Temples in Southeast Asia are living places.
This is certainly true in Myanmar. The many Buddhist temples I visited there were architecturally beautiful – and different, with no two exactly the same. But what I generally find more interesting is the life – both sacred and secular – within and around them.
On my first afternoon in Mandalay, I and the nine other photographic-tour participants, under the guidance of Photographer Karl Grobl and local guide MM, visited three distinctly different religious buildings.
Our first stop was the wooden Shwenandaw Kyaung or Golden Palace Monastery. Built in traditional Burmese style in the 19th century by King Mindon Min (reigned 1852-1878) as a palace, this graceful teak building is covered, inside and out, with carvings. Originally, these carvings were coated in gold (hence the name), but tropical weather has taken its toll: no gold remains on the outside, and many of the carvings are worn beyond recognition.
It is still an elegantly beautiful place – with a number of cheeky little imps running around in their novice robes, waiting to meet visitors.
In Thailand, many young boys are enrolled in the local monastery, not because of any particular religious inclination, but because their families cannot afford to send them to school otherwise (e.g. Little Angels). Apparently, it is a similar story in Myanmar, so I was very curious about the young novices we met: what were their lives really like? The life of a novice is not easy, but perhaps it is easier than living in a poor rural household.
At the gates of the temple, it was getting busier, with people coming and going; many stopping in to the monastery grounds make offerings.
Our second stop at The Kuthodaw Pagoda or Maha Lawka Marazein Paya (Royal Merit Pagoda) was a complete contrast. Although it was built during the same period, it served a very different purpose. King Mindon Min was concerned about the invading British and what their presence in Burma would mean for Buddhist teachings.
The Kuthodaw Pagoda is called the World’s Largest Book. King Mindon had the entire 15 books of the Tripitaka, the sacred scriptures of Theravada Buddhism, inscribed in gold on huge marble tablets. Each of these 729 double-sided slabs is housed in its own small stupa or kyauksa gu.
It was getting dark as we arrived at our last temple-stop of the day, but fortunately the rains held off. We positioned ourselves on the upper balcony of a modest monastery, and waited as a young monk struck a metal bong repeatedly with a heavy wooden striker. Quietly, walking barefoot, maroon-robed monks emerged from all directions, and lined up to enter the prayer hall.
I am seldom bored visiting temples: as I said before, architecturally, they are all very different.
And, they are busy places.
These pictures are just a sampling of the life within them.