An Expedition into the Past


It was nearly 11 am (of 21 May) when our mini-bus went past the Hlaingthayar Industrial Zone. In no time, it came to the river-crossing bridge on a tributary of the Pan Hlaing River, which lies some distance behind the industrial zone. When I looked down, I saw some plots of land under the bridge being reclaimed with heavy machines for the establishment of organic vegetable plantations. After crossing the toll-gate at the end of the bridge, the driver increased the speed of the bus and it shot like an arrow along the Twantay- Kawhmu High Way. A vast flat sedimentary plains   covered with greenery paddy fields in the chequered patterns and dotted with clusters of huts or groves of trees and shrubs around the road were being left behind kaleidoscopically. The lamp-posts erecting by the side of the car-road seemed to be moving behind more rapidly. As the bus came out of the town, the windows were opened to let fresh air come in after turning off the air-conditioner. As two or three showers of rain fell down in the morning, the air was impregnated with the smell of the earth and water-vapour. All of a sudden, lightnings flashed, followed by peals of thunder rolling from the south-western direction. An inrush of cold air came abruptly. I looked up and the sky was hanging low with mountains of white and grey clouds. Soon, the wind blew more violently, bringing down rain-drops together with it. But this did not come up to our expectation. It was just a drizzle.
We were now on the way to the Sein Phaya Monastery at Pi-nhe-gon Village in Kawhmu Township where an ancient building was being excavated under the supervision of U San Win, a retired assistant director of the Department of Historical Research. Our expedition was comprised of six members headed by my teacher, a retired history professor. In point of fact, we had been poised to visit the excavation site since hearing some days ago of the interviews of the correspondents from private and public newspapers with U San Win and the comments of some scholars on the finger-marked bricks discovered during the excavation of the ancient building within the precinct of the Sein Phaya Monastery. But, to be frank, we postponed our visit as late as possible, taking shelter indoors from the intense heat of the scorching sun of late May.  Only when U San Win telephoned us that his field season would expire the day after tomorrow, we shook off our anxiety for the heat and made an unplanned trip to the Sein Phaya Monastery.
About twenty minutes after we had followed the Twantay-Kawhmu High Way, our mani-bus got to the bridge which crossed the Twantay Canal. At the end of the bridge, we saw some piles of gneiss and granite and some road-rollers on the road-side. It seemed that the road was being upgraded with some more better-quality rocks. When we reached the side of Tantwe, the drizzle developed to a heavy shower. So we had to close the windows of the bus. Everything outside was blurred by the rain. I caught the glimpse of a newly-gilded Sandawgyo pagoda (Pagoda which welcomes the hair-relics of the Buddha) standing in a large precinct on the right side of the road. I could not read the title of the pagoda written on the arch of the gate-way due to the rain. Our mini-bus passed through Twantay village, San Kalay village and Phaya Gyi model village in a few minutes. When we reached Phaya Gyi village, the rain stopped. So I could again see everything on the road-sides very clearly.  On the right side of the road, I saw the Sandawgyo Phaya Gyi Pagoda. I was suddenly reminded by the Sandawgyo pagodas found on the way of the history of the Shwedagon Pagoda included in a Mon chronicle I had read some years ago. According to it, it is learnt that Singuttara Hill where the Shewdagon Pagoda stands was surrounded by four towns during the life time of the Buddha: Pokkharavati on the south, Asitancana on the east, Rammanagara on the west and Trihakumbha on the north, that Taphussa and Bhallika merchant brothers , natives of Pokkharavati, brought the eight hair-relics of the Buddha with them to Ukkalapa of Ramannadesa from the newly-enlightened Buddha in Majjhimadesa on a voyage , that when they came on the littoral voyage along the Twantay Tawgyi Dan, King Ukkalapa accompanied by ministers, generals and people welcomed the hair-relics along the sea-coast and that he then had Sandawgyo pagodas built on the spots where the boats which carried the hair-relics stopped to receive the public veneration. The Sandawgyo pagodas standing on the sides of the Tantwe-Kawhme High Way convinced me that Twantay and Kawhmu areas would have been inhabited by people since the time of the Buddha. Pokkharavati town, the native town of Taphussa and Bhallika, who brought the hair-relics, is identified with Kwundwei by the Mon chronicles. The Mon word” Kwundei” means “Village of the Hill” in Myanmar and it was corrupted to “ Twamtay and then to “Twantay” with the passage of the times. Enjoying the scenery on the road-sides, I felt as if our car was traversing the plain on which Pokkharavati City, where Taphussa and Bhallika born and bred, flourished to the south of the Shwedagon Pagoda over 2000 years ago.
