Mahamuni or “Great Sage” image is described as being one of the 5 Buddha images in existence to be cast in Gotama Buddha’s time, stated by legend to be his exact likeness down to his size. It was and still is a very important Buddha image, in fact one of the triumverate Buddha images in Myanmar including Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon and The Golden Rock perched on a cliff above Yangon.
The story surrounding how he got there is full of supernatural and adventurous surprises. King Candrasuria (or Chantra-Suriya) had a wish to hear the teachings of the great teacher. On the 26th anniversity of the king’s reign in 554 BCE, Buddha Gotama, living at the time in Sravasti, India, learned of the king’s wishes. Knowing the king could not make the journey to Sravasti, the Buddha along with his disciple and cousin, Ananda, and 500 arahants flew through the air and landed on the hill opposite Kyauktaw. After the king received his teachings, a sacred image of the Buddha, in his absolute likeness, was constructed by Sakra (Indra), the King of the Gods and Visrakarman, the celestial architect and placed on Sirigutta Hill, northeast of the palace. The earth shook. Festivals took place. Seven days later, the Buddha and his disciples flew back to Savrasti (or Sandoway). I think festivals continued to take place after they all left (see “The Sappadanakaranam” below).
From this story is where the flashing lights around Buddha images in Burma comes about. This is seen throughout Burma now. During the seven days of festivities, the Mahamuni Buddha image flashed 6 rays of light as the faithful approached and they dimmed otherwise. One account I read says the birds stayed away from the emanating lightning bolts, another says the birds created a protective circle above Buddha’s little brother. I vote for the birds getting the heck away. Today the Mahamuni is covered by a very deep layer of gold leaf applied daily by devotees of the Buddha. However, only men can apply the gold leaf, women need to ask a male to apply it for them.
Most modern histories of the Mahamuni are based on an English translation of a palm leaf manuscript called the Sappadanakaranam, perhaps dating to the 16th century but reflecting earlier material. Emil Forchhammer was a Swiss Pali scholar hired by the Government of India where he surveyed the sites of the old cities and the major monuments of Arakan in 1885. In 1890, he wrote his Report on the Antiquities of Arakan, which was published after his death in 1892. (Gutman, Pamela – 2001, Burma’s Lost Kingdoms: Splendours of Arakan, Orchid Press, Bangkok, p.4)
One can read the “Sarvasthanaprakarana” in full in his report right at the beginning of it. Forchhammer’s account of the Sappandanakaranam is purported to be about the same as it is in San Tha Aung’s The Buddhist Art of Ancient Arakan (Rangoon, 1979). In other words, they are both based on the palm leaf mentioned above (Schober, Juliane (ed.) 1997, Sacred Biography in the Buddhist Traditions of South and Southeast Asia, “In the Presence of the Buddha: Ritual Veneration of the Burmese Mahamuni Image, 259-288). An interesting twist is that King Candrasuriya would be the inheritor of kharma created by Gotama Buddha in a previous life as a king where he lived on the island of Cheduba. His actions were breaking the bone of a gardener and cutting the skin off a prince.
Mahamuni’s Unfortunate Voyage
In 1784 it was carried off to Amarapura near Mandalay after Arakan’s conquest. The conquest was completely about capturing the Mahamuni image. King Bodawpaya professed the intention of restoring Buddhism in his new kingdom, desiring the Mahamuni image with all his being. The Pagans tried to capture it centuries earlier unsuccessfully, among others. King Bodawpaya, however, was successful in 1784. It arrived in 3 pieces due to its enormous size. More on this later.
During the next hundred years (in 1879 and 1884) it was damaged by fire and repaired. In 1896, the temple currently in Amarapura on the city limits of Mandalay, was built around the original shrine built by King Bodawpaya in 1791 when he moved the capital there.
Many stories have prevailed over the centuries since the Mahamuni image was moved from Arakan to Amarapura. Some say that the original sank in the river when King Bodawpaya’s army of 10,000 men couldn’t move it. Another legend or tradition says that King Bodawpaya sent wizards to Rakhine (Rakhaing, Arakan) to extract its potency. Sentiments of disrespect placed on the Burmese army for cutting the image into three pieces for transport (now cast in three horizontal sections). And others exist, all calling out the enduring and still unresolved ethnic and regional conflicts in the area.
And so, after this six and a half ton bronze image was floated first by boat down the Kaladan River to the coast, then up the mountains and finally floated upriver on two barges on the Irrawaddy River, reached Amarapura after 30 days. Hence the Mahamuni image was installed in Amarapura on 7 May 1785, and has not been moved since.
The Mahamuni Pagoda Gets Rebuilt
After the fire on 8 April 1884, the wooden temple was destroyed and needed to be rebuilt. Gold plastered to the Mahamuni was melted and was reborn as a large mantle (resempling a monk’s robe) to place over the Buddha image. King Thibaw offered funds to help the restoration. Some wanted the old plan to be built in timber or brick and to employ iron and glass. Brick masonry understandably won out over timber. Hoyne Fox, the Executive Engineer from Yangon won the design which was a hybrid plan, traditional on the top, more European in design at floor level, finished sometime after 1895 when the design was chosen. (Sacred Sites of Burma: Myth and Folklore in an Evolving Spiritual Realm)
Mahamuni and the Generals
The Mahamuni image was believed by the Arakanese, Mon and Burmans to contain a precious stone in its naval that would give anyone who possessed it supernatural powers. In 1996, after Mandalay authorities insisted upon a renovation of the image, a hole appeared mysteriously in the belly of the Buddha. Senior monks investigated and found rumors of two monks with keys being forced by military police to open the building at night.
During a day long meeting to try and get to the bottom of what was going on with the Mahamuni image, a man came into the room and announced that a Buddhist girl had just been raped by a Muslim man. The meeting dispursed, Buddhists ran out to attack the Muslim man at his home. Days of rioting and ransacking of mosques followed in Mandalay and other cities. It was widely believed at the time that military men were posing as monks with their newly shaved shiny heads and their walkie talkies under their robes.
In the meantime, during all of the terrible distraction created by the announcement, the Mahamuni image was patched up and, from what I know, no one became the wiser. As for the rape of the Buddhist girl? It never happened (Christina Fink, Living Silence, p.219).
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