The last old Myanmar capital city “Ratanapon” [Mandalay] Part I

Strategic and urbanization reasons were motivating factors of King Mindon’s move to the founding of a new capital city and hurriedly building of a new palace there. Amarapura was strategically too much exposed to naval attack by the British who now already annexed half of Myanmar kingdom. After the rich province of Pegu had fallen into the British hand as a result of the second Anglo-Myanmar war of 1852, the “British Burma” extended up to the town Prome [Pyay]. The hill ranges on the western bank of the Ayeyawady river, facing Pyay were arbitrarily demarcated by the British as the border line between the “British Burma” and Myanmar kingdom. The British set up Customs House and military posts to guard. Till today, these hill ranges were known as “A-kauk Taung Tan” in Myanmar [hill ranges of British Customs House and military posts].
Since early days, there were Buddhist monuments, monasteries, recluse, and meditation caves on these pleasant forest hill ranges. Later Myanmar pilgrims and traders embellished the hillsides facing the river with countless sculptures and carvings of high artistic quality, attracting the marvel and appreciation of visitors and tourists at home and abroad.
The British war boats could come up easily to attack capital city Amarapura which was right on the eastern bank of the Ayeyawady river. Mindon was right in moving to a more secure place like Mandalay. Besides from the viewpoint of urbanization, Amarapura became an exhausted sprawling capital city with a growing city population of 19,719 living within its walls. That total figure consisted of (1) King, queens, royal family and relatives numbering 300 [2 percent of the population], (2) Buddhist monks 4,462 [22 percent], (3) king’s servicemen, Myanmar and foreigner, 11,472 [58 percent] and commoners [Athi] 3,588 [18 percent]. Two percent who were the ruling class occupied one quarter of the space of the capital city. Monks resided in the monasteries surrounding the palace.
Urban planning included residential quarters, road construction, bridge building, bazaars, markets, trade centres, jetties, toll gates and customs houses, military and guard outposts, leper houses, hospitals and cemeteries. But lighting and fire for cooking were still backward. Either candle or crude earth oil were used at night and charcoal or firewood was used for cooking, causing frequent outbreak of fire.
Mindon thus chose Mandalay area which covers a vast expanse of even land surrounded by hill ranges and individual offshoots of Shan Plateau to the north, north-east and south east, crisscrossed by aquatic bodies of different forms – falls, brooks, springs, streams, lakes and canals and besides, the mighty Ayeyawady flows on the west.
articlesAs princes, Mindon and his younger brother Kanaung travelled widely in the peripheries of Amarapura reaching out to Mandalay and beyond. They visited hills around Mandalay such as Yetkanzin hill, Sagyin marble hills, Mei U Taung hill, Yan Kin hill, Yey Tagung Taung hill and Mandalay hill of which Mandalay hill was their favourite because of its location, natural environment and a breath-taking pleasant panoramic view atop it.
There was an old Myanmar folk song by an unknown composer which bears an oracle of the sacredness and auspiciousness of Mandalay hill. It runs as follows:—
The above old song conjures up the physical, mythical, spiritual and historical aspects of the hill. It is a hill of 776 feet high above the sea level, outcropping from a ground which is “even like the face of a big drum”. Oval shape it takes is green with dry forest flora, a mile and a half furlong from north to south and only 6 furlongs from east to west. Mandalay hill sits right in the centre of nine minor hills around it – (1) Shwe Taung hill (gold hill), (2) Ngwe Taung hill (silver hill), (3) Patamya Taung hill (Ruby hill), (4) Sey-dan Taung hill (yellow orpiment hill), (5) Myin-thi-lar Taung hill (Realgar or red orpiment hill), (6) Dut-hta Taung hill (copper sulphate crystal or blue vitriol hill), (7) Yey-hle Taung hill (spring or sprout hill), (8) Kyey Ni Taung hill (copper hill) and (9) Be-loo ma Taung hill (Ogress hill). Their names tell the minerals they have in store and the 9th hill suggests the legends associated with it and Mandalay Hill. Mya Nanda [Emerald Lake] mentioned in the folk song is one of the two water reservoirs which Prince Min Shin Saw, the elder son of King Alaung Sithu of Bagan dynasty dug to restore rain and flood water for the use of cultivation of fields and farms and domestic use of the farmers who inhabited there. The other reservoir is Aung Pin Lei [Auspicious inland sea]. These two big reservoirs let out their fresh water through channels and streams which touch and caress the Mandalay Hill clock-wise.
One oral history tells us that a certain young king named “Ugga Thena Dhamma Yaza” from the kingdom of Hanthawady came to upper Myanmar in quest of a suitable site for building a town. He founded a town to the north of Mandalay hill, with the help of his hundred Amats (junior ministers of the court). The town was thus commonly known as Mat-ta-yar Myo (the town built by 100 Amats). This king regularly visited Mandalay hill for religious practices such as keeping Sabbath and meditation. Local people also frequented Mandalay hill for the same purpose. They call the hill “Mingalay Hill” [Yong King’s Hill] which in course of time corrupts to Man-da-lay hill.
