- By Maung Tha
Metaphorically known as the capital city on the west bank of the Ayeyarwady, the Pakokku township has become popular since ancient time as the city of Pitakas for teaching Buddhist Scriptures. The Sanghas from across Myanmar have come and gather in the great monasteries in the Pakokku where Buddhist Scriptures are taught to monks and nuns, thereby letting the Pakokku Sanana flourish throughout the country.
Until March, 2017 there are many great monasteries and religious edifices—1639 pagodas, 461 monasteries, 39 nunneries and 145 religious halls in the Pakokku township; there are 3023 monks and 484 nuns who stay and mediate in these religious buildings. In addition, there are nine famous pagodas including Thihoshin, Shwegugyi and Phaundaw-U pagodas and seven monasteries were recorded by the Department of General Administration. The other nine religious buildings are also situated inside the township.
The Pakokku township lies in the east with the Ayeyarwady and Taungtha township, in the west with Pauk and Seikphyu townships, in the south with the Ayeyarwady and Nyaung-U township and in the north with Myaing township, stretching 34 miles from the east to the west and 11 miles from the south to the north. The area of two combined townships( Pakokku and Kamma) is 485.839 square miles, consisting of 27 wards and 54 village tracts.
According to map descriptions , the Pakokku is located in the northern latitudes of 20’ 54” and 20’ 29”, in the eastern longitudes of 95’ 14” and 95’ 21”. The town is situated on the plains of Ayeyarwady bank, 211.69 feet above the sea level and surrounded by 1040’-high Tantkyi Mountain and 1127’-high Tatma Mountain range in the west.
The history of Pakokku
According to a legend, Pagan King Aloungsithu set off on a journey to the present-day Pakokku on a golden barge in Myanmar Era 454. Among the female attendants who accompanied by the king , one pregnant female attendant by the name of Melnyo Saint laughed heartily and lustily after seeing a young fisherman on the way. The king became furious at her behavior and gave her a caning to death. The king performed an anatomical dissection on her body to find a baby boy and removed it from her womb to entomb in a place where the Shwegu Pagoda was later built, thereby calling the place by the name of Pakokku. King Alounsithu buried the boy in a tomb in the Pakhan area which became gradually known as Pakokku, some source said.
A town with a lifespan of over 130 years
After the annexation of Myanmar by the British, the Pakokku Municipality was established on 21 December, 1887 and so the town is now over 130 years old. In encyclopedic descriptions, during the periods of Myanmar rulers, the Pakokku District used to be the Pakhangyi District which were ruled by heads of Pakhangyi, Yawlay and Bankyitait towns. Before the British annexation, the Pakokku was a mere fishing village was under the rule of Bagan major. There was wide stretch of sand bank between the Pakokku and the Ayeyarwady in those days and the course of the Ayeyarwady changed dramatically to move towards the bank of the river becoming a seaport town in 1885. The Pakokku is the second biggest after Mandalay in Upper Myanmar; it is 494 miles away from Yangon if measured along the Ayeyarwady and 103 miles away from Mandalay.
Historic Pagodas in Pakokku
Tourists , both domestic and foreign, usually pay homage to historic pagodas including Thihoshin and Shwegu pagodas. Thihoshin Pagoda is situated in a compound of five acres in Myitkhaing Ward; it has emerged as the Thihoshin Pagoda with three different names. The height of the Pagoda is 5’ 9” with a left hand in a supine position and the right hand in an upright position.
In 1117 AD, King Asoka Rama of Ceylon donated an image of the Buddha carved out of Bodhi tree to King Aloungsithu and the image was named Thihoshin in honour of King Daywanunpiya Taitha. In 1185, Myintha village headman built two statues of Thihoshin on the left and the right; the one on the left weighs 35 viss of solid gold and the one on the right weighs 43.25 viss of gold. Thihoshin image festivals are held three times annually: one during Thingyan Water Festival, the second on 7th waxing day to 3rd waning day of Nadaw and the third on the Fullmoon day of Thadingyut.
