Friday, 19 December 2014

The Longlist: Kuthodaw Pagoda

What's the Longlist? It's the list for all the other great man-made spectacles in the world that haven't quite made my shortlist. I don't feel the need to research them or visit them, but as long as this blog is about the world's best man-made structures, they deserve some kind of mention. Today, Kuthodaw Pagoda, in Mandalay, Burma.

Mandalay, in Burma, is a fairly new city. It was only founded in 1857, making it younger than the likes of more obvious new kids on the block such as Melbourne or San Francisco. Given that organised life in Burma has been around for a while, with some cities stretching back almost 2000 years, and the likes of the capital, Yangon, around 1000, it seems surprising that Mandalay is such a newbie, and it all boils down to a man called Mindon. Or King Mindon, I should say. He was the second-last king of Burma and although he didn't know that at the time he knew that things weren't going too well. The bottom half of Burma had been lost to the British, who were in full empire-building mode whether the natives liked it or not, and so he needed somewhere to hang around in the top half. Mandalay was the answer. It was Burma's last royal capital, and as part of it, he built Kuthodaw Pagoda.

If you ever happen to visit Burma, one thing you'll notice pretty quickly is that the Burmese sure do like to build large golden stupas. Stupas are Buddhist constructions, and in Burma usually take the form of cones that are flattened at the base, like very pointy hills. Inevitably they are covered in gold and often other riches. Although Kuthodaw Pagoda is a pretty big example, at 57 metres high, it's not that which makes it stand out against the rest. What makes it stand out is what surrounds it: the biggest book in the world.

Whether that claim has been independently verified, I can't say, and what does it mean anyway? I don't know. But whatever, surrounding the golden stupa are rows and rows of identical little stone structures, looking like small temples. I say small, they're still about three or four times the height of a human, as Burness ably demonstrates in this picture.

There are 730 of them. Each of the four sides have gated doorways, and if you peer inside you can see what they're all about. If you can read Burmese at least. In each mini-temple is a marble slab, with chiselled-out inscriptions on either side, approximately 80 to 100 lines of them. 729 of them are from the Buddhist holy book, the Tipitaka, with the 730th being a handy explanation as to why all this was done in the first place. This would be a pretty useful thing for all monuments to include. If the Incas, for example, had bothered with such a device then it could save everyone a lot of hassle trying to second guess motives behind and functions of Machu Picchu.

It's also worth having a little look at Kuthodaw Pagoda from above, courtesy of good old Google Maps. It looks pretty cool.

When Burma says it's got the world's largest book, it seems to be meaning it quite literally in terms of sheer bulk, although I personally think it's a bit of a stretch to call 730 stone tablets inside mini-temples a book. It's not something I'd take on holiday, that's for sure. The golden stupa was finished in 1862 after a couple of years of work, but it was another six years before all the tablets were painstakingly inscribed. It's not something you can rush. And then, just 17 years later, the British came in and trashed the thing!

Before we get to that, we need to move on from the second-last king, King Mindon, and to his son and the final king, King Thibaw. Ah! But it's not quite as simple as that. You see, King Mindon was a busy man. Although he was very preoccupied with the problem of the British, he also had time to have 45 royal consorts - that is, wives essentially - and 70 royal children. There's a Wikipedia list of them all, if your Burmese language skills are up to scratch. And it's not counting the many other children he had by maids and any other ladies he could get his hands on. King Mindon sounds like a bit of a rogue. The unofficial children were the lucky ones. One of Mindon's main consorts was a queen called, ahem, Hsinbyumashin, who joins the growing pantheon of historical figures that make me very glad of the copy-and-paste function. Mindon hadn't named a successor, thinking it would destabilise his kingdom, and as he grew old Hsinbyumashin began to plot her rise to power. She wanted Thibaw - her easily-manipulated son by King Mindon - and her daughter by another man, Supayalat, to rule. Half brother and sister, yes, that was how they rocked it back then. Hsinbyumashin was a dominant force by now, and so days after Mindon's death in 1878, she held a huge banquet in the royal palace for all the royal children. It didn't end well for them.

All the children, of all ages and all sexes, were killed by hired thugs. Strangled or clubbed, they were then buried, whether dead or still living, and elephants trampled the earth down for good measure. This apparently went on for three days, an orgy of killing, with the banquet band simply playing louder to cover the screams. I feel - and I may be speaking out of turn here - that the details of this story may have become embellished over the years, but the core truth remains clear. Virtually all of King Mindon's children were murdered, by order of Hsinbyumashin, so that Thibaw and Supayalat could rule as brother and sister and king and queen, with Hsinbyumashin unsubtly pulling the strings. And it worked. (Other accounts have the murder spree taking place a year after the marriage, to quell a possible uprising, although isn't such a punchy sequence of events for the Hollywood version.)

For the Burmese people, it was hardly the most delightful of starts to usher in their new ruler. And it wasn't the last massacre either. Six years later, Thibaw and his queen (whose name, incidentally, the British deliberately mispronounced as "soup plate") oversaw the slaughter of hundreds of prisoners - many of them members of their family - when the palace prison was deliberately set alight. Any prisoners that didn't burn to death were shot or hacked apart. Under these circumstances, the British suddenly didn't seem so bad, and in 1885 King Thibaw gave them the perfect opportunity to move in. Thibaw called for an uprising against the British in the south of country, and the British said they were having none of it. They stormed the palace, and Thibaw fled. The last king of Burma was forced to abdicate and he lived the rest of his life in exile and relative poverty.

What's this all got to do with Kuthodaw Pagoda? Not a great deal, to be honest, but I thought it was quite an interesting tale. For five years after the British took over, Kuthodaw Pagoda was out of bounds to the average Burmese person. They weren't very happy about it. Finally in 1890, an appeal was made directly to Queen Victoria, and as she was keen on the freedom of everyone to worship, she insisted the ban on Kuthodaw Pagoda was lifted. But when the people returned, they found that the pagoda had been stripped of all its wealth. The gold and jewels were all gone; even the gold ink that filled the chiselled inscriptions had been removed. The Burmese spent the next few decades patiently restoring it, although never to its original splendour, it is said.

I've visited Kuthodaw Pagoda, back in 2011 with Burness. It was a hot and dusty day when we visited, and I don't recall there being any other people there. It's somewhere you might pop into during a visit to Mandalay, but not exactly a reason in itself for visiting the city. Nonetheless, I liked it. Sure, the golden pagoda itself is no big deal, but the 730 mini temples, laid out in orderly lines, are very striking. Better than that, it's unusual, which I appreciate. Burma and south-east Asia have an awful lot of Buddhist architecture, as you'd expect from Buddhist countries, and it can all get a little samey after a while. But Kuthodaw stood out. I've not seen anything else quite like it.

Oh, except for Sandamuni next door. Let's take a look at that Google Map image get, a little more zoomed out.

That's Sandamuni Pagoda to the left. It's also on my Longlist, and it has a whopping 1774 stone tablets inside mini-temple, inscribing various add-ons to the Tipitaka. Surely it must be the biggest book in the world then? Or is it simply judged by land area covered? Who decides these things? I feel some kind of independent arbitrage is required.

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