Ancient Ava/Rathapura, The City Of Gems

Today, Ava – its classical name is ‘Rathapura’, ‘The City of Gems’ – does not look much like gems anymore. It is a small dusty town at the junction of the Ayeyawaddy River and the Myitnge River almost as unpretentious as it was before this vicinity around the 11 hamlets of the Kyaukse district, the nucleus of a new Burmese kingdom, took shape after Pagan was fallen to Kublai Khan’s forces in 1287 A.D.

The rise of Ava, also known as Inwa (sometimes spelled Innva or Innwa) to Burma’s new strength centre was already casting its shadow ahead at the beginning of the 1300s when king Thihathu of Myinsaing the great grandfather of the later king Thado Minbya wanted to build his new capital at the same location where it was later built by Thado Minbya. But the time was not however mature. First it was Sagaing that became the centre of strength because the kingdom of Sagain was one of the small kingdoms such as the Kingdom of Myinsaing and the kingdom of Pinya, that popped up in that vicinity in the aftermath of Pagan’s fall. Under the rule of so-called ‘burmanised’ Shan kings the Sagaing kingdom existed just 49 years from 1315 – 1364 A.D. when prince Thado Minbya established the kingdom of Inwa/Ava and re-united central Burma.

It is interesting to see the Buddhists belief that everything is in a continued change reflected in the procedure of the Burmese kings who where in the habit of shifting their capitals around in an area measuring some 50 square kilometres in order to begin their reign with a new palace and a new capital.

This is seen in the fact that all of the ancient capitals of Burmese kingdoms – from the fall of Bagan to the end when Burma was vanishing as independent kingdom on the 1st of January 1886 – are in the neighbourhood of Mandalay, the last seat of the Konbaung Dynasty. These ancient pre-Mandalay capitals are Sagaing, Ava, Amarapura and Shwebo.

What the changes of the capitals had in shared is that the formerly mighty cities were left to themselves after the wooden royal buildings were dismantled and moved to the new centres of strength and that they were from then on in a continued state of decay.

The early and mid 1300s were turbulent times in the complete central Ayeyawaddy valley vicinity. Promises were not kept, alliances broken and wars waged. When the Shan and the kingdom of Pinya were at war and the Kingdom of Sagaing was falling apart the young Thado Mibya (born prince Rahula) saw his chance. Now king, he established in 1364 the kingdom of Inwa/Ava. The name Inwa is a variant of the Shan phrase ‘in-va’ what method as much as ‘Entrance to the Lake’.

The new capital was built on the strategically important northern part of an artificial island that came to be in consequence of the digging of a new channel – the Myittha Chaung – to connect the Ayeyawaddy River with the Myitnge River. What made this place where the court of the kingdom remained for almost 400 years so ideal for a sound state and a powerful dynasty was that the complete rice trade of the Kyaukse plain could be controlled and regulated from there what gave and made it an enormous strength.

Because of its strategically great location Ava was conquered several times. In 1527 by Shans who burned Ava down and in 1752 by the Mons. But it remained – with interludes such as from 1555 to 1636 when it had fallen to the kingdom of Taungoo – the capital of upper Burma. In 1634 it became the capital of all Burma – the Kingdom of Ava – for another 150 years until it was as urgently suggested by King Bodawpaya’s astrologers completely destroyed and flooded after he moved to his new capital Amarapura in 1783/84.

Later Ava was rebuilt by King Bagyidaw (1819 to 1838) who moved the capital from Amarapura back to Ava. However, after an earthquake in 1838 that did serious damage to Ava King Tharrawaddy (1838 to 1846) returned to Amarapura in 1841. Amarapura than remained capital until King Mindon (1853 to 1878) shifted the seat of the Konbaung dynasty to Mandalay from 1859 to 1861. But already during the 19th century the complete ‘Burmese kingdom (sometimes greatly exaggerated called ‘Empire’) was generally referred to and known as the ‘Court of Ava’. Among the structures that bear solemn observe to Ava’s and its surrounding’s great times (in addition as to earlier and later times) are the:

A) Gaung Say Daga B) Nanmyin Watchtower, C) Maha Aungmye Bonzan Kyaung D) Htilainshin Pagoda E) Leitutgyi Pagoda F) Lawkatharaphu Pagoda G) Ava Bridge, and H) Bargayar Monastery.

