Mandalay was established in 1857 on the orders of King Mindon on the apparent prophesy that a new capital would come into existence on the 2,400th anniversary of Buddhism. In reality Mindon wished to move from the unlucky capital Amarapura from which since 1825 the Burmese monarchs had seen their fortunes decline, especially after two unsuccessful wars against the British.
Indeed, Burmese kings frequently changed the locations of their capital city, much to the inconvenience of their subjects. Amarapura had been the capital during the periods 1783–1821 and 1842–1857. Now it was Mandalay.
The capital was founded on Brahmin and Buddhist principals, and a perfect match with these was made with Mandalay Hill being behind the proposed palace. In Beijing (Peking) they had to build a hill according to Feng Shui for the “Forbidden City”.
Reincarnation of an Ogress
Another justification for the building of the city can be seen on the main Pagoda on the Mandalay Hill where there is a statue of an ogress who cut off her breasts to honour the Gautama Buddha. Burmese tradition has it that the Buddha was so impressed by the ogress’ act of devotion that he would reincarnate her after 2,400 years to be King Mindon himself.
In 1853 Mindon had succeeded his deranged half brother Pagan Min who had in turn succeeded with much bloodshed his deranged father Tharrawaddy (incest was one of the causes of this successive madness) but in setting up Mandalay Palace Mindon brought with him many of the the disassembled palaces and monasteries of previous generations.
It was this palace that Mindon’s son Thibaw surrendered to the British in 1885, and the British turned the palace into a military fortress and governor’s residence – together with the Queen’s Palace being transformed into the Upper Burma Club, where shoe wearing non Burmans continued to insult the manner of the country they had conquered. The Royal Palace became Fort Dufferin,
King Mindon initially called his kingdom Yadanobon or Ratanapura (Bejeweled Site), the city was called Lay Kyan Aung Myay ( “Conqueror Land of the World”), the palace ‘Mya Nan San Kyaw” (Royal Emerald Palace). The city later took the name Mandalay – from the Pali language, a combination of words meaning ‘an auspicious land on the plains”.
The palace remains the centre of a city destroyed by bombs,artillery, arson and earthquakes – some years ago the Burmese government decide to recreated some of the building of the old palace, which still remains a military base, and therefore tourist entrance is limited to the west gate – and a small area within the palace precincts.
The bridges and the moat
To getto the only only accessible gate to foreigners, you cross the western bridge. It was one of five bridges (now only four remain – the fifth led to the inauspicious south western gate to carry away the dead) – actually the British made two more for the light railway system constructed inside the palace.
In the centre of the bridges there is a wooden sections, which could be taken away in time of war, but was actually only ever removed to allow the royal barges to sail around the moat on royal and religious occassions, and when British took over for boat races
The moat is 64 metres wide. There are narrow sewers under the moat. It is through these, under the south moat, the the surviving Japanese garrison retreated while Fort Dufferin was under heavy bombardment.
The walls have been repaired to give the impression of the palace during it’s heyday.
The entire north wall and areas of the other three have had to be partially reconstructed due to the damage suffered during WW2, especially during the siege of Fort Dufferin in 1945.
This view from the west gate looking south shows the inauspicious south western gate through which the dead were carried and prisoners transported. It is crowned by a five tiered pyatthat
Founding the city.
In founding a new city and building a new palace the Burmese scrupulously adhered to their ancient pre Buddhist traditions which were arranged by the court astrologers to the king, Manipuri Brahmins. Theravada Buddhism is intermixed with Hindu beliefs, and Burmese monarchs were advised by Brahmins ( the highest Hindu cast) on all auspicious matters.
At each gate was placed a lingam ( a phallic representation of the Hindu god Shiva – it is actually repeated in every named town road sign in Myanmar) and which is at the centre of all Hindu temples. The palace was a religious site. The lingam carries a sign naming the gate and the zodiac significance. This is placed at the side of the brick and plaster screens which block direct sight into the palace from the other side of the moat and enabled defenders to sally forth without being in the line of direct fire.
Various writers have denied the following took place, but the belief in Mandalay is that fifty two men, women and children (the women pregnant and near term) were seized, bound and crushed at various locations in the palace compound. Three were buried under the posts at each of the twelve gates of the city walls, one at each corner of the walls, one at each corner of the teak stockade which does not exist now but originally surrounded the central palace compound, and four under the Lion Throne itself. Oil jars were also buried to feed the spirits of these victims who it was believed would become ‘nats” or protective spirits of the city’s defences.
The western gate, like all the royal gates, has a shrine to the nats (in this case orges) created to protect the royal city.
A Royal Gate in Mandalay Palace
The four central gates on each wall were royal entrances, and therefore crowned with a seven tiered pyatthat pavillion.
Originally they had carved and painted wooden gates, each entrance being dedicates to the signs of the zodiac, but they were replaced by the British with the rather boring iron ones seen today.
The western gate was especially used by female members of the royal family, the king’s gate being the eastern one in the palace ( the Red Gate).
Being taken out of the western gate would have been shameful for the ex-monarch, but not as unlucky as to be taken out of the south western gate, through which dead bodies were carried.
However the British maintained the respect to the monarchy and allowed him to leave by the central Eastern Gate. He was taken in a bullock cart to the Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwady) River, where a paddle steamer called Thoorea ( “The Sun”) awaited to the royal entourage to Yangon, and from there into exile in India
Once you get through the gate you can see the stairways to the battlements. There is a large volute at the lower end of each balustrade flanking the flight of steps, known as “thayetkin” due to its similarity with a young mango fruit.
In the following post we can explore some of the reproduction buildings
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