By Maung Tha (Archaeology)
In Mon and Kayin states teeming with natural caves, Bayin Nyinaung, Saddan, Yatheyan, Kawgun and Wepyan caves are attractive destinations catching attention of local and foreign tourists. The largest number of cultural heritages can be seen at Kawgun Cave among natural limestone caves in Kayin State. Currently, the Department of Archaeology and National Museum takes responsibilities for conservation of Kawgun and Yathepyan caves.
Generally, caves home to early men, shelter of wildlife, residence of monks and cemetery of dead bodies had located at hillsides all over the world. Limestone caves emerged due to erosion of rainwater to the hills. Limestone hills near the seaside came out because of waves of the sea as well as erosion of underground water.
While in Thaton, I visited Kawgun and Yathepyan caves. On my way, I paid a visit at first to Bayintnyi called Bayin Nyinaung cave, 20 kilometres from Kawgun Cave. The cave was crowded with local and foreign travellers. Visitors need to climb the mouth of the cave by steps of ladder. People prefer to wander inside the cave as well as take a bath in the hot spring lake. Men can take a bath at the natural hot spring lake, and a separate tank was built for women.
We did not take a bath there but kept our legs in the water. Water in the lake was not clean due to number of visitors who took a bath. If arrangements are made for travellers to take a bath of clean water after enjoying the hot spring, it will be the best. After a minute drive from Bayin Nyinaung Cave, we arrived at Hpa-an-Eindu road junction. The left route leads to Hpa-an and the right route to Yathepyan and Kawgun caves.
Kawgun Cave is 28 miles from Mawlamyine and eight miles from Hpa-an. It also takes a position, about two miles from Barkat Village on the western bank of Thanlwin River. Kawgun Cave can be seen two furlongs west to Kawgun Village. Before arrival at the cave, we saw magnificent Buddha images and votive tablets on the walls of the cave.
As soon as we entered Kawgun Cave, we saw a signboard bearing “Historic Ancient Kawgun Cave” being maintained by the Department of Archaeology and National Museum under the Ministry of Culture. An inscription was posted as 7th Century AD in Myanmar and English. While strolling along the passage leading to the cave, we saw children who were sweeping the passage as sanitation.
It is 130 feet long, 70 feet wide and 25 feet high natural cave at the foot of a limestone hill. The cave takes a position east to Thanlwin River, west to Yathepyan Village and south to Barkat Village. Kawgun Hill is located at alone, where there are Kawgun, Kyar and Kywe caves, Kawgun Cave of which possesses ancient cultural heritages. The limestone hill where Kawgun Cave is located is 6,000 feet long ranging together with other four hills. The highest apex of the range is 1,000 feet high.
Kawgun is a one side closed cave. Many Buddha images can be seen at its hillside and entrance. Stalagmites emerge inside the cave. A small exist each are located on either side at the end of the cave. Facing the eastern ward, Kawgun Cave receives sunray and heat sufficiently, reducing wetness inside the cave. The cave has been staying away from impacts of climatic conditions because its entrance takes a position in lower part of the hillside.
Heritages at Kawgun Cave
Although exact evidences in literature related to Kawgun Cave have not been found yet, most of the people noted Queen Mottama who escaped from troops of Bagan King Anawrahta who abducted King Manuha of Thaton to Bagan after attacking Thaton and hid herself in Kawgun Cave where she built Cetis and carved Buddha images and reliefs for her obeisance. Those who paid visits to Kawgun Cave carved and donated Buddha images and votive tablets on the walls of the cave of their own accord.
The ancient cultural heritages at Kawgun Cave mentioned that historians and archaeologists had conducted researches at Kawgun Cave since early 19th century and compiled reports on their field trips. According to these reports, British diplomat John Crawford visited Kawgun Cave on 27 January 1827, researcher Richard Temple in 1835 as well as Myanmar experts U Taw Sein Kho, U Lu Pe Win, U Po Latt and Major Ba Shin.
Various kinds of Buddha images in postures of sitting, standing and reclining are found in the cave in addition to earthen votive tablets, marble reliefs, stone inscriptions and ink inscriptions. Not only double and triple Buddha images but also 10 Buddha images in groups were carved there. A large number of votive tablets can be seen on the rock, walls and roof of the cave.
Among three stone reliefs in the cave, two reliefs represent Buddhism and the last one, Hinduism, according to the Myanmar Encyclopaedia Year Book (2011). The first one may be representing Bohisatta flanked by two great disciples on both sides. The second one has just body without head and arms, losing lower parts of knee. The stone relief representing gods of Hinduism but its inscriptions cannot be seen. Such three reliefs are protected by wire mesh. Inscriptions on the gown are in Mon language.
After viewing round ancient cultural heritages in Kawgun Cave, we proceeded to Yathepyan Cave at an altitude of 116 feet. We stepped on the entrance to the cave by brick ladder. Number of votive tablets at Yathepyan Cave is less than that of Kawgun Cave.
Yathepyan Cave, a natural limestone one, takes a position near Yathepyan Village in Hpa-an Township, west of Thanlwin River. Buddha images with three to five feet high can be seen on eastern wall and interior wall of the cave. We have chance to pay homage to the Buddha images in original colours in the cave due to lack of impacts from direct sunray. A five-foot standing Buddha image and three sitting Buddha images are kept in the cave.
Significantly, heads of Buddha images were depicted with flames. Yathepyan Cave stone inscription mentioned that some Buddha images were carved in 13th century AD in Myanmar and English languages. Currently, the cave is under conservation of the Department of Archaeology and National Museum as of 1975.
Lighting falls inside the cave through a large hole on the roof of the cave. Some people said a hermit (called Yathe in Myanmar language) who took meditation levitated into the sky through the large hole. That was why the cave was named Yathepyan. Remaining works of laterite culture flourishing in Mottama and Inwa eras are put on display at a site of the cave.
Pleasant scene of the route to Yathepyan Cave can be seen from Yathepyan Cave. Some benches for travellers to take a relaxation are laid on both sides of the brick bridge crossing the square shaped lake. While we were enjoying scenic beauties, a foreigner was riding into the area by bicycle. In general, foreigners who paid visits to Hpa-an wonder around natural caves in Kayin State by bicycle.
There still remain Buddhist cultural heritages in Kawgun and Yathepyan caves being maintained by Myanmar people in successive eras. We returned from Yathepyan Cave while thinking about the inborn duty of new generations over safeguarding invaluable ancient heritages.
(Translated by Than Tun Aung)
Myanmar Encyclopaedia Year Book (2011)
Ancient cultural heritages in Kawgun Cave (Maung Maung Nann Nwe)