A) Gaung Say Daga

In contrast to the city walls of other Burmese capitals, Inwa’s/Ava’s were not square but had the shape of a ‘Chinthe’, the undefeatable mystical being, that is guarding in pairs temples and pagodas all over Burma. From what little that is left of Ava’s city walls the most complete part is the ‘Gate of the Hair-washing Ceremony’ known as ‘Gaung Say Gaga’. The hair-washing ceremony is today only performed in people’s houses every year during Thingyan as a purification rite to welcome the ‘King of Nats’, ‘Thagyamin’. In the times of the kingdoms the king had to wash his hair at this gate. The name ‘Gaung Say’ for the ‘hair/head-washing ceremony’ has its roots in ‘Gaung Say Kyun’, which method ‘Head-washing Island’. Gaung Say Kyun is a small, pagoda-dotted Island off the Gulf of Martaban in northern Mon-State (Moulmein). There, where the Thanlwin, Attaran and Gyaing River meet was the water that was used by Burmese kings for the ‘Royal Hair/Head-washing Ceremony’ coming from.

B) Nanmyin Watch Tower

The ruins of the 90 feet (27 metres) high masonry ‘Nanmyin Watchtower’ are located near the Gaung Say Gaga. The Nanmyin watchtower is all that is left of King Bagyidaw’s palace that was heavily damaged by the earthquake in 1838 that caused important damage throughout the complete area. The upper platform of the tower collapsed and the tower began leaning to one side because the earth underneath the tower broke away. For this reason the Nanmyin Watchtower is also called the leaning tower.

C) Maha Aungmye Bonzan Kyaung

The ‘Maha Aungmye Bonzan Kyaung’, also known as ‘OK Kyaung’ is a substantial brick structure built in the architectural style of the more shared teak monasteries. It is a tall, stucco-decorated building, built in 1818 by King Bagyidaw’s wife, Queen Nanmadaw Me Nu, for the Abbot Sayadaw Nyaunggan. It is said that she had a romantic relationship with this Sayadaw.

while almost all of the teak monasteries do not exist anymore the Maha Aungmye Bonzan has thanks to its masonry not only survived but is the best preserved one of all of Ava’s buildings. Placed in the centre of the monastery is a with glass things considered together as a pattern trimmed pedestal on top of which rests an image of Gautama Buddha. The seven-tiered prayer hall next to the Maha Aungmye Bonzan Kyaung was severely damaged by the 1838 earthquake and repaired in 1873 by King Bagyidaw’s and Queen Nanmadaw Me Nu’s daughter, Princess Hsinbyumashin.

D) Htilainshin Pagoda

The ‘Htilainshin Pagoda’ is one of the many pagodas in the Ava vicinity and was built by King Kyanzittha (1084 to 1112) of Pagan, also known under his classical name Thiluin Man. An inscription that records the construction of the wooden palace during the first Ava dynasty can be seen in a nearby discarded.

E) Leitutgyi Pagoda and F) Lawkatharaphu Pagoda

The ‘Leitutgyi Pagoda’, a huge four-storey pagoda, and the ‘Lawkatharapyu Pagoda’ are two more important pagodas in Ava. Both of them are interesting structures and located in the southern part of Ava.

G) Ava Bridge

located north of Ava is the in 1934 by the British built ‘Ava Bridge’, also called ‘Sagaing Bridge’, which was until the 1990s the only bridge spanning the Ayeyawaddy River. Later four more bridges were built. The Ava Bridge is an impressive, ten-span-ironwork that connects Ava with Sagaing some 20 kilometres south of Mandalay. It was due to its military importance partly (two of its spans) blown up by the British in World War II in order to stop the improvement of the Japanese forces. The bridge was repaired and reopened in 1954.

