By Maung Tha (Archaeology)
Mountain ranges linking with Shan plateau among various hills and mountains which emerged depending on geological conditions of the Earth are stretching from Kayin, Mon and Kayah states to Taninthayi Region. Natural caves and tunnels position in some parts of these mountain ranges, including Kyat Cave in Kayah State located in southern part of Shan plateau.
Stalactites, natural tracks of water, ancient Buddha images and votive tablets at natural caves attracted travellers. However, some pieces of wood assumed as damaged coffins in Kyat Cave caught interest of the travellers, increasing number of visitors. That was why Kyat Cave became a tourist destination of Myanmar.
According to the records of the Ministry of Home Affairs, as Loikaw was established by U Thiri in 1200 Myanmar Era (1838 AD), it was in the past named Thiridaw Village established near Taungkwe Hill. As such, the village was called Loikhaw in Shan language. In this regard, Loi means hill and Khaw, separately in Shan language. Later, Loikhaw changed to Lweikaw and then to Loikaw.
On 20 April 1888, Chieftain of Kandarawady Sao La Wee established his palace in Loikaw. Kayah region, which was located as Kayinni State before regaining independence of Myanmar, became Kayah State in 1951.
Existing Loikaw Township was formed with 19 wards and 123 villages of 12 village-tracts on 17 March 2016. Loikaw Township on 598.06 square miles of land shares border with Shadaw Township in the east, Demawhso Township in the west, Bawlakhe Township in the south and Pekhon and Hsihseng townships of Shan State in the north.
Loikaw Township is filled with lesser area of plains but with thick forests and mountains. Among the hills, Thiri Mingala Hill (Taungkwe), Shwe Hill, Taungthonlon Hill, Myakalat Hill and Shweletwah Hill are famous in the township. As Bilu Creek is a main water source in Loikaw Township, Bilu Creek hydropower plant (Lawpita) supplies electricity to various towns and villages across Myanmar.
Loikaw Township at an altitude of 2,950 feet is home to Kayah, Bamar and Shan ethnics as the majority.
Travellers who arrived in Loikaw focused on visits to Taungkwe Pagoda, Lawpita and Ngwetaung Dam in the past. Nowadays, travellers pay visits to Kyat Cave in addition to the aforesaid sites.
Kyat Cave, being famous among travellers since a few years, is located 10 miles east of Loikaw. Travellers leading to Kyat Cave must come from Pinlaung to Loikaw. At the junction to Loikaw, they need to turn the left. They can reach the cave by driving along the smooth road to the foot of the hill where the cave is located.
As the mouth of the cave is 120 feet high from the foot of the hill at an altitude of 2,990 feet, brick steps were made to the hill with rails. Local people called the hill, the location of Kyat Cave, as Rasuku in Kayah language.
Currently, local Buddhist monk U Vayama leads maintenance tasks of the cave. Travellers are urged to take off foot wares before entering the cave. But, Kyat Cave, being a limestone structure, is always wet at its earthen floor.
The 2,194 metres long one-closed end cave is gradually narrowing inside. Anyone cannot walk till the end of the pavement. The 600 metres long inside part of the cave is facilitated with lighting starting from the mouth. Wooden bridges at some parts help travellers move conveniently.
We found woods and pieces of timber logs in shape of coffins around 300 feet area from the entrance. Among them, some timber logs were carved in shape of coffins but some were sawn timber. No structure in good conditions was found. Collapsed wooden posts and bars assumed as stages on which carved timber logs might be put were found near the walls inside the cave. Some of the stages were 20 feet high from the cave floor.
Although local people said there remained human skeletons in the coffins, not only fossils but remains of humans were found there at present. However, some pieces of earthen pot were seen near the pieces of wood. That is why it needs to conduct research on these pieces whether or not related to the customs of Myanmar in breaking the water pot at a time when corpse was conveyed to the graveyard.
It was a strange fact that although the carved wooden pieces found in Kyat Cave were assumed as coffins, there was no piece of human bones.
A large number of woods assumed as coffins were found in the interior part of the cave. One ends of wood were on the interior walls and other ends on the cave floor in disarray. Drag-holes were seen at some timber logs. It can be assumed that these logs were tied with ropes to pull them out from the foot of hill to the cave and to control them inside the cave not to drop into the ravine.
The coffin shaped logs were carved of teak, most of which were broken and damaged. Each of them was eight to 15 feet long. The carved parts were about 20 inches to two feet wide. As the logs were longer than the area where a human body could be put, anyone did not know when the logs existed and these were in shape of coffins, Kyat Cave became a puzzle one.
Coffins hanging at rocky hill side
A cremation custom happened in China from 400 to 2,500 years ago that coffins in which dead bodies were kept were hung at the rocks for cremation. Similar hanging coffins were found in Indonesia and the Philippines. Especially, Bao race residing in southern China practised hanging coffins for cremation of remains.
We saw wooden coffins in various sizes and forms of logs put on the edges of rocks and hung at the rocky walls in the caves.
Hanging the coffins of dead bodies aimed to protect them danger of wildlife and to invite gods from the heaven. Due to the belief that gods from the heaven call the dead, coffins were placed on the high stages to be closer to the gods.
Evidences were found that similar traditions were practised in some parts of China, the Philippines and Indonesia. However, anyone could not know the aim of hanging the coffins but they could generally assume it might be easy access for the dead to the gods.
Coffins in Kyat Cave
The evidences on hanging the coffins in which dead bodies were kept were found at Kyat Cave in Myanmar. However, any fossils, pieces of bones and bodies were not found around the coffins. That was why some researchers assumed pieces of woods in Kyat Cave might not be coffins. Post-graduate students of Anthropology Department of Yangon University reviewed these pieces might be the carved boats similar to the coffins. These boats might be stored in the cave due to something reasons. Although each human could not have more than seven feet high, the coffin-designed logs in the cave were sizes for two persons.
It was a puzzle for all that the exact fact when the carved logs were sent into the cave and who sent them could not be discovered, catching attentions of the travellers.
Although the custom on cremating the dead bodies in the carved logs into the cave was not found in Myanmar, teak log coffins were found on roofs of Bo Krai and Ban Rai caves in Pang Mapha District of Mae Hong Son Province in northern Thailand. As Pang Mapha District of Thailand is located in the east of Loikaw, close to same latitude via mountain ranges, if research could discover the relations of culture between the two areas, the puzzle of Kyat Cave could be solved.
Travellers to Kyat Cave are allowed to pay visits to the cave from 9 am to 4 pm daily. As interest of local and international travellers helps develop tourism industry at Kyat Cave, if firm evidences can be exposed, Kyat Cave will have more development. Translated by Than Tun Aung