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T HATON : T HE B UDDHA S UVANNABHUMI

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Thaton’s distinctive sculpture rivaled Pagan’s in quality but little survives. Discovered in a mound near Thaton’s Kalyani Ordination Hall, this standing Buddha is perhaps as early as the 11th century but may be much later. Shwesayan Pagoda godown.

Thaton touches heartstrings of Mon and Burmese alike but for entirely 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 11th century. Thus, Thaton’s small size belies its importance in the national mythology. The Mon name for Thaton in the 15th century was Sadhuim, from Sudhammavati (Pali). Sudhammavati derived probably from Sudhamma, the hometown of the Buddha Sobhita, one of the 28 Buddhas in Burmese Buddhism. But Lower Burma had a flourishing Buddhist culture centuries before Pegu was made the capital in the 14th century. That monks from ‘Aramana’, or Ramanna, were invited to Sri Lanka to launch a purification drive in the mid-12th century is an indication of Lower Burma’s Buddhist stature at that time (Wickremasinghe: 253). The monks were likely from Thaton or Mottama, or both. The earliest surviving mythology surrounding Thaton appears in stone inscriptions from the reign of the Mon king Dhammaceti (r. 1470-1492) whose capital was Pegu. These epigraphs identify Thaton as the place where the Buddha came from India to convert its first king. This mythical ruler, named Sirimasoka, had a kinsmen named Gavampati who was a disciple of the Buddha in India. And it was Gavampati who persuaded the Buddha to visit Thaton to convert his brother and the land. At Thaton the Buddha presented six hair-relics to the same number of hermits. Later, following the Buddha’s cremation, Gavampati brought a tooth-relic to Thaton that replicated itself 33 times. The king then enshrined the teeth in 33 stone pagodas in Thaton which subsequently fell into ruin and became lost (Shorto 1970). Two missionaries from India, Sona and Uttara, were sent to Thaton at the time of Asoka and rediscovered the lost pagodas. They then distributed the tooth-relics to stupas in Lower Burma. The most important was the Shwemawdaw in Pegu (see page 146). These 15th century legends were greatly elaborated upon over the centuries and eventually underpinned countless

pagodas in Lower Burma, including the Golden Rock (Stadtner 2008b). Following the 15th century there emerged in Lower Burma a far greater 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 Burmese versions preserved in post-15th century chronicles. The king hatched from a snake egg and was raised by a hermit living on Mt. Zingyaik, a sacred peak about 26 kilometres south of Thaton. His brother, a product from this same unorthodox union, was raised by another hermit, on Mt. Zwegabin, a nearby hilltop southeast of Pa-an in neighboring Kayin State and was reborn as the famous Gavampati. Another tradition claims that the Buddha dispensed eight hairs at Thaton, not six (Bigandet: 391). Although by the 15th century Thaton was dwarfed in importance by Martaban and Pegu, even, it remained a fountainhead for Mon identity, as revealed in later chronicles. The Kalyani Inscription records that the capital at the time of Sona and Uttara’s vist was Golamattikanagara, a site possibly identified with a walled enclosure in 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 the Pagan king Anawrahta (r. 1044-77) who captured the Pali canon from the Mon. This version of events was formulated first by the Mon themselves in the 15th century and later adopted by the Burmese. Anawrahta and Pagan kings did exert control over Lower Burma for some time, but the traditional accounts of seizing the canon can be dismissed (Stadtner 2008a). The canon’s association

Stupa foundation faced with laterite, c. 500 A.D., at Zothoke, northwest of Thaton. Such monumental architecture reveals the flourishing state of Mon civilisation in Lower Burma in the first millennium.

The Shwesayan Pagoda, left, is noted for tooth-relics of the Buddha, probably reflecting a lingering tradition from the 15th century when the Thaton king received a tooth-relic from his brother, Gavampati, a disciple of the Buddha. This relic multiplied itself into a total of 33 tooth relics. This turn-of-the-century worship hall, right, is a gem.

