History, as life, takes surprisingly, interesting twists. As soon as we moved into Thailand, we were anxious for knowing about our new home – country’s history and culture.Thus we learnt that Ayutthaya, the old royal capital, had being besieged and attacked in different occasions until they got it done. Siam’s great capital city was destroyed by the kingdom’s historical enemies: the Burmese.
18th century. 1767 was the year in which Ayutthaya was burned down and left in ruins at the hands of the Burmese. All throughout the long history of antagonism between the two kingdoms, the Burmese armies, no matter if they were coming from Pegu, Ava or the Mon kingdoms, all shared the same aim: conquering the great geopolitical adversary to the south.
It was the first time we heard about Ava: the invaders, conquerors, the destroyers…
21st century. 2018, more than 350 years later of that event, fifteen years after our arrival in Thailand, we felt that it was time for us to see ‘the other side of the coin’. We would go to Burma to learn more about those invaders, about their culture and history, which resulted as rich as Siam’s history is.
We had arrived to Ava not by land, although it could have been done, but by boat, crossing the Myitinge River, heading towards the east of the city, where scores of horse-carts were waiting. Not only for us. For all tourists. The soldier-like guides were firmly standing at the river bank looking attentively the approaching boat while already choosing their customers. Lovely but persistent guides who wouldn’t accept a no for an answer. So, it was settled as soon as we got a firm soil: we would tour the old city of Ava on one of the horse-carts, and our guide would ride her bicycle. Decision made.
Ava’s narrow, dirt – roads were just muddy lanes after a night of consistent rain. Heavy for the horses, difficult for our guide. She was riding her bicycle in that fresh, sticky mud just a meter behind our horse-cart while describing the monuments and temples that we would be visiting during the tour. ‘Ava was a very important city and our kings were Shans, descendants of the rulers of Bagan.’ Our guide, an Old Ava’s daughter, was proudly telling us…
Nowadays is called Inwa, meaning ‘ Mouth of the lake’, known in British times as Ava, but before that, it was ‘Ratnapura’ ‘The city of Gems’, as its former inhabitants knew her. Ava, founded in 1364, was the dominant kingdom which had re-united central Burma after the fall of the magnificent Bagan. The new royal capital was strategically built at the confluence of the Irrawaddy and Myitinge rivers. As time witnessed and probed, this was a recipe for success because from that specific location, the entire rice trade of the Kyaukse plain could be controlled and regulated. In this way, the kings of Ava were able to built a sound state and strong dynasty. At its core was Ava the powerful, old Royal capital.
After listening our guide talking about her city’s long history of conquers, which included the old capital of Siam, Ayutthaya, invasions, recovering and triumphs one thing we got clear: trying to remember the name all royal capitals, all kingdoms which successively ruled Burma, it was not the easiest task. However, we learnt that the city of Ava was the capital of Burma for nearly 360 years, but on separate occasions, counting from 1364 up to sometime in the mid 19th century. In between, the power changed hands, dynasties, kingdoms while the royal capitals moved.
As life, history sometimes takes surprisingly twists. Suddenly, the end came. Ava saw its lasts days not at the hand of any other ruling – competing city, battle nor invasion but of Nature’s. A series of devastating earthquakes in 1839 did what other principalities, enemies and wars, couldn’t. The Royal capital of the Ava kingdom was literally destroyed leaving its last king with no option but starting afresh in other capital city: Amanapura but its seat was always referred to, by outsiders, as the “Court of Ava’. To the extent in which from the 15th century, Europeans used the term Ava as synonym for central and northern Burma, today Myanmar .
In spite of Ava’s destruction, there still are some remnants left from the city’s golden age, although it is hard to believe from the the tiny villages and rural scenery that this was once a royal capital. There is not a Royal Palace left in the city with the only exception of a tilted 27 – metre watchtower that stoically remains: ‘The Leaning Tower of Ava’, that we saw in the distance.
‘We will stop first at the most impressive of Ava’s surviving buildings: the Bagaya Monastery.’ We heard our guide’s voice coming from behind. Wrapped in a real atmosphere of age and history, the monastery was built in 1593 but still continues to serve as a school for novice monks to this very day. Saying this is one thing. Seeing it, is totally another one.
Dark. Cavernous. It took us several seconds to get our eyes used to that world of shadows, to realise where we had ‘landed’ after crossing the wooden threshold. It was the main hall of the Bagaya monastery. Wood. Every single piece of this building is made from wood. And it is all carved. Totally. Doorways, window frames, partitions, panels, including the wooden pillar bases are richly, profusely decorated with splendid Burmese architectural etching motifs.
It would be more than obvious to say that this monastery is famous for its woodcarvings. Floral arabesques, ornamentations with curved figurines and the reliefs of birds and animals from Buddhist mythology as well as small pillars decorating the walls, the artistic efforts of the Ava’s era. Denoting its royal status, the building has 7 storeys which are supported by 267 massive wooden pillars. Just overwhelming. Incredible.
