This was one of the most interesting stops we made during our whole trip to Myanmar. Not because of the attractions we saw but because of the rituals we were able to observe.
Sagaing has an interesting history. In 1315 it was made the capitol of a Shan Kingdom after the fall of Bagan had thrown Central Myanmar into chaos. The capitol was moved across the river to Inwa (Ava) in 1364. It briefly regained its role as capitol from 1760 to 1764 before the capitol was moved to Inwa, then to Amarapura, back to Inwa, back to Amarapura before finally ending up in Mandalay. The people of that time evidently liked to move the capitol based on what the seers said.
It is mostly known as a religious center and there are over 600 hundred pagodas, stupas, monasteries and nunneries in the area. Since we only had a half day we did not see nearly as many of the sites as we might have otherwise. The town was also full of pilgrims because this was a Holy day.
We crossed the Ayeyarwaddy River on the Ava Bridge. The 16 span bridge was built by the British in the 1930s and is the only bridge in Myanmar that crosses the famous river. It is a beautiful bridge especially when viewed from Sagaing Hill. After a nice lunch at the Silver Inn restaurant overlooking the river, we ascended the hill.
The topmost spot on the hill is the pavilion surrounding the Soon U Ponya Shin Paya, which was constructed in 1312. It is beautifully maintained and Pam and I were entranced with the 360° views. We also were fascinated to see images of the Buddha as a rabbit and as a frog. Our guide, Bruce, in his cynical way, pointed out that the frogs also serve as collection boxes.
We also visited the Umin Thounzeh (30-caves). We found 30 identical Buddha images in a crescent shaped colonnade–very impressive. The hill has many covered walkways which lead from one religious site to another. I suspect just wandering these walkways would make for a fascinating adventure.
We descended into the town which is interesting in its own right. We would have loved to wander around on a non-holiday. We did stop for a parade of very colorfully decorated horse-drawn carts filled with young women. Bruce explained that they were entering one of the nunneries that day and this was their last chance to let their hair down, so to speak, before they accepted their robes and shaved their heads. The women’s families followed in the dust of the carts. My camera picked this moment to malfunction so my photos of the entourage were streaked and unrecognizable.
Bruce asked us if we wanted to see a rare religious ceremony in which the women of one of the nunneries present a delegation from one of the monasteries with the robes the monks will wear for the entire next year. It was evidently a big deal with many of the nunnery’s financial supporters in attendance. The Head of the monastery was also to make a speech. We readily agreed and headed for the nunnery which was up a hill just outside of town.
When we arrived we were introduced to the Head Nun who was most friendly and explained through Bruce what was to happen. We watched from a small balcony next to the large ceremony room, which was full of nuns, patrons and a dozen monks sitting on a dais in the front of the room. We were the only tourists present and saw the whole ceremony. We didn’t understand everything that was going on and Bruce couldn’t fill us in as his talking would have been a distraction. Nevertheless, we were transfixed the entire ceremony. I was able to get a few photos when my camera decided to behave again. Maybe the improvement was a direct result of the atmosphere.
The relationship of the nuns to the monks, that of complete subservience, was instructive and I think reflects the general Male–female relationships in Myanmar. I also saw how important people’s religion is to them at all levels of Myanmar society. Buddhism is such a gentle non-political religion that it is not surprising the generals running the country position themselves as devout Buddhists and also dare not cross any of the powerful clerics. This is not the repressive type of clerical power associated with Islam but one much more based on influence and piety. Most Buddhist monks, not all, of course, stay out of politics as, in their minds; politics has nothing to do with becoming enlightened. Even Bruce, the cynic, admitted on the ride back to Mandalay that the ceremony was impressive.
Because of the religious holiday, children were out on the highway trying to stop vehicles so they could ask for money. They would actually tie a rope around a tree trunk and pull it tight as our car approached. We stopped a few times where the children were very young or had exceptional costumes. Elephants seemed to be the favorite, maybe because Buddha was born under the sign of the elephant. Most of the time, though, the driver accelerated and the kids loosened the rope at the last minute. If we had stopped for every group, we would have taken hours to get back to Mandalay.
If you have the time and inclination, I would suggest you give Sagaing a full day and visit the Kaunghmudaw Pagoda, wander the walkways on Sagaing Hill and spend an hour or so just walking the streets of the town.