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Buddha and Suvannabhumi (Taton)

Buddha and Suvannabhumi (Taton)

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History of Taton
History of Taton

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Published by: shu_s on Dec 10, 2012
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168THATON: THE BUDDHA AND SUVANNABHUMI· 169
Thaton touches heartstrings of Mon and Burmese alike but forentirely different reasons. For the Mon Thaton marks the spot where the Buddha himself introduced Buddhism to Lower Burma, while for Burmese Thaton is the place from which the Pali canon was seized from the Mon and introduced to Pagan in the 11thcentury. Thus, Thaton’s small size belies its importance in thenational mythology.The Mon name for Thaton in the 15th century was Sadhuim,from Sudhammavati (Pali). Sudhammavati derived probably fromSudhamma, the hometown of the Buddha Sobhita, one of the 28Buddhas in Burmese Buddhism. But Lower Burma had a flourishingBuddhist culture centuries before Pegu was made the capital in the14th century. That monks from ‘Aramana’, or Ramanna, were invitedto Sri Lanka to launch a purification drive in the mid-12th centuryis an indication of Lower Burma’s Buddhist statureat that time (Wickremasinghe: 253). The monks were likely from Thaton or Mottama, or both.The earliest surviving mythology surroundingThaton appears in stone inscriptions from thereign of the Mon king Dhammaceti (r. 1470-1492) whose capital was Pegu. These epigraphs identifyThaton as the place where the Buddha camefrom India to convert its first king. This mythicalruler, named Sirimasoka, had a kinsmen namedGavampati who was a disciple of the Buddha inIndia. And it was Gavampati who persuaded theBuddha to visit Thaton to convert his brother andthe land. At Thaton the Buddha presented sixhair-relics to the same number of hermits. Later,following the Buddha’s cremation, Gavampatibrought a tooth-relic to Thaton that replicateditself 33 times. The king then enshrined the teethin 33 stone pagodas in Thaton which subsequentlyfell into ruin and became lost (Shorto 1970).Two missionaries from India, Sona and Uttara, were sent to Thaton at the time of Asoka andrediscovered the lost pagodas. They thendistributed the tooth-relics to stupas in LowerBurma. The most important was the Shwemawdaw in Pegu (see page 146). These 15th centurylegends were greatly elaborated upon over thecenturies and eventually underpinned countlesspagodas in Lower Burma, including the GoldenRock (Stadtner 2008b). Following the 15thcentury there emerged in Lower Burma a fargreater emphasis on hair relics, at the expense of tooth relics.Thaton’s first king was the offspring of a wizard and a snake goddess disguised as a woman,a myth found in many different Mon and Burmeseversions preserved in post-15th century chronicles.The king hatched from a snake egg and was raisedby a hermit living on Mt. Zingyaik, a sacred peakabout 26 kilometres south of Thaton. His brother,a product from this same unorthodox union, was raised by anotherhermit, on Mt. Zwegabin, a nearby hilltop southeast of Pa-an inneighboring Kayin State and was reborn as the famous Gavampati.Another tradition claims that the Buddha dispensed eight hairs atThaton, not six (Bigandet: 391).Although by the 15th century Thaton was dwarfed in importanceby Martaban and Pegu, even, it remained a fountainhead for Monidentity, as revealed in later chronicles. The Kalyani Inscriptionrecords that the capital at the time of Sona and Uttara’s vist wasGolamattikanagara, a site possibly identified with a walled enclosurein the village of Ayetthema, at the foot of the range containing Mt.Kelasa (Myint Aung).For Burmese, Thaton is immortalised as the place seized by thePagan king Anawrahta (r. 1044-77) who captured the Pali canonfrom the Mon. This version of events was formulated first by theMon themselves in the 15th century and later adopted by theBurmese. Anawrahta and Pagan kings did exert control over LowerBurma for some time, but the traditional accounts of seizing thecanon can be dismissed (Stadtner 2008a). The canon’s association
Thaton’s distinctive sculpturerivaled Pagan’s in quality but littlesurvives. Discovered in a mound near Thaton’s Kalyani OrdinationHall, this standing Buddha is perhaps as early as the 11th centurybut may be much later. ShwesayanPagoda godown. Stupa foundation faced with laterite,c. 500 A.D., at Zothoke, northwest of Thaton. Such monumental architecture reveals the flourishingstate of Mon civilisation in Lower  Burma in the first millennium.The Shwesayan Pagoda, left, isnoted for tooth-relics of the Buddha, probably reflecting alingering tradition from the 15thcentury when the Thaton kingreceived a tooth-relic from hisbrother, Gavampati, a disciple of the Buddha. This relic multiplied itself into a total of 33 tooth relics.This turn-of-the-century worshiphall, right, is a gem.
T
HATON
: T
HE
B
UDDHAAND
S
UVANNABHUMI
168-173_Mon Country-Thaton_232x170 12/20/10 10:05 AM Page 168
 
