A visit to Mandalay would not be complete without a visit to Maha Muni (Maha Myat Muni, also spelled Mahamyatmuni or Maha Myatmuni or Mahamuni) Buddha image. Considered as the most sacred Buddha image in Mandalay and in Myanmar, Maha Muni Buddha image draws a large crowd of devotees from all over Myanmar. The pagoda is also known as Rakhine (Arakan) Paya or Payagyi (Great Pagoda).
During the time of Gautama Buddha, King Sanda Thuria (Chandra Surya) of the Kingdom of Dhannavati, the ancient kingdom of Rakhine, invited Gautama Buddha to the capital. Buddha taught the king and the people of Dhannavati the path to nirvana for a week. Before Buddha left, King Chandra Surya asked Gautama Buddha to “leave us the shape of yourself“, to which Gautama Buddha agreed. While Gautama Buddha was meditating, Sakka the king of heaven cast the bronze image of Gautama Buddha. Lord Buddha was so pleased with the image that he breathed upon the image, thus bringing it to life. The king and people of Dhannavati place the image on the diamond studded throne on Sirigutta Hill, and revered it as the sacred living image.
According to the archeologists, Dhannavati was built in 1st century AD, 600 years after Gautama Buddha. Probably, the Maha Myat Muni Buddha image was cast during the time of King Chandra Surya during which Buddhism spreads to Rakhine.
In 1784, King Bodawpaya of Amarapura sent his crown prince with a force of 30,000 men. The crown prince succeeded in taking Rakhine, and carried home the sacred Mahamuni Buddha. They cut the Buddha into three separate pieces and brought back to Amarapura. King Bodawpaya was so pleased that he built a beautiful seven story pagoda 8 kilometer north of the capital Amarapuri (in currently day Mandalay). This beautiful structure was destroyed in 1884 by a fire and was rebuilt again after the fire.
“I shall pass into nibbana (nirvana) in my 80th year, but this, with my essence, will live the 5,000 years I have prescribed for the duration of the religion”
The sacred Maha Myat Muni Buddha (Maha Myatmuni) was cast in bronze, weighs 6.5 tons, and 3.83 meters tall. The Buddha image was case in Phasa Mudra (seated posture of relaxed deportment, which signifies the Buddha’s conquest of Mara, the demonic god). The crown is decorated with diamonds, rubies and sapphires. The whole Buddha image, except the face and the head, is studded with gold foils by devoted Buddhists that the image is covered by 15 cm thick gold, distorting the original shape and form of the image. Visitors can see devoted Buddhists pasting thin fold leaves except during the cold season when the Buddha image is cloaked in robes.
Every morning at 5 AM, a group of monks wash the face of the Maha Muni Buddha image. This ritual draws a large crowd of devotees, who come and offer early morning food offerings to Buddha.
On the pagoda
Together with the Maha Muni Image, six bronze Khmer sculptures were also brought back to Amarapura. These are two Khmer warriors (dvarapala or temple guards), three lions and one three-headed elephant. They are kept in a small building in the Maha Muni Pagoda courtyard.
The story of these six bronze sculptures is quite interesting. Originally, these bronze statues were guardians of the Angkor Wat temple. During the raid of Cambodia in 1431 by Thai, they were among the 30 such items taken back by the Thais. In 1564, King Bayintnaung (Bayinnaung) of Hansawaddi raided Ayutthaya and took the statues back to Bago (Hansawaddi). During the time of his son, King Nanda, Hansawaddi was raided and destroyed by the Rakhine King Razagyi of Mrauk U. The bronze statues were again taken as war booty to Mrauk U. Finally, King Bodawpaya of Amarapura conquered Rakhine and took the six statues together with the sacred Maha Muni Pagoda to Amarapura.
The two bronze dvarapala warriors are a special attraction to the pilgrims to Maha Muni Buddha. Believed by many people as having special healing powers, people touch various parts of their bodies in the belief that the illness in the corresponding parts will be healed. Thus parts such as abdomen and head become shiny and thin.
Other than bronze statues
The Maha Muni Buddha and the six statues are not the only things to see here. Not far from the bronze statues, there is a five ton gong in a small shed. There are also hundreds of ancient inscriptions that were moved here from several parts of Burma on order of King Bodawpaya. Some of these inscriptions dated back to Bagan era, and hence the subject of interest for the scholars and archeologists.
A curio museum that displays the life size statues of King Mindon (founder of Mandalay), Thibaw (the last king of Mandalay) and his notoriously jealous wife Supayalat, is situated in the south western side of the pagoda. In front of this building is the statue of King Bodawpaya.
The streets or zaungdans leading to the Mahamuni Pagoda are lined by stalls that sell various souvenirs. Visitors can find lacquer ware, wood carvings, sculptors, paintings, silverware as well as small gems and stones at these stalls. Prices can be expensive so always try to use your bargaining skill. If you intend to buy any gems, stones, bear in mind that export of these items are strictly forbidden except if you buy at an authorized dealer (who will issue an export ticket with the gem).
Editor’s Note: Many of the above information has been obtained from our reference book Lonely Planet Guide to Myanmar (Burma). This is a very good guide book on Myanmar, and essential book that you must bring on your trip to Myanmar. The book can be obtained from Amazon store.