Mingun, Myanmar – the Lord of the White Elephant’s famous folly 2


King Bodawapa wanted to build a stupa. Not just any old stupa though, he wanted his stupa, which he was having built at Mingun, on the western shore of the Irrawaddy River, to be the biggest stupa in the world. Construction commenced in 1790 CE.

Mingun temple, Myanmar

Photo credit: Benjamin White

Mingun Pahtodawgyi

Then the king caught wind of a prophecy that was going round, one that claimed he would die as soon as his grand stupa was completed. Construction stopped. The engineers and labourers were sent home.

Mingun Pahtodawgyi, Mingun, Myanmar

The final state of Mingun Pahtodawgyi. Photo credit: Benjamin White

Could it have been the biggest stupa in the world? If we extrapolate the design from the base, then yes, it would have reached 150 metres in height, easily the biggest stupa in the world.

Hsinbyume Pagoda, Mingun, Myanmar

Neighbouring Hsinbyume Pagoda seen from the top of Mingun Pahtodawgyi. Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

But was it possible to build a stupa that tall, using only thin clay bricks? Probably not.

Did King Bodawapa realise his grand design was a folly? Had a sage engineer whispered in his ear? Was it the prophecy that halted the build, or was it cold, hard science?

Mingun Pahtodawgyi, Mingun, Myanmar

Mingun Pahtodawgyi. Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

Even if they had managed to build the stupa, it wouldn’t have stayed upright for long. There’s no way it would have survived the devastating earthquake of 1838, which cracked the foundation of the stupa apart like it were a wafer biscuit.

Mingun twigs, Myanmar

Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

Locals are doing their bit to prop up the fissure-riddled structure by inserting little twigs into any gap they can find. Tourists can help out too, but don’t pull out any of the sticks currently in place, or the whole structure will come tumbling down like a stack of Jenga blocks*.

*won’t actually happen.

Chinthes

Mingun Pahtodawgyi chinthes, Mingun, Myanmar

Mingun Pahtodawgyi’s headless chinthes. Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

King Bodawapa was known as the Lord of the White Elephant, and the rotund statues that guard the entrance to his stupa look a little like giant elephant behinds. In fact they were chinthes, or leogryphs; lion-like figures used to guard the entrances of stupas all over Myanmar. The statues were rendered headless during the 1838 earthquake.

Hsinbyume Pagoda, Mingun

Hsinbyume Pagoda, Mingun, Myanmar

Hsinbyume Pagoda. Photo credit: Benjamin White

Bagyidaw, grandson of Bodawapa, also thought of Mingun as a nice spot to whack up a stupa. He built his own creation just a couple hundred metres down from his grandfather’s attempt.

Hsinbyume Pagoda, Mingun, Myanmar

Hsinbyume Pagoda. Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

Bagyidaw’s stupa, designed to resemble Mount Meru – the centre of the Buddhist universe – is dedicated to one of his most cherished consorts (also his cousin), Princess Hsinbyume, who died in childbirth.

Hsinbyume Pagoda chinthe, Mingun, Myanmar

Hsinbyume Pagoda chinthe. Photo credit: Benjamin White

Hsinbyume Pagoda’s chinthes are still intact. Nowadays they double as diving platforms for mischievous local kids.


Practical information and how to reach Mingun:

The best way to reach Mingun is to catch a boat from Myan Gyan Jetty in Mandalay. The boat trip takes about one hour. More transport info here.

Read more on Mingun in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.


More on Myanmar:

U Bein’s Bridge – 1000 teakwood posts and a recycled royal palace


My favourite unfinished monuments:

Kalta Minor, Khiva, Uzbekistan

Farhad Tarash, Bisotun, Iran

El Gigante, the Moai Quarry archaeological site, Easter Island, Chile

Hassan Tower, Rabat, Morocco


Posts on South-east Asia:

Indonesia:

Borobudur – largest Buddhist temple in the world

Yogyakarta – water castles, black sand beaches, and naughty Mount Merapi

Laos:

The Plain of Jars – 1000s of giant stone jars; origin unknown

Malaysia:

Gunung Kinabalu – Borneo’s highest peak: paradise for pitcher plants

Batu Caves – guarded by a giant, gilded statue of Lord Murugan

Philippines:

Crisologo Street, Vigan – it’s Spanish, Fujian Chinese, Filipino fusion

Puerto Princesa – the underground river boat tour: Great? or over-rated?

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