Let go of the hype. It may not be the seemingly infinite pagoda-studded landscape of Bagan nor the Shangri-la-esque enclave of the Shwedagon Paya, but the city of Bago (the British called it Pegu) on south Myanmar’s delta region has its own claim to fame. Located around 90 kilometers northeast of Yangon, the city played roles in important events during the last 800 years.
It takes an average of two hours from Yangon to Bago, time depending on whether you take a taxi, public bus, or train. It’s a good day trip when staying in Yangon, although there are a few hotels in Bago if you want to take it slow. Within Bago the common means of transport is the tuktuk, but a taxi can be hired for day-long transfers between sites.
Now picture this. The brains of Myanmar – and its mainstream culture – have been the dry central plain in the country’s heart north of Yangon where the first towns appeared a few centuries after Christ and the Roman Empire. This was validated when the Kingdom of Bagan consolidated power about five centuries later (that’s around the year 1000) on this central base. Today as the 21st century unfolds, the seat of government is again installed centerwise with its move from Yangon (on the delta) to Naypyidaw (on the northern central plain).
The expansionist ambitions of the Bagan Kingdom (eventually becoming an empire) brought its influence to the southern marshy plains. This facilitated Bagan’s participation in the international maritime trade. Bago is said to have begun in the mid-1200s when settlements on the delta were being established. Other scholars suggest that Bago is older than that.
According to legend however, two princes of the Mon (a powerful ethnic group of southern Myanmar) saw two swan-like birds with golden necks landing on an islet. The site of this islet is believed to be the hill where the Hintha Gon Paya is perched on now, and from this site the whole city came into being.
Bago was the cause for a “national” power shift from the northern plain to the delta. Eventually the strength of centrally-located Bagan declined after 500 years and its satellite cities surreptitiously took hold in the power vacuum. Bago emerged as the leading city of the delta region and became capital of the new Kingdom of Hanthawaddy in 1385. Notable royalties of this kingdom were Shin Saw Bu, Myanmar’s only woman leader – that is before Aung San Suu Kyi went to become First State Counsellor of the country only in 2016 – and her son-in-law, the wise and industrious King Dhammazedi.
Leaving monkhood to assume kingship, Dhammazedi instituted religious reforms and made restorations to the relatively old Kyaik Pun Paya a few kilometers outside town. And as if these were not enough, Myanmar’s two tallest stupas, famous Shwedagon Paya of Yangon (second only) and the Shwemawdaw Paya in Bago (this is the tallest), became pilgrimage venues of national importance because of him and his mother-in-law.
The dramatic phase of Bago’s history began when it was captured by a rising power to its north, the Taungoo Kingdom, and made the capital of this kingdom by its King Tabinshwehti. The king was a strategist who manipulated Portuguese explorers and Mon personalities to the advantage of his growing kingdom. Poor Tabinshwehti did not live long to see the fruits of his efforts. He is said to have been assassinated at the order of one of his advisers. His kingdom fell apart but after two years his brother-in-law, the celebrated Bayinnaung, assumed the throne and got back everything he made, plus many more. The illustrious king meanwhile has been enshrined after death as one of Myanmar’s 37 most important nats, ancestral or nature spirits, integrated within the country’s own version of Buddhism.
Once king, Bayinnaung reassembled the old Taungoo Kingdom and extended it. Taungoo absorbed states of the ethnic Shans to its north, invaded eastern India, plowed into the Thai capital Ayutthaya and bagged Thailand, Laos and parts of the Malay Peninsula. It even granted favors to Sri Lankan kingdoms to protect the Theravada Buddhist homeland. By the middle of the 16th century, Bago was capital of the largest empire in the history of mainland Southeast Asia.
Buddhists have a very special regard to what they believe are relics from the Buddha. These relics have been divided since the beginning of this worldview’s long history and rationed to the many stupas and temples where Buddhism has traditionally taken root. The story of Bago’s (and for that matter, Myanmar’s) pagodas is therefore centered on how rulers and the faithful search for and possess the relics and maintain their repositories.
