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Yi Mon had asked us to meet her in reception at 7.30 am so that we could make a couple of visits before having to return to the ship in time for it to start its journey to Mandalay at 9.30 am.

Some of the passengers were more adventurous than our small group and spent their time exploring on bicycles. The horse looked well fed and well groomed so we chose to go by horse and cart!

Our first visit was to Shwezigon Paya Temple which was built in the late 11th century. The Shwezigon Paya (pagoda, stupa or zedi), is one of Bagan’s and Myanmar’s most significant religious structures.

Located four miles northeast of Old Bagan at the edge of the most important regional town of Nyaung U, it truly is a national pagoda, since it served as a prototype for many later stupas built throughout Myanmar. The Shwezigon is also a major national centre of worship. Pilgrims come from many parts of Myanmar for its festival, held during the Burmese month of Nadaw (November/December) both because of its historic character and because of its religious significance for Burmese Buddhism.

While the Shwezigon was one of the earliest symbols of the triumph of the purified Theravada Buddhism, it was also the first pagoda to allow ‘nat’ images (pre-Buddhist spirits who had the power to do good or evil) within its walls.

Its original builder, King Anawrahta, who reigned from 1044-1077, even had images of the 37 traditional nats put on the lower terraces. As a result, nat worship joined for the first time with the nascent Theravada Buddhism to form a unique and vibrant Burmese religious experience that also contributed to the general growth of Theravada. Eventually, the nats of Shwezigon were removed from the terraces to a small hall within the compound, but the Shwezigon Festival still brings multitudes to honour and worship the nats at Shwezigon.

Amongst the individual villages, religious beliefs also vary greatly. Although there are the thirty-seven main nats that are commonly and communally worshiped, there are also many local nats, differing in every village. To add on to this, the idea that after death one may become a nat also implies that there are many nats that can be worshiped. For some villages, nats are in nearly everything. They can be any ancestors, arising from nature, found guarding objects etc. For others, nats are less prominent, but still play some role in the village society.

The precise origins of Burmese folk faith and nat worship are not definitively known. However at the time King Anawrahta was ruling, nat worship was rampant. He became frustrated with this widespread worship of nats and tried to eliminate them. The people continued to worship the nats, and so the king ordered the destruction of all statues and images of nats. Despite this people still worshiped them, by using a coconut as a symbol for them. Now in place of a typical nat statue, there sometimes sits a coconut, which serves as an offering to the nat, as well as a symbol for the nat itself.

The king came to the realization that he couldn’t possibly stop these nats from being worshiped, so he created a formal list of 37, strategically renaming the principal one Thagyamin, which was a name of Buddhist origin. He also placed statues of deva in front of the nats. This symbolized the preference for practising Buddhism over folk faith. Despite continued opposition, this nat worship survived. A testament to the continued survival of Burmese folk religion can be seen by the fact that the prime minister of Burma in the mid-20th century, U Nu, erected a nat-sin (nat shrine) as well as a traditional Buddhist shrine. This tolerance of the nats continued through the socialist regime (1962-1968) and is still in place today.

King Anawrahta’s conversion to Theravada Buddhism in the mid-11th century had a profound influence on Bagan’s religious and cultural life. Anawrahta was Theravada’s first major advocate; he was also the first of the great builders of Bagan. He began construction of the Shwezigon (on a site reputedly chosen by a white elephant) as a massive and centrally important reliquary shrine to encase a variety of Buddha artifacts, including a copy of the Tooth of Kandy from Ceylon, frontal and collar bones, and an emerald Buddha image from China. Apparently, he had completed the three terraces before he (some say) was killed by a wild buffalo in 1077. Some contend that he had even completed a small stupa on the terraces and had plans to encase it in a larger structure.

The reliquary shrine was completed between 1086 and 1090 by King Kyanzittha who reigned from 1084-1113, Anawrahta’s probable son (the parentage question is a long story).

Kyanzittha was perhaps Bagan’s greatest king, and it was under him that Bagan became known, doubtless with a touch of exaggeration, as the ‘city of four million pagodas’. He did erect hundreds of monuments and also successfully championed the Mon Buddhist culture. When the symbolic ‘hti’, or umbrella, was put into place over the Shwezigon in 1090, the reliquary shrine had essentially taken on the shape that it has today.

Earthquakes and other natural phenomena have, of course, taken their toll over the centuries, and it has been often repaired, perhaps most notably by King Bayinnaung who reigned from 1551-1581 in the late 16th century. The recent devastating earthquake of 1975 caused considerable damage to the spire and top of the dome that needed extensive repairs. Each attack on its main fabric doubtless introduced subtle and not-so-subtle changes to the structure. The pagoda, for example, is now encased by over 30,000 copper plates made possible through donations by local, national and international visitors. The entire structure was gilded in 1983-1984 and again more recently. Yet the lower part of the stupa and terraces apparently remain largely as originally constructed in the 11th century.

