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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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’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.