H) Bargayar Monastery

This monastery is built in traditional Burmese wood architecture thoroughly of teak that is owing to the agent applied to prevent the wood’s being eaten by termites almost black. The Bargayar monastery is – although stark weather-worn and rather austere at first to peek briefly – an impressive monastery. Not only because of the 267 teak pillars (each 20 metre/67.7 ft high) on which the roof is resting but also because of the abundance of traditional motives intricately carved into the wood. Many of the monastery’s doorframes, its balustrades, handrails and other elements that make up the monastery (both interior and exterior) are lavishly embellished with these ornately carved decorations. The monastery’s beauty lies in the details instead of the structure itself. The Bargayar Monastery houses a golden Buddha image and is inhabited by ponyis whose lives are ruled by the strict regimen of Gautama Buddha’s teachings and instructions. It is a very tranquil place and only the monks’ chant of religious verses can be heard.

Nearing the end of this article one can hardly say that the story of Ava/Inwa has a happy ending. Ava doesn’t capitalise on its old glory as much as other former capitals of ancient Burmese kingdoms such as Bagan and Mandalay in terms of tourism-related income.

So, except its stark faded glory as a powerful capital in olden times and some ancient structures bearing observe to these glorious days present-day Ava has very little reason to shine. However, there is something I want to tell you prior to my concluding this article on Ava. It is bad news for the keeper of old and much loved traditions and good news for those who are fond of recycling.

Ah, now I can see the question marks popping up in your eyes. I can read your mind. What on earth has Ava to do with recycling? As for old and much loved traditions I can imagine that Ava has to do a lot with that; but recycling? Am I right? That is what has just been going by your head, isn’t it? Well, I do not want to keep you on tenterhooks. Here is the story.

As you know (if not from own experience then from my articles or other supplies) almost every morning Buddhist monks are making their alms round with their highly polished black thabeiks (alms bowls) carried in front of them. Do you have any idea what the alms bowls used to be made of? Yes, right they were high quality lacquerware made of skilfully wrought bamboo stripes by highly skilled workers in Ava (more correctly phrased in the old Kaing Mar quarters a little bit outside Ava) in a time-honoured fact with several layers of lacquer on both inner and outer surfaces; light in weight and warm to the touch.

For more about lacquerware read my Ezine article ‘Bagan’s mythical Lacquerware’.

Now the bad news for the keeper of old and much loved traditions: nowadays the alms bowls are with a few exceptions not anymore the high quality lacquerware articles they used to be. Modern times have caught up with the alms bowl maker and they have turned from wickerwork maker (weaver) to metal worker.

Now the good news for the friends of recycling: Today these alms bowls are – with the exception of their lids, which are nevertheless made of bamboo wicker work – often the end product of a recycling course of action. The basic material used In this course of action is instead of bamboo the top and bottom surfaces of old oil drums.

The negative side effects of this modernisation are that the alms bowls are much heavier, that many of the women who mostly did the wickerwork are out of business and that the air around alms bowl workshops is no longer filled with the lively singing and chattering of these ladies but with the ear-deafening cling-clang of hammers mercilessly beating the thick and hard metal in order to smoothen the metal and form it into the round bodies of the alms bowls.

One oil drum top (or bottom) is giving enough material for 3 alms bowls and to form a bowl’s metal body takes some 4 hours work of hammering. However, the next steps in the alms bowl making course of action are almost the same as in ancient times. In the following step the rough metal outside and inside is transformed into smooth surfaces by a sanding course of action. This is followed by the time of action of lacquering. Several times a inner of lacquer is applied to the surfaces always interrupted by the days-long drying course of action in cave-like structures. Then the alms bowls are polished, get their sling net and are ready to be filled with food on the alms rounds.

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