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with Thaton is also tied to Buddhaghosa, a renowned 5th century commentator whose home was often identified as Thaton in Burmese sources. He traveled to Sri Lanka and returned to Lower Burma with the scriptures that were centuries later conveyed to Pagan in Upper Burma (Vamsadipani: 116). Buddhaghosa became included in the national mythology, together with an embellished life history (Glass Palace Chronicle: 46). Old Thaton Early explorations at Thaton revealed a large rectangular walled enclosure. Finger-marked bricks beneath the walls and at nearby sites 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 the middle of the first millennium, as witnessed by the nearby brick monastic sites of Kyaikkatha, Winka and a stupa base at Zothoke. Three Hindu stone sculptures were also discovered in Thaton shortly before 1900 but their find-spots are unrecorded; and there are no surviving Hindu temples in Thaton. All three sculptures were destroyed during World War II when on display in the library at the University of Rangoon. They probably date to between the 8th and 10th centuries. Two of the sculptures relate closely to a sculpture in the Kawgun Cave, near Pa-an. The iconography, with three gods emerging from Vishnu’s navel, is virtually unique to Burma. Two similar 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 the main street. Its real history is unknown but the most recent pagoda chronicle, or thamaing, probably reflects traditions current in the 19th century, if not much earlier. The story begins with the Buddha visiting Thaton and converting its first king, called Thuri-sanda, or Surya-chandra. The king offered the Buddha his crown and the Buddha then presented his four teeth which were miraculously replaced in his mouth. The Buddha pointed to a hill where he wished the teeth to be enshrined. The king then discovered on the spot an old ruinous stupa containing relics belonging to the three Buddhas preceding Gotama (hair-relics of Kakusandha, the walking stick of Konagamana, and the emerald bowl of Kassapa). The four teeth were enshrined with these other relics and the stupa rebuilt. Another local chronicle claims that Anawrahta from Pagan removed four tooth-relics from the pagoda placed there by the first Thaton king, according to the Shwesayan Hpayagyi Thamaing (Glass Palace Chronicle: xxi). The spirits became so enraged at this sacrilege that they 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

A terracotta votive tablet common to 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 lotuses above. This distinctive iconography is also found at Pagan, suggesting Mon influence. Displayed in the university library in Yangon, it was destroyed in World War II. After Temple 1893a: pl. XIV.

probably reflect lingering 15th century Mon traditions which centre on Gavampati bringing a single tooth to Thaton that multiplied thirty-three times. The Buddha’s instructions and the relics of the previous Buddhas relate directly to the themes of the Shwedagon legend. The original shape of the Shwesayan is difficult to determine, but it may have once have resembled the terraced Thagya Pagoda and another stupa on the platform usually called the Pitaka-taik; all of these examples used laterite extensively, probably excavated from a huge laterite-lined tank in one corner of the compound (Oertel: 22). Three of the four worship halls have been refurbished but the principal one on the east is nearly pristine, from the early part of the 20th 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 the last hundred years or so, plus terracotta votive tablets from various periods recovered in the area. Panels depicting the history of the Shwesayan and its relics are painted on the walls. A storeroom behind the museum holds ancient stone inscriptions, including the famous trap and pandit epigraphs, and sculptures. The pandit inscription lists all twenty-eight Buddhas, probably the earliest reference of this concept in Burma (Luce 1974: 133). The modest Thagya Pagoda once boasted 64 terracotta panels depicting the last ten jatakas, the revered Mahanipata (Pali). If there were 64 plaques, then each of the ten tales would have been given about 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 others are much injured and likely to disappear also’ (Temple 1893a: 240). Twelve were described in the 1880s and fifteen panels survived in situ by the 1930s. The pagoda was repaired around 1896 which began a series of white-washings that has virtually obliterated the

The Thaton king, right, supervising the enshrinement of tooth-relics in the Shwesayan stupa. The new relics, on the left, are conveyed to the pagoda by Brahma and Thagyamin. The 15th century Thaton tooth-relic legend makes no mention of relics belonging to previous Buddhas. Mural. By Than Maung. Shwesayan Pagoda museum. Detail of an intricate plaster sculpture created on a wire armature, early 20th century. The Buddha cuts his hair after leaving the palace, the god Sakka waiting above to collect it. East entrance hall, Shwesayan Pagoda.

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Over 60 terracotta jataka plaques, featuring the last ten tales, were once placed inside niches on the terrace. The base and terraces were plastered and whitewashed in the early 20th century. Only some ten plaques survive in situ.