The Shwezigon is located at the centre of an enclosure wall, roughly 750 ft (230 m) on each side, that is penetrated by four gates. This is the southern entrance.

There are a large and varied number of shrines, monuments, smaller zedi and temples within the enclosure walls.They date from numerous eras, and more are regularly added.

The roads between visits were often unpaved and single lane so negotiating the potholes and other traffic made our journeys slow at times. Some of them reminded me of our farm tracks in Pauatahanui!

Our second stop was very short (and not half so impressive) because we had to get back to the boat and had spent more time than we meant to at the Shwezigon Zedi Temple.

This was at Htilominlo Temple which is a Buddist temple located close to the road between Nyaung U and Bagan and about 1.5 km northeast of Bagan. It is known to be the last Myanmar- style temple built in Bagan.

The temple is three stories (46m) tall and is built with red brick. It is also known for its elaborate plaster mouldings. On the first floor of the temple, there are four Buddhas that, as appears to be the custom in temples, face each direction. The temple was damaged in the 1975 earthquake and subsequently repaired.

According to legend, Htilominlo was chosen to be the next King out of the five sons of King Narapatisithu. The five sons stood in a circle with a white umbrella in the centre. When the umbrella would tilt and point towards one of the sons, that son was to be the next King. As the umbrella pointed towards Htilominlo, he was chosen, even though he was the youngest of the five sons. It is said that the Htilominlo pagoda was built on the spot where he was selected as the next King.

The top of the Htilominlo temple comprises a sikhara, an ornamental tower originating from Northern India. The sikhara is similar to that of the Ananda except that it is not gilded. A gilded hti is placed on the sikhara.

To protect this particular temple from decay, the terraces are closed and it is no longer possible to climb to the top so we admired it from the outside.

As soon as everyone was safely back on board, we set ‘sail’ towards Mandalay. The rest of the day was spent in educational activities including an introduction to all the staff, a safety session from the Captain and a demonstration of the various ways in which Longyi can be used both by men and women from Yi Mon.

A Longhi is a sarong-like tube of fabric worn by both genders. They are called paso when worn by men and htamein by women although everyone merely refers to the gender-neutral term ‘longyi’. The patterns differ by gender as well. For men, they are usually a thin plaid or woven stripe, tied by pulling the fabric tight against the back and tying an elegant knot in front. For women, anything goes - beautiful, bright batik patterns, traditional woven zigzags called acheiq, stripes or flowers. Women tie the longyi by pulling all of the fabric to one side, folding back at the hip and tucking into the opposite side of the waist, usually topped with a fitted blouse worn just to the waistband. The women also sew in a thin band of black fabric at the waist of the longyi. This is handy to figure out which side is up!

I was surprised at the end of our first day to find a longyi in my cabin and wasn’t quite sure what to do with it so I stored it in my wardrobe. However, at the end of the second day, I was presented with a lacqured bowl with a lid and was told that this was a second-day gift! From that, I deduced that the longyi was our first-day gift and this was confirmed when we were told that there would be a party on the evening of the third day to which we were all asked to wear our longyis!

Following the longyi demonstration, Yi Mon gave us a demonstration of Thanakha, the natural makeup from Burma.

Thanakha is a distinctive feature of the culture of Myanmar, commonly seen applied to the face and sometimes to the arms of women and girls. It is also used to a lesser extent by men and boys and its use has also spread to neighbouring countries, including Thailand. It was actually the following day that we saw it on the face of this tiny boy in Mingun village.

The wood of several trees may be used to produce thanaka cream and these trees grow abundantly in central Myanmar. Thanaka trees are perennials and a tree must be at least 35 years old before it is considered mature enough to yield good-quality cuttings. In its natural state, Thanaka is sold as small logs individually or in bundles, but it is also available as a paste or in powder form.

Thanaka cream is made by grinding the bark, wood, or roots of a thanaka tree with a small amount water on a circular stone slab which has a channel around the rim for the water to drain into.

The cream has been used by Burmese women for over 2000 years. It has a fragrant scent somewhat similar to sandalwood. More water is added to the first application which is applied rather like a foundation to the skin. The second layer is not diluted as much and is often applied as a form of adornment. The creamy paste is applied to the face in attractive designs, the most common form being a circular patch on each cheek, sometimes made stripey with the fingers or patterned in the shape of a leaf, often also highlighting the bridge of the nose with it at the same time. It can be applied from head to toe. Apart from cosmetic beauty, thanaka also gives a cooling sensation and provides protection from sunburn. It is also believed to help remove acne and promote smooth skin and is also an anti-fungal. The active ingredients of thanaka are coumarin and marmesin.

