Mandalay’s most prestigious sight
If there was a league table of Burmese temples, then Mahamuni would have a firm hold on the number two spot, after Yangon’s Shwedagon. While it’s the overall site and giant golden chedi that are Shwedagon’s claim to fame, at the more modest Mahamuni Paya it's the central Buddha image that creates the prestige. Even for those very familiar with Southeast Asian Buddhist temples, the care, attention and awe bestowed upon this 3.5 metre-tall seated Buddha is astonishing.
You’ll have seen plenty of pagodas throughout the region claiming to contain a Buddha hair, bone or fingernail but Mahamuni—translated as "sacred living image—is considered by the faithful to contain part of Buddha’s actual soul. The image is thought to be 2,000 years old and was brought to Mandalay by a Burmese king after sacking the Rakhine capital of Mrauk U.
Beginning each day at 04:00, resident monks wash the face and brush the teeth of the statue to make sure it’s in tip-top condition for the coming day’s visitors. Pilgrims come from all over Burma, as well as all over the Buddhist world, to worship at the image’s feet and to stick gold leaves on the body. They’re never placed on the head though, so the Buddha's pristine, smooth face does not match its bumpy golden body where an estimated two tonnes of gold have been added to the original. Locals say that no matter how many extra gold leaf is applied to the body, the proportions of the statue still remains attractive. Indeed, all that extra weight doesn't give this particular statue even the tiniest glimpse of a Buddha belly.
Men are able to witness the growing Buddha body up close, but women are not allowed to cross the threshold; women wanting to add gold to the statue must pass it on through a male assistant. They can however watch men add leaf on the non-stop live video feed of the Buddha on any of the screens in surrounding corridors.
You’ll enter by a corridor filled with vendors selling Buddha snow domes and Buddha-in-aquarium table lamps and other remarkably tatty souvenirs as well as rogue old ladies flogging flowers and incense sticks. After this is the inner sanctum, with iron gates protecting the statue itself and crimson-painted colonnades surrounding the central shrine. The gates to the Buddha are locked at 16:00.
This in turn is surrounded by a tiled courtyard on the right of which a separate building houses a small collection of large Khmer bronzes, including Airavarta (or Erawan), and Shiva, which were also looted from the Rakhine capital, after having in turn been taken in booty from Angkor. These bronze statues are said to possess healing powers that transfer to the person who rubs them. If you have a tummy ache, rub their tummy. Headache, rub a head and so on.Photo 4 Get your Buddha snow-dome here
As is often the case with such auspicious locations like Shwedagon, Mount Popa or the Golden Rock, the impressive nature of Mahamuni is actually not so much any specific image or architectural feature, but the overall scene and atmosphere created by the devotees, pilgrims and monks that impresses. And in this case, it is very impressive.
Outside the temple, check out the numerous stone and marble statue workshops between the west entrance of Mahamuni and the road to Amarapura, where hundreds of marble statues sit in varying stages of progress. The workshops add another dimension to the paya visit, but if you have breathing problems with dust, be sure to bring at the very least a handkerchief. They begin opening up around 08:00 and close around 18:00.
The dress code is very strict at Mahamuni. Shoes are left at the main entrance, shoulders are covered and ankle-length trousers must be worn. Sarongs/longyiis are for hire at the main entrance for both men and women.
Mahamuni is in theory covered by the Mandalay combo ticket, though we’ve never seen a ticket seller. They may though ask you for a 500 kyat camera fee.
Mahamuni is around 6 kilometres south of the city centre on 83rd Street, just off the main Sagaing Road 84th, so it's easy cycling distance. Expect to pay 10,000 kyat return in a taxi, though it's better visited as a stop off on the way to southern sights, in which case your driver shouldn’t add much extra.
Based in Chiang Mai, Mark Ord has been travelling Southeast Asia for over two decades and first crossed paths with Travelfish on Ko Lipe in the early 1990s.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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