Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Monastic City of Sagaing

In a bend in the Irrawaddy, just downriver of Mandalay, a ridge of hills rises along the western bank. Upon these hills is the city of Sagaing. The landscape is crowded with large trees and even larger pagodas, temples, stupas and other religious shrines, for this is the monastic heart of the country. There are a few proper roads through the area, but the cobbled trails, dusty paths and covered walkways entice any visitor to explore.

The city was built in the early fourteenth century, not long after the Mongols sacked Bagan. It remained the capital of the kingdom for fifty years before moving to another city, in the typical Burmese tradition of moving capitals. Today the city is home to thousands of monks, novices and nuns — and hundreds of ancient monasteries to support them.

The path to the highest point, Sagaing Hill, is a covered stairway running up the steep sides. From this radiates numerous other paths, some leading to nearby religious buildings, others leading off to distance locations and other hilltops. Climbing the stairs, monks and workers make their way to prayers and chores.

While it provides shade — and shelter in the rainy season — the canopy also blocks the view of the countryside. Ducking out from beneath offers glimpses of vistas.

The top of Sagaing Hill sits the magnificent Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda, its accompanying stupa and the magnificent tile-work that surrounds it.

It was behind this stupa that I heard the plaintive mew of a kitten. I discovered a skinny wretch of Siamese huddled among a pile of constructions supplies. When I came close, it wailed louder. The pitiful thing was clearly starving. I walked back to a food vendor I had passed some minutes earlier. The only meat they had was a soft candied jerky of some sort, about half the size of a traditional hot dog. I bought one and headed back to the forlorn feline. I handed the meat to the hungry cat who started chewing it immediately. Satisfied I had earned some Buddhist merit, I glanced around for more things to photograph. The kitten was mewing again. I turned back and saw the empty plastic bag that held the food. I fed it less than a minute ago. I concluded that a bird must of have swooped in and grabbed the meat. I walked back to the vendor and bought two more pieces of meat. I laid them out for the kitten and watched the eaves for marauding avians. I glanced down to see the last bit of the first meat strip disappear into the staving cat; the second followed less than a minute later. A bird had not snatched the meat, the kitten was that hungry. I was rewarded with a purr that nearly shook the ground upon which I stood.

The whole top Sagaing Hill is a colorful complex of terraces, covered areas, areas to meditate and areas to take in the fantastic views of the river and the city.

In addition to the monks and occasional nuns, local pilgrims spend much time on the hill. It took a bit of coaxing to get these woman to break from their formal countenance and give me a smile.

Despite the few tourists the country receives, enough of them make it to Sagaing that locals are not at all surprised. Westerners typically stick to well-traveled paths in Sagaing. Exploring the back streets opens up plenty of possibilities for meeting the people. I passed countless monasteries and schools. The schools were the most fun because the children in the yards run to the gate to say hello and goodbye, the only two English words they had know.

The back ways also provided access rarely visited stupas and to some of the lower hills with their seldom-scene views.

The hidden monasteries always provide at least a few monks eager to practice their English ... and who are more than happy to pose for a photo as well.

See more photos here.