The loftiest pagoda in the country at 114 meters, Shwemawdaw Pagoda is said to house the hairs and other relics of the Buddha. Successive rulers each had a hand on its upkeep, with Bayinnaung giving his crown jewels to make the pagoda’s tip in the 1550s.
In the era of fake online news, whitewashed Mahazedi Pagoda aptly reminds us that fakery can be candidate for the world’s oldest profession. It was in Mahazedi that Bayinnaung kept what he thought was a tooth relic he acquired from Sri Lanka. The emperor was prepared to deliver gold and precious stones to the Portuguese who carried off what he was looking for, but the friars warned their fellow Europeans of the Inquisition’s punishment should they continue with the exchange of a pagan object. The relic was therefore crushed to destroy it.
The emperor was informed that the relic was fake anyway, and that the true one can still be had. This supposedly real one was finally acquired, alongside a princess, and the artifact was kept in Mahazedi. When later on this artifact was said to be another fake, he did not believe it because of the many supernatural things happening in favor of him which he attributed to the object.
Another interesting feature of Buddhist cosmology is its warm attitude towards snakes, creatures that are very much at home in the Southeast Asian environment. A popular icon is the naga, mythological serpent in the form of a king cobra seen embellishing the pagodas. One legend tells us that rain fell heavily after Buddha’s enlightenment and that a naga deity used its seven heads to form hoods over the Buddha for protection against the downpour. In the Snake Monastery however, the V.I.P.(very important person – or in this case, python) is not the king cobra but a humongous reticulated python. It’s believed to be a reincarnation of a monk.
A grandiose Kanbawzathadi Palace-Museum has been built by the modern state in memory of the emperor. Unfortunately if you enter the building, all you will see (at least for now) are the archaeologically excavated teak posts that supported what may have been Bayinnaung’s ancient abode.
Bago has at least two giant reclining Buddhas. The open-air one, Nawdawgyi Myathalyaung, is new and was built only fifteen years ago.
The one in a big enclosure, Shwetalyaung, is believed to be more than a thousand years old. Unrest followed the era of Bayinnaung and a restored kingdom of Taungoo endured for a century and a half afterwards, shifting its center back to the central plain. Bago managed to get independent again in 1740 but was destroyed 17 years later by Alaungpaya, one of the leaders of the last empire before Myanmar submitted to the British in the 19th century. After the 1740 destruction of Bago, the Shwetalyaung Buddha became hidden in jungle until its discovery more than a century later during colonial rule.
In Bago there’s a mall at the center of town where you can get meals. It’s one of those few hip places where they serve more upscale cuisines – Chinese, Thai, Malaysian-Singaporean, or local adaptations of Western food. We were avoiding gastronomic kitsch however, and thus hunted for down-to-earth Myanmar meals.
We were led to an un-touristy restaurant beside the Bago River near the bridge. Here, it’s closer to the local home cooking.
Then a sip of local tea and coffee in a workers’ diner along the banks to pause and watch the brown eddies of the river. It began to drizzle.
Today it’s hard to imagine Bago as a port. The great leaders of the central plain placed Bago in their wish list as it was the key for maritime trade. The quiet muddy river I see is the same river of half a millennium ago that funneled precious commodities, technology, and ideas between Myanmar’s empires and the beckoning sea. By the 19th century it had changed its course to make it more difficult for Bago to have ready access to ocean vessels.
Traditional Myanmar lingers on in Bago. In some places, people still wash their clothes beside communal wells, and personal rituals are being performed at the temples.
Betel nut and piper leaf chewing, a time-honored tradition in South and Southeast Asia, is a daily habit in the city as in the whole of the country.
The late afternoon skies darkened and sent a downpour. It’s June. The monsoon makes a good epilogue for a sweeping history of this now humble town. Night started to set in. Bago is so much an overlooked town, peripheral if you may to Bagan and the more popular destinations. But it is one that has gained its rightful place in the annals of Myanmar’s history.
Text and photos by Jack G. L. Medrana
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