Original Phaundaw-U Buddha Statue keeps staying at the Maha Wizar Rama Asokayon monastery which lies at southeast of Maha Wiza Rama monastery, one of the most famous in Pakokku township. According to the Buddhist history, King Alaungsithu on his visit to Ceylon Island in 454 AD was presented by Ceylonese King with a boat made up of Thitkanet wood. King Narapadisithu carved Thitkanat wood for nine Buddha statues, including that of Phaundaw-U. On the plinth of the Statue ,” Bagan King Narapadisithu enshrined Buddha relics,” carved on the gold foil. Naymyothura, the chief of Popa carried Phaundaw-U Statue reverently to Pakokku where the Statue was entrusted to two monks of U Meda and U Zagara. They carried the Statue wherever they visited and stayed. In Myanmar Era 1277, the Pakokku town was gutted by fire and the Statue was carried to present-day Maha Wiza Rama monastery on the 12th waxing day of Tasaungmoon, 1282 M.E. The other statues and pagodas including four-tooth relics pagoda built by King Anawrahta , are also famous in the township. The Shwetantit Pagoda, about three miles east of the Pakokku town is kept on the altar with the support of 14 elephant figurines.
Shwegu Buddha Statue and its great ornamental backdrop
According to the history of the Statue, statuette pagoda near the Statue was believed to have built by King Alaungsithu. A boatman built a similar pagoda and became popularly known as the Shwegu Buddha image.
Three monks of U Bya, U Thandaing and U Paduma who stayed at Shwegu monastery carried three Buddha statues reverently from the Shan State; one sacred Buddha statue has remained near the Shwegugyi. Floral designs in relief about life of Buddha were carved out of wood on the ornamental backdrop and is now displayed in the Gandakuhti repository of the Statue. The Buddha Statue was kept in an ornamental backdrop with a length of 5’x10”, the height of 12’x10” and thickness of 6”.
Pictures and floral designs in relief were carved on combination of five planks , depicting 136 humans and 18 animals. Carving on the great ornamental backdrop of the Shwegu Statue started in 1904 and completed in 1908. At that time , a tical of gold cost only K. 20 and the sculptors charged for the carving at a cost of K. 4000 which was equivalent to two viss of gold. On the plaque were inscribed about the carving and its cost of K. 4000 built within a period of four years and two pictures of the sculptors—father and his son are displayed on the wall.
The donors of the great backdrop were U Hinghar and his wife Daw Zeezan and their daughters Maythet and Maymyet; the sculptors were U Kangyi and his son Maung Tay of Myaing Township. U Kangyi and his son did not use the traditional tools in carving of the Shwegu backdrop; instead they used different collapsible tools in accord with their wish, numbering as many as 50 tools in total. The two sculptors carved on the great backdrop of Buddha’s life stories including several jatakas of Dewarawhana, Nemi, Thamani and Vimvisara which were inscribed in orderly fashion.
On uppermost layer of the backdrop were the carvings of Dewarawhana jataka in which the Buddha delivered Abidama to the Nats and Bramins during three-month period of Buddhist Lent. The Buddha descended the stairs of gold , silver and ruby to earthly world; all sculptural decorations of 20 statues were vividly seen in relief. While going through the stair of ruby, the Buddha was accompanied by Martali and Withakyon nats, Bramins,conch-shell blowers, parasol courtiers and musicians; the carvings and sculptures absolutely full of life.
On upper right side of the great backdrop, the statues of Naymi jataka were carved out of wood and those of Thadima on the upper left side.
Martali Nat took Naymi and Thadima princes on a carriage drawn by three horses through a thick forest. Birds are found playing happily and feeding their chicks. The Buddha surrounded by Nats, Bramins,kings, high and low-ranking officers, dancers and local populace were vividly carved on the backdrop.
The statues of Dewadat advising Azadathet prince how to kill his father to become a king; Azzdathat prince dethroned his father to put him in prison; starving king Vivisara being presented an emerald towel by Queen Wedihi; tattooed executioners cut the king’s soles. All these sculptures are lively and full of life.
Carpenter U Kangyi threw all tools including screwdrivers, hammers and saws into the Ayeyarwady after carving the backdrop of Shwegu Statue by making a special effort with all his skills, goodwill and a generous mind. A little damage caused to 100-year-old ornamental backdrop of the Shwegu Statue because of being neglected on the ground without roofs.
But in 1946 , the daughter of original donor Daw Zeezan carried out extensive renovations to a damaged backdrop and kept it in a roofed stairway. Preserving an old ornamental backdrop of the Shwegu Statue for more than 100 years has clearly demonstrated the skills and capabilities of two Myanmar sculptors—U Kan Gyi and his son.
There are many religious edifices of ancient pagodas and statues in Pakokku township; they have been preserved for more than 130 years and they will keep on standing still to be visited by pilgrims and tourists alike.
Myanmar Encyclopedia vol. 6
Pakokku’s history of Buddhism
Local facts on the Pakokku township( Department of General Administration)
Translated by Arakan Sein