It is not only the painstakingly details of the carvings what take your breath. It is the imposing hight of the main hall, denounced by just looking at its pillars, because you have to crane your neck and guess where the ceiling was, lost in the most dense darkness. And then, the only spark of colour in the whole space: the presiding Buddha image itself wrapped in a gold – leaves coat, seated on an also golden throne.
The image is respectfully isolated from the public, I would say from the female public because only men are allowed to get close. So, I just settled for taking pictures from a distance, quietly absorbing, feeling the atmosphere of devotion and respect that this image generates behind a protecting wooden – utterly carved partition.
Impressive. The atmosphere. The darkness of room.The pillars’ hight. The symbolism. Bagaya Monastery. Built in the 1500s, destroyed by a great fire but rebuilt in 1834 respecting its original design and grandeur. Survivor of the 1839 earthquake that destroyed the city. Extraordinary.
Once outside, still admiring the exterior carvings of this majestic monastery while, at the same time, trying to get our eyes used to the day’s light, we heard a, by then, known voice: ‘Madam, Mister, I’m here’. Our guide. It wasn’t necessary to look for her. There she was. Firm, smiling waiting for us. Sadly, we can’t remember her name. Shame on us.
With a short stop at a Yadana Hsemee Pagoda, a small and ancient group of brick temple, our next destination in Ava was the Maha Aungmye Bonzan Monastery, or Ok Kyanumg, as it is known. A faded, sturdy stucco – decorated brick structure dating from 1818 and which was conceived in the same architectural style of the more common teak monasteries of its time; yet, as it would be expected, its masonry guaranteed a longer life, making of Ok Kyanung a rare survivor of Ava era. What struck you is not only its size, but the impressive series of densely decorated facades which are capped by a triple – tiered roof. Imposing. Extraordinary.
This massive monastery was extensibly damaged during the 1839 earthquake that struck Ava region which was, possibly, the reason for its abandonment. Abandoned but not completely forgotten. It was restored in 1873, by King Mingoon’s Queen, reassuming essentially the form that it retains today while recuperating its deserved place in the city’s and its people’s lives and hearts.
‘This monastery is of a great significance and value for Ava’s and the Burmese people in general’, our guide was explaining to us while standing next to the two Burmese lions guarding the entrance of the complex. She was right. Several families, young couples were already there. Silently walking on the green lawns around the building and many more were inside the monastery, walking along the cool corridors which lead to the main Buddha image.
Symbolism and forms. Repetition of shapes and contours that denotes, even today, a highly – architectural style and design. There is a sense of royalty still present being, at the same time, a very much alive, sacred place. A place of respect, of faith, a place for praying and beliefs. Walking out the complex, between the two Burmese lions of the entrance, we left Ok Kyanumg Monastery behind, just for them, for the Burmese.
Seated on our horse-cart, escorted by our attentive and talkative guide, we started our way back towards the bank of the river. Where our tour started. Where our sweet guide had chosen us. We thanked her and she was gone, lost among all the other guides.The boat that would take us was arriving loaded with tourists. Our guide, beyond any doubt, had already chosen one. Ava’s history would be very much alive again, within minutes, on a bicycle behind a horse-cart along Ava’s muddy roads…
The soldier-like guides were firmly standing at the river bank looking attentively the approaching boat while already choosing their customers. Lovely but persistent guides who wouldn’t accept a no for an answer. So, it was settled as soon as we got a firm soil: we would tour the old city of Ava on one of the horse-carts, and our guide would ride her bicycle. Decision made.
In spite of Ava’s destruction, there still are some remnants left from the city’s golden age, although it is hard to believe from the the tiny villages and rural scenery that this was once a royal capital.
Bagaya Monastery. Dark. Cavernous. It took us several seconds to get our eyes used to that world of shadows, to realise where we ‘landed’ after crossing the wooden threshold. We were inside the main hall of the Bagaya monastery. Wood. Every single piece of this building is made from wood. And it is all carved.
With a short stop at a Yadana Hsemee Pagoda, a small group of pagodas showcasing the development of brick monasteries which had replaced the wood buildings in the early 1800s . This beautiful place, excellent for taking photographs, is ignored in touristic tours, but nearly every single one of the horse carts stop here…
Aungmye Bonzan Monastery, known as Ok Kyanumg. Symbolism and forms. Repetition of simple, delicate contours that denotes, even today, a highly – architectural style and design. There is a sense of royalty still present being, at the same time, a very much alive, sacred place. A place of respect, of faith, a place for praying and beliefs…
We started our way back towards the bank of the river. Where our tour started. Where our sweet guide had chosen us. We thanked her and she was gone, lost among all the other guides…
The boat that would take us was arriving loaded with tourists. Our guide, beyond any doubt, had already chosen one. Ava’s history would be very much alive again, within minutes, on a bicycle behind a horse-cart along Ava’s muddy roads….