Mrauk U The Forgotten Kingdom

You may well ask why I went to Mrauk U - not the easiest place to get to. It lies in the Rakhine state of Myanmar, close to the border of Bangladesh. For many years it was known by its old name of Arakan.

As Sir Edmund Hillary said, when asked why he climbed Mt. Everest, ‘Because it is there.”

And Mrauk U has been there for a very long time: even Myanmar Tourism describes it as ‘the forgotten kingdom’. The kingdom of Mrauk U was founded in 1433 by King Min Saw Mon. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was a well-known port with ships from Europe and the Far East able to sail seventy kilometres up the Kaladan River from the Bay of Bengal in order to trade. At one stage, the kingdom controlled half of what is now Bangladesh as well as a large portion of Myanmar. As the city grew to 160,000 people, they expressed their gratitude by building temples – many temples. Many of these temples have survived, and while the site is not as large or as imposing as Bagan, it has its own charm. Myanmar's Ministry of Culture is preparing to have Mrauk U added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Temples of this bye-gone era litter the landscape and you will need to walk across threshing circles and vegetable gardens to reach some of them.

A hilltop temple towers over village houses.

Taking a short cut through the archeological zone.

Village gardens surround the temples.

Classic Buddhist design - smaller stupas in a concentric ring around a larger stupa.

Ordinary village activities - herding cattle - amongst the temples.

Smoke from the evening cooking fires spirals around the stupas.

Cross this threshing area to reach yet another temple.

The first temple I visited was Shitte-Thaung Pagoda where you pay your archeological zone fee of approximately five dollars. It’s well worth it. Shitte-Thaung was built in 1535 and is reputed to be home to eighty thousand Buddhas. And, no, I did not count them.

Shitte-Thaung Temple

Like many temples at Mrauk U, Shitte-Thaung was built on a hill and looks like a fortress. The temple has a main stupa with four smaller stupas, one in each corner. Inside the temple is a main prayer hall containing many Buddha images. A long dark passageway, said to be one hundred metres long, leads from this room into the inner temple. It contains many sculpted figures depicting ordinary Rakhine people as well as scenes from the Jakarta tales (stories of the Buddha’s life). There are also scenes of Hindu deities including Indra on three elephants. At the centre of the temple is the room that contains Shitte-Thaung’s principal Buddha – three metres high and made of gold.

Sculptures line the passageway that surrounds the golden Buddha

Close to Shitte-Thaung is Htukkenthein temple built in 1571 and looking like a bunker.

Htukkenthein Temple

It is very dark inside and a very long corridor spirals to an inner chamber. I felt like I was circling the innards of an ammonite. There are 140 arched recesses in the walls, each enshrining a stone image of the Buddha. Surrounding the Buddhas are sculpted figures of ordinary people said to have sponsored the construction of the temple. The passageway ends in a five metre high inner chamber shaped like a dome. Daylight from above illuminates the Buddha figure.

Many of the temples are well within walking distance of each other but I wanted to see Koe-Thaung, the largest temple in Mrauk U. Koe-Thaung lies a couple of kilometres from the village so I hired a horse and cart to take me there. It was a rough ride over roadways that were substantially more rock than anything else.

Patching up the potholes - Myanmar style

Koe-Thaung, the temple of ninety thousands Buddhas, is huge and is surrounded by terraces covered with stupas. It was built in 1553. There’s a very appealing interior passageway, dark in some places and light in others where the sun floods in through collapsed walls. The walls are covered with small Buddhas carved into the rock face of the walls. Much larger Buddhas seated on pedestals line the passageway. It’s a glorious, mysterious sight – enough to send shivers up your spine. Such devotion – and much merit - to carve ninety thousand Buddhas

Koe-Thaung - the largest temple in Mrauk U.

Rows of stupas surround the temple.

Buddhas line the inner passageways.

A few of Koe-Thaung's 90,000 Buddhas.

And a few more.

Stupas line the terraces.

Koe-Thaung is surrounded by farm land

But temples aren’t the only attraction to Mrauk U. The village itself presents a kaleidoscope of ordinary people going about their daily chores. You don’t need to see the friezes in the temples – you can watch rural Myanmar unfold before your eyes. A family cooking their evening meal in the lane outside their house, an old woman curled up on a bench at the end of her garden watching the world go by, a woman drawing water from a well – all are indelible scenes.

Life on the streets of Mrauk U

And all around the village, frequently interspersed with the temples, you can see farmers taking care of their crops.

Harvesting the crop

And then there is the market. It’s very busy - full of life and colour – as people from the surrounding rural areas come to the big smoke of Mrauk U to do their shopping.

Ready to weigh okra.

Try some!

Chilies anyone?

Preparing the sale.

Exchanging goods and money.

Patiently waiting.

Fresh fruit

and vegetables

Created by Janet B. Webster aka The Silvernomad

Photographs by Janet B. Webster aka the Silvernomad

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