Monks, Nuns and a Monastic Life: Mahagandayon Monastery and Sagaing Hill, Myanmar

Young novice nun in White, clutching her alms bowl, looking over her shoulder. Mahagandayon Monastery, Mandalay

Novice Nun
Mahagandayon Monastery, Amarapura

It is a different world…

Temples and monasteries are an integral part of life in Myanmar. They accommodate about half a million males, who are either vocational monks or novices, and around 50,000 nuns. That is: roughly one percent of the population actually lives in one of the many monasteries or nunneries, completely dependent on the laity for all their material needs.

Theravada Buddhist monastic life has a strict daily routine revolving around prayers and religious study, but it is the silent alms-rounds (e.g. Sangkhlaburi, Chiang Rai, and Luang Prabang) and the mealtimes (e.g. Lining up for Lunch) that fascinate outsiders and which provide such rich photographic opportunities.

View of young monks behind a half wall: one shaving the other

The Morning Shave
Mahagandayon Monastery

Being a “tourist attraction” is a dilemma for monastic institutions: while having visitors contributes to their financial well-being, and promotes cultural understanding, it can be disruptive. ‘Boundaries’ are different between cultures, and many tourists seem to be unaware (or to deliberately ignore) local expectations of behaviour within sacred grounds.

Mahagandayon Monastery in Amarapura, outside Mandalay is on just about every Burmese travel-agent’s itinerary. Founded around 1914, it is one of the largest teaching monasteries in Myanmar, and home to up to 2000 monks at any given time.

The common areas of Mahagandayon Monastery are quite open, but visitors are clearly instructed which parts are out-of-bounds to them: an injunction that more than one tourist, unfortunately, ignores. Daily, tourists descend mid-morning to watch the resident monks line up silently and systematically for their lunch – their last meal of the day.

An elder monk walking on the sidewalk, Mahagandayon Monastery

Abbot
Mahagandayon Monastery

Monks forming Lunch Lines in the rain, Mahagandayon Monastery

Start of the Lunch Lines

Young Burmese Theravada Buddhist monks line up with their alms bowls, Mahagandayon Monastery

Eyes Down
Young monks line up for lunch.

Environmental Portrait: Young Burmese Theravada Buddhist Monk in a queue, Mahagandayon Monastery

Young Monk Waiting

The bare feet of burmese Buddhist monks, Mahagandayon Monastery

Best Foot Forward
Bare feet on the wet walkways of Mahagandayon Monastery.

Line of Burmese Theravada buddhist monks,  Mahagandaryon Monastery

Lines Moving into Lunch

Because visitors cannot be relied upon not to disturb the monks during their silent mealtime, they are no longer allowed inside the dining hall. So I, my nine photo-group companions, our leader Karl Grobl, and our guide Mr MM, remained outside, in the rainy streets and alleys of the monastery while the the monks ate in peace.

Once they finished eating, they filed out and commenced cleaning up.

Silhouette of a theravada buddhist monk in a lunchroom, Mahagandayon Monastery

Lunchroom, Mahagandayon Monastery

Young burmese theravada buddhist monk Washing Dishes, Mahagandaryon Monastery

Washing Dishes

Portrait: Monk Closeup Mahagandaryon Monastery

Greeting Visitors and Pilgrims

Chinese Monk in long yellow robes in the wet street through Mahagandayon Monastery

Chinese Monk
Visitors and pilgrims to Mahagandayon Monastery come from all over.

Burmese Theravada Monk talking to a blond woman, Mahagandayon Monastery

Monk Talking to a Visitor
Many of the monks at the monastery were articulate in English, and outspoken about their country’s history and politics.

Laneway Mahagandayon Monastery

Cross Cultural Discussions

Monk walking in a laneway, Mahagandayon Monastery

Monk in a Lane Way

A Theravada Monk on a balcony, Mahagandayon Monastery

From a balcony, a monk watches the visitors below.

Woman Waiting Mahagandaryon Monastery

Woman Waiting
Indigent people wait…

Young monk giving food to an indigent woman, Mahagandaryon Monastery

Alms for the Poor
… until the monks give them leftovers.

Young monk at a square water trough, washing dishes, Mahagandayon Monastery

Washing Up

We left the monks and the Mahagandayon Monastery to get our own lunch in Sagaing, southwest of Mandalay. Above the Ayeyarwady River, the Sagaing Hills are dotted with monasteries and nunneries; we stopped at one nunnery, where the women were busy preparing food for the next day: for themselves and for the neighbouring monks.

Three burmese nuns in pink robes and red skirts, sitting on a bench, preparing food, Sagaing Hill

Three Nuns, Sagaing Hill
Even though their last meal of the day is before noon, preparation for the next day’s meal starts early.

Portrait of a laughing burmese nun, Sagaing Hill

The nunnery is full of laughter.

Portrait of a smiling burmese nun, Sagaing Hill

The women have a natural beauty.

Portrait of laughing burmese nuns, preparing vegetables, Sagaing Hill

Work is easy when you have a friend to laugh and gossip with.

Portrait of a smiling burmese nun, Sagaing Hill

An older nun smiles at a kitchen doorway.

Portrait of a smiling burmese nun drawing water from a tap, Sagaing Hill

Another nun collects water.

Burmese nuns washing in a bucket, Sagaing Hill

Even though washing-up conditions are a bit rough, everything looks spotless.

Text: Metta - wishing you loving kindness.It is a different world.

Structured. Ordered. With a time and place for everything.

But, there is always acceptance and a welcome for outsiders, and there is always time for a smile and a laugh.

It’s a pretty good world, really, and I hope future visitors show it the respect it deserves, lest we not be invited back.

Pictures: 14September2012

  • Signe Westerberg - April 25, 2013 - 11:10 pm

    Beautiful as always Ursula, what fabulous smiles and giving people.ReplyCancel

    • Ursula - April 26, 2013 - 12:37 am

      Pleasure, as always, Signe, to have you along. 🙂ReplyCancel

  • Ayn Brown - May 3, 2013 - 2:11 pm

    Love it, such a beautiful portrayal of the spirit in the monasteries.ReplyCancel

    • Ursula - May 3, 2013 - 9:50 pm

      Thanks, Ayn. I would have loved more time with the nuns. Amazing place, isn’t it?ReplyCancel

  • […] “Being a ‘tourist attraction’ is a dilemma for monastic institutions: while having visitors contributes to their financial well-being, and promotes cultural understanding, it can be disruptive. ‘Boundaries’ are different between cultures, and many tourists seem to be unaware (or to deliberately ignore) local expectations of behaviour within sacred grounds.” -Weekly Wanders […]ReplyCancel

  • Aurora Lambino - December 3, 2016 - 6:13 pm

    Thank you for a more detailed insight of what Mahagandayon Monastery has to offer. We were brought there and given basic knowledge of it being a teaching monastery. Like you, we had seen the activities that you had featured in your write up, except the interaction of the monks and the lay “tourist”. I thought, one can not even engage them in any conversation, so, out of respect, I did not speak to any one except ask permission for a photo or two. Most have been very obliging.ReplyCancel

    • Ursula - December 4, 2016 - 12:55 am

      Hi Aurora,
      Thanks so much for your visit and your comments.
      It’s always hard to know how/if we should interact with people in these “foreign” settings – even when our guides have given a briefing. I tend to keep my camera down until I’ve made eye-contact, and “ask” for consent wordlessly. The monks or nuns then take the next step, and I get a better sense what is ok. As you say, they are usually MUCH more obliging than I would be in their shoes!
      Cheers! U.ReplyCancel

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