probably reflect lingering 15th century Mon traditions which centreon Gavampati bringing a single tooth to Thaton that multipliedthirty-three times. The Buddha’s instructions and the relics of theprevious Buddhas relate directly to the themes of the Shwedagonlegend.The original shape of the Shwesayan is difficult to determine,but it may have once have resembled the terraced Thagya Pagodaand another stupa on the platform usually called the Pitaka-taik;all of these examples used laterite extensively, probably excavatedfrom a huge laterite-lined tank in one corner of the compound(Oertel: 22).Three of the four worship halls have been refurbished but theprincipal one on the east is nearly pristine, from the early part of the20th century. Most of the sculpture is plaster, formed around thin wire, which has been gilded or painted. It is rare to find old plaster work in such fine condition.The eclectic pagoda museum displays objects donated over thelast hundred years or so, plus terracotta votive tablets from variousperiods recovered in the area. Panels depicting the history of theShwesayan and its relics are painted on the walls. A storeroombehind the museum holds ancient stone inscriptions, includingthe famous
trap
and
 pandit 
epigraphs, and sculptures. The
 pandit 
inscription lists all twenty-eight Buddhas, probably the earliestreference of this concept in Burma (Luce 1974: 133).The modest Thagya Pagoda once boasted 64 terracotta panelsdepicting the last ten
 jatakas
, the revered
 Mahanipata
(Pali). If there were 64 plaques, then each of the ten tales would have been givenabout six tiles. In the late 19th century the pagoda was in ‘a state of great decay…and many of the tablets have fallen out, while othersare much injured and likely to disappear also’ (Temple 1893a: 240).Twelve were described in the 1880s and fifteen panels survived
insitu
by the 1930s. The pagoda was repaired around 1896 whichbegan a series of white-washings that has virtually obliterated the
THATON: THE BUDDHA AND SUVANNABHUMI· 171
 with Thaton is also tied to Buddhaghosa, a renowned 5th centurycommentator whose home was often identified as Thaton inBurmese sources. He traveled to Sri Lanka and returned to LowerBurma with the scriptures that were centuries later conveyed toPagan in Upper Burma (
Vamsadipani 
: 116). Buddhaghosa becameincluded in the national mythology, together with an embellishedlife history (
Glass Palace Chronicle
: 46).
Old Thaton
Early explorations at Thaton revealed a large rectangular walledenclosure. Finger-marked bricks beneath the walls and at nearbysites suggest a first-millennium settlement (Moore & San Win 2007:215). The major pagoda complex, now dominating the centre of town, occupies only a small portion of this ancient enclosure.Buddhism was known in the Thaton area from around themiddle of the first millennium, as witnessed by the nearby brickmonastic sites of Kyaikkatha, Winka and a stupa base at Zothoke.Three Hindu stone sculptures were also discovered in Thatonshortly before 1900 but their find-spots are unrecorded; and thereare no surviving Hindu temples in Thaton. All three sculptures weredestroyed during World War II when on display in the library at theUniversity of Rangoon. They probably date to between the 8th and10th centuries. Two of the sculptures relate closely to a sculpture inthe Kawgun Cave, near Pa-an. The iconography, with three godsemerging from Vishnu’s navel, is virtually unique to Burma. Twosimilar depictions of Vishnu occur at Pagan, further evidence of Mon influence from Lower Burma at Pagan (Stadtner 2005: 144).
The Shwesayan Pagoda
The principal stupa is inside a vast walled compound facing themain street. Its real history is unknown but the most recent pagodachronicle, or
thamaing
, probably reflects traditions current in the19th century, if not much earlier. The story begins with the Buddhavisiting Thaton and converting its first king, called Thuri-sanda, orSurya-chandra. The king offered the Buddha his crown and theBuddha then presented his four teeth which were miraculouslyreplaced in his mouth. The Buddha pointed to a hill where he wished the teeth to be enshrined. The king then discovered on thespot an old ruinous stupa containing relics belonging to the threeBuddhas preceding Gotama (hair-relics of Kakusandha, the walkingstick of Konagamana, and the emerald bowl of Kassapa). The fourteeth were enshrined with these other relics and the stupa rebuilt.Another local chronicle claims that Anawrahta from Pagan removedfour tooth-relics from the pagoda placed there by the first Thatonking, according to the
 Shwesayan Hpayagyi Thamaing
(
Glass PalaceChronicle
: xxi). The spirits became so enraged at this sacrilege thatthey caused the king to go mad and slip on the skirt of his queen,perhaps modeled on a similar episode in a Sri Lankan chronicle(
 Mahavamsa
: XXIV. 6). References to tooth-relics at Thaton
170
The Thaton king, right, supervisingthe enshrinement of tooth-relics inthe Shwesayan stupa. The newrelics, on the left, are conveyed to the pagoda by Brahma and Thagyamin. The 15th centuryThaton tooth-relic legend makesno mention of relics belongingto previous Buddhas. Mural. By Than Maung. ShwesayanPagoda museum. A terracotta votive tablet commonto the Thaton region, such as at Winka, c. 500. Private Collection,Yangon.Vishnu reclining on his serpent,with Brahma (left), Vishnu (centre)and Shiva (right) seated on lotusesabove. This distinctive iconographyis also found at Pagan, suggesting Mon influence. Displayed in theuniversity library in Yangon, it wasdestroyed in World War II. After 
Temple 1893a: pl. XIV.
 Detail of an intricate plaster sculpture created on a wirearmature, early 20th century. The Buddha cuts his hair after leavingthe palace, the god Sakka waitingabove to collect it. East entrancehall, Shwesayan Pagoda.
168-173_Mon Country-Thaton_232x170 12/20/10 10:05 AM Page 170

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