Another version of the name of this hill is founded in the stone inscriptions of Yadana Myitzu Pagoda which stands on the western outskirt of Mandalay. This pagoda was built by the forefathers of King Shwe Nan Kyaw Shin in 1501 A.D. In this inscription the hill is mentioned as “Man-da-ray” hill because the hill is very enchanting and it gives peace and tranquility to the visitors.
In Buddhist legends, we find different names of Mandalay hill in different periods of time – the hill was called “Khina Thawa Pura” in the lifetime of Kakusanda Buddha, it was called “Way Lar Pura” in lifetime of Konagamana Buddha, it was called “Par-da-tha Pura” in the lifetime of Kassapa Buddha. It was only in the lifetime of Gotama Buddha that the hill acquired the name “Mandalay Hill”.
One legend tells the following story which supports Mindon’s founding of a new capital city Ratanapon at the foot of the Mandalay hill –
“Lord Gotama Buddha and his cousin Monk Ashin Ananda, accompanied by five hundred arahat Saint disciples made an ariel sojourned to the Mandalay hill. They sojourned on its summit. When Ashin Ananda saw Lord Buddha smile, he asked the Buddha why he smiled. Lord Buddha explained that the Mandalay hill was the abode of his previous seven lives – a lion, a stag, a quail, an iguana, a hunter, an elephant and a rooster.  An ogress named Sanda Mukhi from the Beeloo Ma Taung hill [ogress hill] the 9th surrounding hill, came to pay respect to the Buddha who preached dhamma to her. She felt so happy and peaceful after she heard the dhamma that she worshipped the Buddha. In a frenzy of devotional ardour, the ogress cut off her two breasts and placed them at the feet of the Buddha in offering. Whereupon the Buddha told her his divine prophesy that “in the 2460 of Buddha Era, this place [the site of Mandalay Palace city] which he pointed at with his forefinger of his right hand, which was evenly flat like the face of a drum would became a big capital city named “Ratanarpon” [The capital city of Gems] and there “as a descendant of the great Maha Thamada [the first king of the universe] shall thou be king of that capital city.”
According to this divine prophesy of Lord Gotama Buddha, King Mindon was the re-incarnation of the ogress Sanda Mukhi. The hill, sacred, sublime fair in shape and formation, possesses all good and suitable qualities for the abode of kings. Because of Lord Buddha’s Divine Prophesy a pagoda “Su Taung Pyi” [wish fulfilling] pagoda was built on its summit.
Myanmar chronicles have recorded maintenance, renovations and embellishments carried out on the Mandalay hill by pious Myanmar kings. King Duttabaung of Sri Ksetra city kingdom who ascended the throne in 101 Buddhist Era, was in search of his exiled queen “Saw Mya Waddy”. When he came upon a spot not far from Mandalay, he saw a hill. He was so fascinated by its sublime beauty that he built on its summit “Su Taung Pyi” pagoda. He also built rest houses and stairways on the west and south sides of the hill. King Anawrahta of Bagan [1044-1077 A.D.] on his return from a pilgrimage to the Sacred Tooth Relic of Gotama Buddha in Gandalayit [China], made a halt on Mandalay hill and built a pagoda on its summit. In 1472 A.D. King Thiha Thura of Inwa dynasty renovated Su Taung Pyi pagoda and built some rest houses and stairways. In 1805 A.D. the Crown Prince Maha Upra Raja, the father of King Bagyidaw [819-1837] renovated Su Taung Pyi pagoda and embellished it with gold and putting a new hti [decorated umbrella] on it. A gilt devotional hall and ornately-carved roofed stairways were also built. King Bagyidaw repaired and renovated the monuments and pagodas on the hill. He also built four rest houses, one at each of the four sides of Su Taung Pyi pagoda. At the foot of the east stairway, a water tank was built to supply fresh water for the pilgrims.
When Mindon decided to found a new capital city on the site near the Mandalay hill, it was believed  and hailed that the Divine Prophesy of Gotama Buddha had come true. The legendary Ogress Sanda Mukhi was reborn a human prince who became King Mindon. On Friday, the 13th February 1857, the construction of a new palace was begun. King Mindon frequently came from Amarapura to the construction site to supervise the construction works personally. He found time to visit the Mandalay hill and carried out many development and embellishment works there. In May 1858, the construction of the new place was completed and in May 1859, the battlements and the moat were finished.
King Mindon assigned to the Minister of Gunnery Lord of Mya Taung Myo to the making of a life size statue of a standing Buddha Gotama with the right hand raised and the forefinger pointing at the site of Mandalay palace down below, in the gesture of divine prophesy as well as a life size statue of Ashin Ananda in the manner of attendance and attention. The two statues were each carved out of a single big teak log, and sheltered in the exquisitely carved image house, with a gilt wooden spire on it roof located on the south side of the hill. So these big teak statues were very much larger than life size. One of King Mindon’s sons, Prince Salin was assigned to the building of a big gilt and glass mosaic devotional hall in the precincts of Su Taung Pyi pagoda. Unfortunately, in 1883, a big fire which broke out in the vicinity of Shwe Kyi Myint pagoda in down town Mandalay, spread to Mandalay hill and destroyed buildings and statues of King Mindon’s merit. (To be continued)

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