Our final ‘education’ for the day was a presentation on Buddhism in Myanmar from Soe, the Assistant Tour Manager. He told that, for believing Buddhists, Siddhartha Gautama is Buddha, the Enlightened or Awakened One. He was born in 563 BC in Lumbini (present-day Nepal) and died in 483 BC in Kushinaga (present-day Uttar Pradesh), both in India. In fact, he never left India. He became a monk at the age of 29 and got ‘enlightenment’ at 35, spending the rest of his life as Buddha. He died when he was 80.

Buddhism in Myanmar is predominantly of the Theravada tradition, practised by 89% of the country's population. It is the most religious Buddhist country in terms of the proportion of monks in the population and the proportion of income spent on religion.

The final destination or goal of Buddhists is Nirvana. Ni means negative or nothing and Vana means suffering. Soe told us that Buddhism is more of a philosophy or a way of thinking that leads to true happiness, than a religion. The daily precepts of Buddhism are no killing, no stealing, no lying, no adultery and no alcohol. This may be what they aspire to but they may not all succeed all the time!

Monks, collectively known as the sangha, are venerated members of Burmese society. Among many ethnic groups in Myanmar, including the Bamar and Shan, Theravada Buddhism is practised in conjunction with nat worship as mentioned earlier - the placating of spirits who can intercede in worldly affairs.

In September 2007, Buddhists took to the streets in the Saffron Revolution, a mass protest against the military government. Thousands of junta military and police forces poured into Yangon to try to control the situation, which rapidly deteriorated. A curfew was imposed and on 25 September, troops surrounded Sule Pagoda. The protest continued to grow with regular citizens joining to support and defend the Buddhists.

Overnight, junta forces invaded all the kyaungs in the country and imprisoned thousands of monks. It is well known that Nobel prize-winning human rights activist and Buddhist, Aung San Suu Kyi was removed from her home where she languished under house arrest and moved to the infamous Insein Prison. Mass protests erupted over this and junta troops began firing on monks, civilians, and demonstrators in the largest clash since 1988, which left thousands injured and hundreds dead. Images of the brutality were aired worldwide. Leaders around the world condemned the junta's actions and many nations imposed economic sanctions on Myanmar in protest. George W Bush addressed the United Nations stating that "Every civilized nation has a responsibility to stand up for people suffering under a brutal military regime like the one that has ruled Burma for so long." The Burmese junta responded by trying to control media coverage, curtail travel, censor news stories, and shut down access to the Internet.

In November 2008, U Gambira, a leader of the All Burma Monks’ Alliance, was sentenced to 68 years in prison, at least 12 years of which were to be hard labour. Other charges against him are still pending. In early 2009, his sentence was reduced to 63 years. His sentence was protested by Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International considers him a prisoner of conscience. Both groups have called for his immediate release.

So far as I know, most of the passengers spent a restful afternoon following various pursuits while the boat continued on its route towards Mandalay. At 6.30 pm each day the boat has to drop anchor so we sat quietly overnight in the middle of the river.

Pre-dinner drinks preceded another lovely dinner. The offerings are so delicious and so wonderfully prepared that it is hard to believe that my waistline will not be expanding at an alarming rate. The main course I chose tonight was a dish of New Zealand lamb that had been cooked for 14 hours! A teaspoon would have been a more appropriate utensil than the knife and fork I used, so tender was the meat.

Dinner was followed by a magnificent ‘light show’ where we watched from the Observation deck as 1377 candles, previously lit and released by the crew from a point upstream, floated past the boat.

The number of candles signifies the year 1377 in Myanmar which works off a lunar, as opposed to a solar (2015), calendar.

Clearly, it was very hard to photograph in the pitch darkness. I tried to catch a single candle as it floated past but it was bobbing up and down in the tide so it was hard to capture

I also tried to get a sense of some of them as they approached but it ended up looking like a study in modern art – which was beautiful anyway – even if it didn’t really look quite like this in reality!

The purpose of the light show was partly to celebrate the Festival of Lights – ‘Thadingkyut’. This is a special time for those who want to marry. It is the month of love in Myanmar. The three months preceding the festival are the months of Buddhist Lent or Waso. Courting and marrying during these months are taboo. Lovers wait eagerly for the festival of lights, sometimes an entire year to tie the knot. No-one really knows how this tradition started but it is there and taken very seriously. This old custom is accepted without any dispute, even today.

Bagan to Mandalay, Myanmar - 1 November 2015

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