to several libraries and archives across the world. The book was published in 2012 to critical acclaim in India and abroad, and was deeply appreciated in Myanmar. Sudha is now working on her second book.)
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