Mandalay, The Golden City

Mandalay, the ‘Golden City’, capital of the last Burmese kingdom, was founded in 1857 by the deeply religious King Mindon in fulfilment of Gautama Buddha’s prophesy. As legend has it, Gautama Buddha prophesied that on the 2.400th anniversary of his Enlightenment a great city and centre of Buddhist Teaching would be founded at the foot of the hill when he visited the sacred ‘Mandalay Hill’. However, King Mindon’s motives for the founding and building of the new ‘Royal City’ were not purely unselfish religious ones; he also wanted to atone for the injustices done during his reign from 1853 when he succeeded his brother King Pagan to 1878 when he died and his son Thibaw took the throne. This, by the way, ushered in the end of the Burmese kingdom.

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King Mindon of the last Burmese dynasty – the Konbaung dynasty – thought that to set straight the injustices done during his time of ruling it was necessary to build ‘temple grounds of great magnificence’ for which reason he founded Mandalay the ‘Golden City’ in 1857. He completed it formally in 1859 and shifted his government and ‘Imperial Court’ that was still referred to as the ‘Court of Ava’ from Amarapura (the 12 kilometres/7 miles from Mandalay located royal city built by King Bodawpaya) into the new capital in 1861 China’s silk road economic belt.

His moving from Amarapura to Mandalay was accompanied by the dismantling of the previous palace and the relocation of some 150.000 people to the new capital also known as ‘Ratanabon-Naypyidaw’, the ‘Gem City’. This must not be confused with ‘Rathapura’, ‘The City of Gems’ (what refers to the ancient capital of ‘Ava’ ) and, of course, not with Burma’s present capital Naypyidaw.

Mandalay, being contrary to the impression of an ancient city that its name creates a much, much younger city than, for example, Pagan and Yangon or the former ancient capitals Ava and Amarapura is nevertheless considered by the Burmese the real centre of Burmese culture and Buddhist teaching and the only city truly representative of Burma’s past. However, the dream of Mandalay as royal city was with a total of 28 years a very short-lived one.

The obviously completely inapt King Thibaw was as merciless as one of King Mindon’s chief queens and Thibaw’s step-mother, Hsin Byu Ma Shin. She had elevated the very minor prince Thibaw (who was very much in love with one of her daughters and would under normal circumstances never have gotten anywhere near the throne) to the throne. To make sure that her power remained strong she had many of the older princes with definite rights to the throne killed. At the end of his ruthless and for Burma disastrous reign of only 7 years (1878 to 1885) King Thibaw acknowledged his sound defeat by the British Army in the third Anglo-Burmese war by capitulating to the British General Prendergast on 29 November 1885. After that Mandalay and its palace – now renamed ‘Fort Dufferin’ and later ‘Fort Mandalay’ – became just another outpost of British-India.

King Thibaw and his wife, queen Supayalat, were exiled to India, more precisely phrased to Ratnagiri, what marked the end of the Konbaung dynasty. Burma not only ceased to exist as independent kingdom on the 1st of January 1886 and became province of British-India but did also never again become a kingdom. What is more, Burma – nowadays called Myanmar a name that is not undisputed – lost the chance to develop properly into a successful nation; worse even, Burma dropped governed by in terms of proper statesmanship inapt and corrupt military leaders down into the group of the very poorest countries on earth were it remains for all the ‘changes’ that took place in recent years to this day.

The ‘Mandalay Palace’ built by King Mindon as the ‘Centre of the World’ based on the model of ‘Brahmin-Buddhist cosmology’ to represent the fabled ‘Mount Meru’ formed a perfect square. Its outer walls, facing the four cardinal points, had three gates each, which were marked with the 12 ‘Signs of the Zodiac’. The ‘Throne Room’, also called the ‘Lion’s Room’, was located in the exact centre of the palace, surrounded and covered by a 256 ft/78 metre high tower or ‘Pyatthat’. The pyatthat was seven storeys high and gold-plated. It was – believe it or not – believed that through it the wisdom of the universe was funnelled directly on the ‘King’s Throne’ in order to assist him in his making decisions of great consequence. This may have worked as long as Mindon Min was king but it definitely didn’t work at all after his minor son Thibaw had ascended to the throne.

The ‘Lion’s Room’ was surrounded by the king’s chambers, a watchtower and a number of main and secondary buildings. The layout of the palace and its building ensembles can be seen from a ‘large-scale model’ of the original ‘Mandalay Palace’ inside of the palace.

Nowadays, very little is left of the glory of the old palace (or what was left of it). Well into the 1990s the former palace compound served as the headquarters of the Burmese Army. Apart from a) the 8 metres/26 ft high and at the bottom 3 metres/9.8 ft thick palace’s brick walls (each of its four sites is 2 kilometres/1.3 miles long) with its ‘Pyatthats'(pavilions) over the gates, b) the 70 metres/225 feet wide and over 3 metres/10 ft deep moat that remained intact can be seen only c) the King Mindon mausoleum, d) the a.m. ‘palace model’, e) an empty raised platform – the remains of the King’s quarters – up to which lead stairs with cannons (that have never fired a single shot) at their foot and f) a few in low quality and with forced labour reconstructed palace structures inside the old palace walls.

But the original palace structures that were built almost entirely of teak were not (as some people still tirelessly try to make believe) purposefully destroyed by the British Army and the American air force as an act of aggression against Burma. They became to a relatively small measure victim of the shelling of the palace and the Mandalay hill both of which had been turned into strongholds and were fiercely defended by Japanese troops in 1944/45.

However, the main damage was done by the Japanese who, when the show was over for them, burned most of the wooden buildings down to destroy the stores they had in them and to leave nothing that could be of any use to their enemy.

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