When the gate-way of the Sein Phaya Monastery came into view, my train of thoughts about the history of the Shewdagon Pagoda ceased. Our bus drove on slowly along the concrete-path into the precinct. When it came to a halt, U San Win, Daw Nan Kyi Kyi Khaing, Ko Htein Lin, some master students from the Archaeological Department and young local archaeologists welcomed us. After resting for a few moments, Ko Htein Lin conducted us around the excavation site. The ancient building was unearthed in the grid system. It was part of semi-circular building. Brick-works in it were found exposed and most of the bricks were engraved with marks of various shapes. As some bricks were decayed due to their antiquity, the marks on them were no longer clear. Some villagers who were working in the site said that some human skeletons had been discovered near it some years ago. U San Win showed us some glass beads found from the site and said that no Buddha image had not discovered there yet. So he remarked sensibly that it was too early to conclude whether it might be a religious building or a burial site or a residence. Then we were led to the make-shift museum inside the precinct. It was built of bamboo-matting and roofed with thatches where numerous finger-marked bricks and glazed wares were put on display on wooden racks. Finger-marked bricks contained marks of various shapes- crossing, half-crossing, straight, circular, oblique, diagonal, etc. The glazed wares included glazed props, glazed bowls, glazed bull fingers, glazed pots, etc. Daw Nan Kyi Kyi Khaing explained to us that those glazed wares might belong to 13th -15th centuries A.D, that they all were baked at the glaze kilns scattering about in Lower Myanmar covering Pathein, Myaungmya, Bago (Hamsavati) and Muttama districts and that some glazed wares produced from these regions in about the 15th century A.D were taken away by Arab merchants to their country.
Saya U Hla Thaung also added that the practice of making finger-marked bricks originated in India, that they were found in Rajagaha and  Savatthi in India, Nepal, the sites of Dhannavati and Vesali cities in Rakhine State, the sites of Pyu cities such as Sri Khetra, Vishnu, Halin, Mainghmaw,etc , the sites of Mon old cities such as Thaton, Taikkala, Kyaikkatha, etc and the site of Dvaravati in Thailand, that these brick might date back to Mauryan Period(3rd century B.C to 1st century A.D) in India and that the finger-marked bricks found in Myanmar might, at any rate, go back to the first millennium. I was compelled by their  explanation to think that this Twantay-Kawhmu area might go back to  pre-Christian era.
Then we paid homage to the presiding Sayadaw of the Sein Phaya Monastery and viewed the Sein ( diamond )Buddha image kept in the shrine room. It is learnt from the Sayadaw that this Buddha image was found about a hundred years ago from a remote place buried underneath the ground according to a dream the then presiding Sayadaw had. Out of this phenomenal event, we were filled with great awe and reverence for this Buddha image. We left the Sein Phya Monastery at 3 pm, saying farewell to the team of excavators. On the way back home, we called in on the Maung Dee Pagoda which is situated in San Kalay Village. It was also an ancient pagoda standing on a high brick plinth. We learnt that it was renovated by King Anawratha in the 11th century A.D and that he donated large votive tablets to the pagoda during the renovation. We saw some the large votive tablets donated by King Anawratha and a few broken Buddha images kept in a small museum located some feet on the north of the plinth of the Maung Dee pagoda.
When our bus came out of the precinct of the Maung Dee Pagoda, the rain came down again in torrents, accompanied by gusts of wind. The glass-window panes had to be shut again. Outside the bus were the rain pelting down and the wind whistling. Out of tiredness, I leaned against the back of cushion with the eyes closed. The pattering sound of rain-drops on the roof of the bus lulled me to slumber. In my mind’s eyes appeared  the image of King Ukkalapa in full regalia , paying obeisance to the hair-relics of the Buddha loaded in the golden casket studded with nine types of gems, with a great congregation of queens, princes, princesses, ministers, generals and the public , in a pavilion surmounted with a multi-tiered roof in Pakkharavati City with Singuttara Hill thickly wooded  in the distant northern background, and then gilded Sandawgyo Pagodas, the ancient building being excavated, the finger-marked bricks and glazed wares exhibited at the make-shift museum within the precinct of the Sein Phaya Monastery, the Anawratha votive tablets displayed at the museum within the precinct of the Maung Dee Pagoda, etc  in a series .  Truly enough!  Our party has journeyed into the past today, so to speak, up to the Buddha’s time through Pyu and Mon periods which flourished in Lower Myanmar.

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