Mahosadha taking refuge with potters, below, and returning to the palace in a carriage.

jatakas. The pagoda has three staircases today but there were originally four. The dome of the stupa is restored, but its ancient size was probably somewhat larger. Old photographs show the horizontal registers of the laterite base with projecting geometric motifs (O’Connor: 337). The Thagya pagoda is testimony to the impressive monumental architecture in the Mon country by the 11th century, if not earlier. It is possibly the same age as the octagonal Maung Di Pagoda, across the Yangon River near Twante. The narrative sequence of the tiles matches the special Mon order of the last ten jatakas, an order that differed somewhat from the sequence in the Pali canon favoured in Sri Lanka (Krairiksh). The same Mon sequence is repeated in the pandit inscription in the storeroom and is adopted at Pagan. Luce and others long ago recognised that this ordering of the jatakas at Pagan likely indicated Mon influence from Lower Burma. Only one plaque, cleaned of whitewash, is preserved in the storeroom. It has been identified as Mahosadha fleeing to a potter’s home, bottom register, while the top half shows Mahosadha sitting in a carriage en route to the palace. Other plaques are also divided into two horizontal segments. None of the jataka tiles at Pagan are separated into horizontal divisions in such a fashion, suggesting a mode of depiction local to Thaton. One corner of the compound is occupied by over 500 large stone slabs incised with the Pali canon. Two sets were commissioned in 1912 by the famous hermit from Mandalay, U Khanti, one for Sandamuni Pagoda in Mandalay and the other for the Shwesayan in Thaton. For unknown reasons, over 200 of the slabs were never shipped to Thaton and are still stored in the compound of the Kyauktaw-gyi Temple, Mandalay (Myanmar Times, 8 September 2008). The Kalyani Ordination Hall is outside the compound wall on an adjoining street. The present structure has suffered many modern refurbishments, but it probably marks the site of a 15th century ordination hall used in Dhammaceti’s huge re-ordination of monks launched from the Kalyani Ordination Hall in Pegu. The Kalyani Inscription in Pegu contains a long list of ordination halls in Lower Burma which includes one called ‘Gavampati ordination hall in Thaton’, or ‘sim gawampati sadhuim’ (Mon) (Blagden 1928: 276). This hall from the 15th century was also probably the location of a much earlier ordination chamber from the 11th century, evinced by sculpted pillar-like ‘boundary stones’ placed randomly today around the basement terrace and a dedication stone (Luce 1985: 172; Luce:

1953). The stones were sculpted on one side with the last ten jatakas which have been compared to sima stones in northeast Thailand (Krairiksh 59-63; Murphy Chapters 4 & 5). Two of the jatakas are accorded two stones, and the others were also probably given two stones, for the sake of symmetry. This would make a total of twenty sima stones. The two stones for each jataka would perhaps have been placed one behind the other in ten spots equidistantly around the missing hall. Towering behind Thaton is a peak famous for the Myathabeik Pagoda containing an emerald bowl (myathabeik) and hair-relics of the Buddha associated with King Asoka’s son and Sri Lanka. The hill was visited by a previous Buddha named Anomadassi who was offered earth by two white mice. The Buddha then prophesied that the mice would become the future royal family of Thaton. These are probably 19th century legends but it is hard to be sure. The hill is also the site of an inscription by Kyanzittha (r. 1084-1113) commemorasting the restoration of a nearby shrine (Luce 1969 I: 56). Later, Burmese traditions wove the nats into Thaton’s history by claiming that the city was protected by the body parts of an Indian buried ‘with diverse charms and rites’ around the city walls (Glass Palace Chronicle: 78). The Indian’s brother escaped to Anawrahta’s court and defused the black magic shielding Thaton, enabling Anawrahta to seize the city and the canon. This same brother coupled with an ogress on Mt. Popa and their two sons became the famous Taungbyon nats. In this way, Thaton and the capture of the canon was tied at some time to a key nat tradition of Upper Burma.

The earth goddess, Wathundaya or Vasundari (Pali), rescues the Buddha from Mara and his army by wringing her hair to produce a flood. Late 19th-early 20th century lacquered, carved wood, Shwesayan Pagoda Museum.

Fragment of one of the 11th century sima stones devoted to the last ten jatakas. Most were around 1.35 metres. This example from the Vidhura Jataka shows four kings around a square lake. After U Mya, Exploration in Burma.

This early 20th structure probably marks the spot of an 11th century ordination hall. Sima-stones from the period with scenes from the last ten jataks encircle the base.