Friday, January 8, 2010

Shwe Indein Pagoda

One of the most impressive pagoda and stupa collections outside of Yangon is located on the west side of Inle Lake: Shwe Indein Pagoda. Getting to Indein village requires navigating a boat up a winding stream. This trip is well worth it if only for the slice of life views as the boat passes small farms and homes. Farmers draw water from the stream, kids swimming and water-buffalo cooling off. The rich soil on this flat level land is testament to the receding shores of the shallow lake. It has been slowing silting up over the centuries, leaving behind a very fertile valley.

As the stream narrows, it becomes more rapid and unnavigable. As a result, the dock serving the community is some distance from the village. A few tourist shops have established themselves here, hawking local souvenirs. This is also where villagers take their goods for transportation to other markets.

As I arrived, a troop of ethnic Intha women were hauling great bundles of reed to the dock. I saw this material at the market, but had no idea as to its purpose. I wondered how they cut it to such precise lengths.

The grounds just beyond the dock area are set up for Indein's market. On my arrival, the bamboo stalls were vacant and the ground littered with the refuse of a previous day. A few merchants made permanent shops on the road to beside the village.

Wandering through the abandoned market, I happened upon a local woman making her way from the stream. She carried an empty basket. I have a great affinity to well used baskets and, through pantomime, convinced her that I really wanted to buy her basket. She was ecstatic with her windfall of about ten dollars (more than a few days wage), but became formal when I asked to take her photo.

I crossed the short bridge and made my way past the monastary. Here, an impressive covered walk, about 800m in length, leads up the hillside to the pagodas. I saw similar structures in Bagan and Sagiang, but in no other country. Merchants make use of the space to display various handicrafts and antiques. The covering makes for a much more pleasant walk, out of the sun, and the decorative arts on display make for a much more interesting walk as well.


Looking between the columns, the first impression of the Indein pagoda complex is intriguing. Vines and brush had covered most of the monuments over the years, but much of it has been cut back to reveal beautiful designs.

Unfortunately, years of neglect had reduced most of the monuments to bare brick and, in some cases, rubble. They are still, however, impressive. The damage at least revealed how they were built. The stupas have a brick base upon which cement has been applied and molded into rings, patterns and designs. This was then painted white or gold, then topped with a metal crown.

Given the alternating tropical and arid climate, it's difficult to know just how long it takes for the local jungle to overtake the works of humankind here, but it has certainly done a good job. Although there are no massive trees growing from the ruins as is the case in Angkor, there's no denying mother nature isn't trying.

I'm quite sure that the popularity of the site among tourists helped spur the local officials into cleaning up the ruins. The growth had been cut away from nearly all the structures. While some stupas further down the hill are choked with vegetation, just keeping the plants trimmed on the cleared areas is a significant undertaking. Wandering around the ruins I saw several people busy at the task.

They are also working hard to restore the structures. Small teams are busy repairing the brick and mortar of the bases while others apply fresh paint and new trimmings. With bamboo scaffolding up the sides, the deteriorating metal crowns are also replaced.

The finished work is remarkable.

It also makes for some impressive photos.

Walking between the ancient stupas is an interesting experience. The structures closest to the top are the first to be restored, but a few others have been singled out for reasons unknown. The top is my favorite place to wander as I hope for a bit of a breeze.

Hanging from the gold-colored crowns are tiny bells. A slight movement in the air will cause a few of them to tinkle. Trudging around, looking for things to photograph, I didn't pay any attention at first. My ears kept picking up the gentle sound until I paused and took notice. After that, I walked quietly and enjoyed the experience. Few of the stupas have crowns. I could not help wonder how nice it would sound if they were all so equipped (as they had been in the past).

In the pagoda at the top of the hill, I met a number of gentlemen sitting on the woven-mat floor having tea. I politely made my way past but they gestured for me to join them. No one spoke English, but as I shared tea with them, I managed to let them know where I was from and what I was doing. They were particularly interested in knowing if I had any children. At a loss as to how to converse, I fell back on a favorite technique and sang the Canadian national anthem for them. They seemed not in the least bothered by my inability to carry a tune! 

Back outside, as I walked back through the complex, I saw an unusual sight: a young monk with an umbrella. I see a lot of monks and I see a lot of umbrellas, but I rarely see monks using an umbrella such as sold to the tourists (and never a young monk). Well, such an opportunity should not be wasted!

Moments later, the three boys were followed by a fully kitted-out European photographer and his two local guides. I recognized him as a fellow I saw on the boat ride way into Indein. He was shooting monks jumping into the creak. It then occurred to me that I saw him a week earlier in Bagan during the Ananda festival. While myself and the dozen other camera jockeys were running around, looking for the best shots, he stayed in one place, seeming to concentrate on some specific type of shot. It was apparent he was a pro and had arranged for this boys to have that umbrella so he could shoot them among the stupas. I never thought to simply hire people to help arrange photographic opportunities. I was struck dumb by the idea. It feels like cheating, but why? I'd seen plenty of obviously arranged shots on my travels; they were quite impressive. Why do I feel a need to shoot something "natural?"

On my way back to the boat I noticed a few women washing up after the day's labors. I thought about how I might choose to set up such a shot and how I'd go about arranging it. Perhaps I would get lower to the ground or closer to the subject or go somewhere with a different background. Maybe include a water buffalo. Perhaps I might select young models for my photo. I could have had them splashing each other in play. So many possibilities. Before long, only one woman was left. She stood up and poured a ladle of water over her face and down her front. Not a perfect shot, but perfectly inspired.

See more photos here!

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