Pagodas ready for pilgrimage season

By Cherry Thein, Myanmar Times & Business Reviews, Oct 13-19, 2008

Yangon, Myanmar -- A MYANMAR Buddhist goes to the pagoda not only to take refuge in the Buddha and his teachings, but also to spread goodwill and loving kindness to fellow beings who are on different planes of existence.

<< Kyaikhtiyo Pagoda in Mon State one of the most revered Buddhist pilgrimage sites in Myanmar.
Pic: Hein Latt Aung

Buddhists go to pagodas to perform deeds of merit, not merely for themselves, but in order to share with others. A visit to the pagoda entails education, recreation and the making of good deeds.

The pagoda is where children learn their religious lessons, teenagers recite songs and poems, lovers sing of the troth they plighted in its precincts, and the elderly reflect and seek solace in the contemplation of Buddha’s teachings. Pagodas are an integral part of the life of Myanmar.

Everybody knows Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, not only the premier religious site in the city and the country, but also a major attraction for tourists from the rest of the country and from overseas. For Myanmar Buddhists, Shwedagon represents the infinite wisdom of the enlightened ones.

Now let’s look at some of the many pagodas in the rest of the country.

Kyaikhtiyo Pagoda, also known as Golden Rock, one of the most revered Buddhist pilgrimage sites, is located in Mon State. It rests on the peak of the mountain, deep in the forest, amid 33 mountains and hills that have to be crossed in order to reach it. Despite this, it never fails to attract a steady stream of visitors.

Buddhists make a point of going on pilgrimage to Kyaikhtiyo Pagoda. Non-Buddhists love to wander around the surrounding peaks – Phoe Pyan Taung (where old people give up and turn back), Shwe Yin Sout (where the golden heart gets tired) and Shwe Yin Aye (where the golden heart is refreshed) in the green of the forest depths. It is said that three visits to Kyaikhtiyo will ensure a rich and fulfilling life. The annual pagoda season starts in October when the rains cease and people seek time to travel.

“Buddhists make a pilgrimage to Kyaikhtiyo especially in December, during school holidays. Elders go for their religious purposes and younger folk follow suit without knowing what great devotion is, but it is a kind of meritorious deed,” U Win Myint , the manger of Shwe Oozi pilgrim tour agency.

He said Kyaikhtiyo is one of the most magnetic tourist sites in Myanmar, not only for the Buddhist devotees who pay much respect to the pagoda, but also for those who consider the trip a kind of recreation, rich in subtle excitements.

This is one of the most famous pagodas of upper Myanmar, where giant imprints of the Buddha’s feet can be found. The left footprint is beside the Mone Creek, while the right is enshrined in a stupa on the hill above in Magwe township. The pagoda festival is held from February to April alongside Mone Creek and attracts many pilgrims from near and far.

“The pagoda is well-known for its background histories. The creek is one of the most compelling sites for pilgrims,” U Win Myint said.

The celebrated Mahamuni Pagoda and the two huge snakes that guard Mandalay Hill and the surrounding pagodas are places guaranteed to attract pilgrims in significant numbers.

Bagan stands in the heart of the country, a living treasure trove of Buddhist architectural beauty. The 40-square-kilometre plain adjacent to the Ayeyarwady River features more than 2000 pagodas and temples dating back hundreds of years. Of all the pagodas standing in the arid plain, Ananda, Shwezigon, Sulamuni, Gubyaukgyi, Abeyadana and Nagayon stand out. The pagodas of Bagan have long and elaborate histories that the young guides at each pagoda are happy to relate.

About 50 kilometres to the east of Bagan, the extinct volcanic cone of Mount Popa rises to the height of about 740 metres above the surrounding plain, in a place famed for Myanmar’s nat, or spirit. For Buddhists, nat loom large as semi-kin to humans in the cycle of birth and rebirth.

This pagoda is sheltered by the escarpment of three mountains in Alaungdaw Kathapa National Park, which is rich in natural resources. According to legend, the remains of the Venerable Ashin Mahar Kathapa, a renowned monk from the time of the Buddha, repose in the cave beneath the pagoda.

The pagoda’s visiting season runs from December to April. Two festivals held at the pagoda are the Tabodwe htamane (a concoction of glutinous rice) festival and the Tabaung festival.

“Ten years ago, it was hard to find transportation to get to the pagoda. But because there was so much interest among pilgrims to go there, the transportation is now so improved that it has become a site for regular tourists as well,” said U Win Myint.

Inle Lake is a 22-kilometer-long body of water nestled among green mountains occupied by the Intha people. The Intha are well known for their devotion to Phaung Daw U Pagoda.

Phaung Daw U is home to five Buddha images, four of which are taken on a tour of the 19 villages around the lake on a decorated barge during a 20-day festival held every year in October. The festivities also include entertaining leg-rowing races.

There are also several religious sites on the lake, including Nga Phe Chaung Monastery, which is more than 100 years old. This teak structure was once famous for its cats, trained by the monks to jump through hoops.

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