It doesn’t take long to realize that Kuthodaw Pagoda is much greater than the sum of its parts. The revered fortress-like complex rests at the foot of Mandalay Hill. Its stupas gleam white in the Myanmar sunlight. Though each of these spirit houses are modest in scale and scope, they come together to tell an epic story.
Remarkably, there are 729 of these stupas, plus one central, gilded pagoda, spread over a vast area adjacent to the old royal palace. Within each of them a stone tablet measuring 3×5 feet and 13 centimeters thick rests on an altar. Scripture is written on both sides of each tablet. The 729 tablets tell the story of Theravada Buddhism, a total of 1460 pages, and have collectively become known as the largest book in the world. When this astounding complex was created, as recently as the 1860s, this was surely the most expensive book in the world, too, as its Pali scripture was originally etched in gold.
It is a sacred setting for a sacred text, and it begs for long and ancient legends to be written. Which of Buddha’s followers wrote the tablets? How far and over which storm-whipped mountain ranges did they carry them to reach this spot? The city of Mandalay, where we find the Kuthodaw Pagoda, has similarly taken on an air of legend and mystery. Its name evokes a romance akin to that stirred by lost Southeast Asian cities.
Mandalay is actually younger than the United States, an infant compared to other Asian cultural capitals. How did such a young city become enshrouded in such mystery and nostalgia? One answer might rest with a Buddha, the other with a writer.
Even though the physical city of Mandalay is just over 150 years old, built by King Mingdon in 1857, the spiritual city is centuries older. Mingdon knew when he ordered stones to be laid that he was fulfilling the prophecy of Buddha. Centuries before, the god-like figure had visited the hill that we now know as Mandalay Hill. From its summit, he proclaimed that a great city would rise at his feet in the year 2400 of the Buddhist Era. In this grand metropolis, his teachings would blossom. The prophetic year fell on Mingdon’s watch, and so he created a splendid urban oasis of finely crafted wooden structures. Over the next couple of decades hundreds of pagodas dotted the cityscape and, true to the Buddha’s premonition, monks converged to teach the ways of Theravada.
King Mingdon proclaimed Mandalay the royal capital of the kingdom. Even after the British colonized Burma in the 1880s, a pure Burmese culture thrived in the city by the hill as the colonizers moved the capital to Yangon. Despite occupation, Mandalay continued to grow as a major center of Buddhist teaching. Today, the Mahamuni Pagoda, with its huge gilded Buddha, and the magnificent teak Shwenandaw Monastery, stand as testament to the city’s role as religious center.
It was around the late 1880s that Rudyard Kipling, after serving as part of the British Raj of India, stopped in Burma on a circuitous route home. Its landscape and its people charmed him. His poem “Mandalay” is not about the city per se, but about a British soldier’s longing and nostalgia for the warm exoticism of Asia upon his return to an overcast England. Though the city was only 35 years old when the poem was published, it was etched into the minds of literature lovers as an ever-distant, ever-ancient Shangri La.
Most of Mandalay was destroyed during World War II bombing. You can almost see the Buddha weeping atop Mandalay Hill. The city’s destruction added even more depth to Kipling’s nostalgic poem of yearning. Some of its gems survive, including the largest book in the world, which would no doubt please both the Buddha and the writer.
Learn more about this fascinating city while on our 12 Day Discover Myanmar (Burma) tour.